Into the Mystic

When the filmmakers at Pixar/Disney needed a singer for the soundtrack to their animated movie, "Brave," set in medieval Scotland, they turned to Julie Fowlis, a Scottish folk singer who enjoyed a surprise hit in the UK a few years back with her beautiful Gaelic-language version of the Beatles song, "Blackbird."

"There's a sort of mysticism about the Gaelic language," says Roddy Hart, a DJ on BBC Radio Scotland, noting that Fowlis' traditional music "fed brilliantly" into Pixar's vision for "Brave." But Hart hastens to add, "There's nothing calculated about what Julie does. It's honest and it's true."

Born in 1979, Fowlis was raised on the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, about as far north as one get can and still be in Scotland. It is a Gaelic-speaking region (or, Gallic, as they say in Scotland), part of the "Celtic arc" that includes coastal communities in Spain, France, Ireland, Scotland and Norway. Fowlis now lives with her family in the Scottish Highlands, but when she returns by ferry to her misty homeland she says she can feel her heartbeat slow down and her spirits lift.

Scottish Gallic is spoken by a mere 60,000 people, but Fowlis has devoted her life to reviving the language and sustaining Scotland's Celtic culture. In a band with her Irish-born husband, Eamonn Doorley, she performs most of her songs in Gaelic and has championed the language and culture in her official role as Scotland's Gaelic ambassador to the world. Her work has inspired many in Scotland, including crime novelist Ian Rankin.

"I'm Scottish. Born here. Bred here," Rankin tells Sound Tracks. "Lived here most of my life. And yet there's another Scotland. There's another part of Scotland over in the West coast, the islands, which are more mystical and which have stories that are handed down about people whose lives I know nothing about."

Fowlis' songs are part of a larger Scottish cultural revival and rising feeling of national identity reflected in the political landscape where Scotland's popular First Minster Alex Salmond is promoting a referendum in 2014 asking Scotland's five million people whether Scotland should be an independent nation.

On the subject of Scottish independence, Fowlis is both diplomatic and clearly invigorated by the prospect. But her heart remains devoted above all to the old songs she has unearthed and brought back to life -- songs about lost love, the harsh beauty of the sea and the countryside, and the hardscrabble life of working people in the north. "There's just something about these songs," she says. "There's a great honesty in them, I think, and they're all traditional material. They're kind of messages and songs that have been sung for hundreds of years, and they have a resonance that's as valid now as perhaps it was maybe 500 years ago."


Bob Calo, Producer
Mirissa Neff, Reporter
John MacGibbon, Editor
Robert Goldsborough, Camera
Brian Kelly, Additional Camera
Brian Young, Additional Camera
Lupe Mejia, Sound
Chris McIntire, Additional Sound