by Robin McKelvie

“What we read in our comments from visitors to our events makes all of our efforts worthwhile”, beams Duncan MacInnes of Skye arts association, SEALL. “Just looking here there are people from Southport saying their concert was ‘fantastic’, then other notes from Canadians and Americans, one from honeymooners who were thrilled and other ‘temporary locals’ who said they just chanced upon one of our concerts, but it turned out to be the highlight of their trip.”

Sara Bain, SEALL’s director, explains what this registered charity is all about: “For the past 31 years, SEALL, one of Scotland’s leading rural arts organisations, has delivered world-class events in music, theatre, dance, comedy, literature and children’s shows in venues across Skye and Lochalsh to our remote rural communities and their visitors. We produce the Skye Festival (Fèis an Eilein) in July; the SEALL Festival of Small Halls in November and an annual programme of high-quality live events throughout the rest of the year. We also have an important community outreach project called SEALL@Home, which reaches the isolated and lonely members of our communities, and a number of local, national and international projects running alongside our main programmes. We are also taking on more cooperative work with leading arts organisations across Scotland.”

MacInnes has been involved from the outset when he worked at the visitor centre at Armadale Castle. “I was a ranger with an interest in bringing in rural tourism events. People who came on guided walks wanted to know about our community - what we did in winter, how we lived - as much as they did about the history and nature. They wanted to get more involved with the community,” he explains. “Right from the beginning the community were very supportive too and very engaged. There was an organic positivity that grew and grew.”

“Events chose us rather than us looking for them – there is such a wealth of touring arts groups wanting to come to the Highlands,” continues MacInnes. “We had to turn away many of the people who contacted us. We mushroomed over the years with Highland Council helping us, engaging with village halls and other communities and arts groups, all working together.”

What impresses me hearing from MacIness and Bain is the sheer range of what they stage and help bring to the Hebrides. Indeed SEALL has an impressive proven record of bringing quality live events to Skye and Raasay. Not ones to shout about what they do, SEALL have just got on with constantly creating events. “We had our heads down and didn’t really think about it, but we probably stage more events than any similar group in Scotland, maybe even in the UK,” says MacInnes. We’re talking 100 events a year from an organisation who have pushed far beyond their original home on the Sleat Peninsula in the south of Skye to reach out to all corners of this large and diverse island. Indeed over the years, they have used around 60 different venues across Skye.

It doesn’t end with staging superb concerts. SEALL now also outreach to the community, bringing music into schools and care homes, and getting the community involved in creating things, in playing music, rather than just staging events, which, of course, it still does. SEALL is part of Skye’s busy tourism scene, but its events are never staged just for tourists; always for the community first. “If visitors want to come along that is fantastic,” points out MacInnes. “We welcome ‘temporary locals’ to all of our events. They can make up to 80% of our audience at the height of summer. Community-based culture becomes a way of connecting people. I guess you could say we’ve been encouraging ‘temporary locals’ to meet the community for decades.”

Always looking at options, SEALL are now behind the Festival of Small Halls too, an event inspired by a similar initiative across the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island. It runs for a week to 10 days in October, aimed at helping extend the tourist season. SEALL drive the Skye Festival too. “The Skye Festival historically drew upon the busy Gaelic College summer week-long courses, where people can come and learn to play the fiddle or the Gaelic language. The students helped propel the festival and everyone is involved with tutors playing gigs too,” explains MacInnes.

Sara: “This year, the festival is changing. We have made it more community-focused and more a celebration of our people and place where visitors can join in and experience everything Skye and Raasay have to offer from a personal perspective. Skye is an island of rural communities, each separate and distinct from each other. The people, the landscapes and the traditions are all very separate and unique. This year, we will showcase three areas of Skye and Raasay via a cross-sectoral approach. There will be performances, artists’ trails, lots for kids to do, workshops, talks and walks for wellbeing taking place in lots of different venues — something that everyone can enjoy.”

Bain is rightly proud of SEALL’s achievements: “We reach a wide audience base, promote a healthy membership scheme, establish partnerships with venues and promoters, actively promote cultural tourism on Skye and add considerable value to the visitor offer in Skye and Lochalsh. Our work boosts the local economy, particularly during the shoulder months and low seasons. We also help performers via generous contractual and domestic arrangements.”

SEALL also champion young talent and audiences, nurturing and developing young talent with opportunities to perform, educational workshops, personal and professional development opportunities, mentoring, and up-skilling. With clear pride MacInnes talks of the journeys that SEALL has allowed local youngsters to embark on: “We’ve seen young kids come in to play their fiddle before the main gigs. They’ve then gone on to develop their skills and become performers known around the world. It’s heart-warming when they chose to come back here to perform at events where they directly acknowledge the importance of SEALL in helping them get to where they are today.”

SEALL never exists in isolation, tying into SCOTO’s aims of working with other communities, other groups and private enterprises. Bain says, “We are keen on outreach and sustainability, engaging with other businesses and organisations, working together to provide an enhanced visitor experience with shared benefits for all. We build on equality, diversity and inclusion — championing EDI with inclusive programmes and community-led events. We also tackle ticket price exclusion for poorer communities by offering subsidised/free tickets and free workshops.

Then we also help tackle the rural travel burden by looking into the use of community mini buses or local coach companies. We champion environmental issues - this is an opportunity to build an ethical, sustainable and progressive portfolio that demonstrates the value of the contribution that culture makes to creative community capacity building.”
Covid presented its obvious challenges, but there were also lessons, as Bain explains, “One of the major lessons learned over the past three years is that there is no cohesive advocacy for the arts in Skye and Lochalsh. The few venues, charities and businesses that do put on events, do so independently from local businesses, organisations, individuals, hospitality and tourism networks. Up until now, there has been no joined-up thinking, but we’re helping change that.”

Ever ambitious, SEALL’s longer-term aim is to make Skye ‘The Cultural Capital of the Highlands’. On the pathway to achieving this Bain outlines their plans: “We will adopt a more collaborative and inclusive way of working with the sectors. This focuses on a place-based, cross-sectoral/inter-disciplinary approach that will allow individuals and organisations within the sectors to work with us to find long-term solutions that will make social, economic and environmental transformation a reality.”


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