From North Uist in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, Julie Fowlis is probably the most successful artist ever to work with predominantly Scots Gaelic material and has some high-profile fans, including Björk, Ricky Gervais, and Phil Selway of Radiohead. While Runrig and Capercaillie had previously achieved breakthroughs of sorts with isolated outbreaks of Gaelic-language material, Fowlis threw caution to the wind and achieved surprising mainstream acceptance concentrating almost exclusively on the Gaelic tradition. Being raised in the Gaelic community of the Western Isles gave Fowlis a strong sense of identity and tradition, and she fully absorbed the area's strong singing, dancing, and piping traditions. Her grandmother was recognized as a fine singer, her mother's family were all Gaelic speakers, and Fowlis herself first started singing Gaelic traditional songs at primary school, later taking up oboe and pipes. She moved to the mainland to study music at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and from there went on to the Isle of Skye, where she studied Gaelic at the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig learning school.
There she met Skye clarsach (Scottish harp) player Eilidh MacLeod, a member of the band Dòchas, and in 2000 Fowlis replaced Rachel Walker in the band, making her debut with them on a TV show about Gaelic music. They toured extensively over the next couple of years, releasing two attractive, energetic, and well-received albums mixing Scots and Irish music, Dòchas and An Darna Umhail. Fowlis was initially known primarily as an instrumentalist, specializing on the whistle, fiddle, and oboe, but in 2004 she won the pan-Celtic sean-nós singing competition in Tralee, Ireland, and was also nominated as Best Gaelic Singer at the Scottish Traditional Music Awards. In 2005, she released her first solo album, Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe (As My Heart Is), partly funded by the Scottish Arts Council, exclusively featuring Gaelic material, mostly collected at home on Uist. Backed by musicians of the caliber of John McCusker, Eamonn Doorley, John Doyle, Kris Drever, and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, it made an immediate impact, winning her a Horizon nomination at the BBC Folk Awards. Her sophomore effort, Cuilidh — a collection of songs inspired by her hometown — arrived in early 2007. The next few years saw a prolific output of material from Fowlis; 2008 saw her work with frequent collaborator (and husband) Éamon Doorley, Ross Martin (of U.K. pop outfit Absent Elk), and Nic Amhlaoibh on the Dual album, which celebrated various aspects of Scottish and Irish Gaelic cultures. Her third album, Uam, arrived in late 2009. Extensive touring to promote the album followed (with a live release — Live at Perthshire Amber — released in 2011) and she returned in 2012 with the songs "Into the Open Air" and "Touch the Sky," written and recorded for the Disney/Pixar film, Brave. Her fourth record, Gach Sgeul: Every Story arrived in 2014. The following year she co-hosted the television series Port, which focused on the history and significance of traditional British folk, with Nic Amhlaoibh. Fowlis' fifth album, Alterum, was released in October 2017 and featured guest performances from American folk singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter. ~ Colin Irwin