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Sigi Whittle takes centre stage to tackle Highland boredom with Scotland’s most remote club nights

The Ullapool-based DJ and his colleagues have launched a series of community-backed baile/baile club nights during the winter months.
Neil Drysdale
Sigi Whittle is determined to help Highland youths with more activities in the winter. Pic: Tim Drew.
Sigi Whittle is determined to help Highland youths with more activities in the winter. Pic: Tim Drew.

It seems that plenty of people in England have decided it would be a swell idea to relocate to the Highlands and Islands and enjoy a “retirement idyll”.

That was the view proffered by one English newspaper last week as it trumpeted the quality of an unpolluted life in a quiet place – and it isn’t the first time in recent months that the north of Scotland has been pictured as a potential happy retirement home.

Yet here’s the thing. There are plenty of young people across the region, who love their roots, but are struggling to find jobs, let alone secure mortgages, and often decide there’s no alternative but to move to the big cities in the central belt.

In the long term, of course, that helps nobody who stays behind, so it’s overdue for some imaginative characters in these towns and villages to come up with ideas which bring youngsters together, rather than leave them grappling with social isolation.

It needs a plan – which brings us to an innovative vision by an Ullapool DJ, Sigi Whittle.

Sigi Whittle is opening the door to a new initiative in Ullapool. Pic: Tim Drew.

He and his colleagues are the catalysts for a new community-centric series, baile/baile, which will launch in Ullapool next month as Scotland’s most remote club night.

The events will take place at the award-winning The Ceilidh Place Venue, a 100-capacity music hub and exhibition space in the heart of the village, with the initiative kicking off on Saturday, November 4.

It should be unique and exciting

The scheme, instigated by Sigi, with support from Ullapool Dance Festival and funding from the Ullapool Harbour Trust, will be rolled out initially as a series of four parties, featuring nationally and internationally-renowned DJs, producers and party starters.

He will co-host it with his friend Jemima Fasakin, baile/baile’s resident DJs. The pair have also commissioned fellow Highlander Maddie Lennon to create posters and other visual works which will showcase every event and will contribute to an exhibition run by Cailleach Collective at Eden Court later in the year.

Ullapool Harbour
Ullapool is busy in the summer, less so in the winter. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Sigi has put a lot of thought into the enterprise and is somebody with the breadth of imagination who is clearly passionate about reviving his beloved Highlands.

He told me: “I grew up in Ullapool, but have a bit of a mixed background – my mum is half Spanish and half Swiss and I left to go to university in Edinburgh where I studied to be an architect. I now work as a designer across a few disciplines.

“But I have always felt a strong connection to home and the Highlands and Islands more broadly. That shows in the fact they have arisen continuously in my design work – be that exploring it as a place or more widely, Gaelic and Highland culture.

‘I can’t shake it off’

“Although I have lived away, Ullapool and the north of Scotland always seems to occupy my thoughts. I can’t seem to shake it – not that I really want to.

“Unlike a lot of people, it’s not the beauty of the region that I love, but more the way of life and the culture – something that is often improvised, adaptable and minimises waste. I am kind of obsessed with the piecemeal approach the Highlands encourages.”

Sigi Whittle is an ardent believer in Gaelic and Highland life.

There are lots of gears whirring in Sigi’s brain and, having done some work on Isle Martin – a community-owned island near Ullapool – he asked himself whether it might be the perfect setting for a festival. Unfortunately, as he concluded: “It’s very difficult to organise a party on an uninhabited island with no electricity.”

But the spark had been ignited and, a few months down the line, baile/baile is poised to become a reality, even as its driving forces strive to contain their anticipation.

He said: “Nowadays, the Highlands lack any real nightlife and the only thing to do in the evenings is head to the pub or maybe a small gig in town.

This is something new in the area

“The focus on traditional music, although I love it, is narrow and people lack the variety needed to properly express themselves. It’s the main reason most young people leave and is the reason we wanted to do something up north.

“Baile/baile is for everyone I went to school with really – everyone that used to throw house parties and stick their iPod in the speakers and play tunes by Knife Party (I remember people being obsessed with them).

“We decided it would be fun to try something different and start a night in Ullapool rather than in Edinburgh or Glasgow and after chatting to quite a few folk, we quickly saw that lots of punters and DJs were really keen. So aye, here we are!”

Sigi Whittle has devised a series of baile/baile club nights in Ullapool. Pic: Tim Drew.

This isn’t simply about providing entertainment for those below 30, but a response to the departure of so many people in that age group from the Highlands. Summers fly, whereas winters walk, and Sigi spoke with feeling about the challenges for those who desire to remain in the north, but are finding it increasingly problematic.

He said: “It’s absolutely massive. I only have a few friends that still stay in Ullapool and their ability to buy will most likely force them out of the village eventually. Unless you have a property you can inherit, your chances are slim.

‘Boredom is a massive issue’

“Many people prioritise locals when selling their houses but the prices are still unaffordable. The lack of jobs is huge too – you are so limited with career paths especially until you ‘cut your teeth’ in an industry. Unless you want to work in tourism your options are limited. Even fishing is in decline.

“However, I don’t think this issue is purely to do with jobs and housing. Boredom is massive too. People are bored and that’s the unfortunate reality that we need to change. The Highlands need not be this quiet and tranquil place – it can and should be exciting.

“To keep young people in the area, we need to show there’s a possibility to build something of your own. The support baile/baile has received has surprised me and is evidence that, if you want to try something different, you’ll have people that back you.”

Angus Peter Campbell: Lack of possibility drives young people away from Highlands and Islands – but we can fix it

Sigi and Jemima are keen to showcase talent, not just from Ullapool, but the whole of the north of Scotland and people who are working hard to represent their community.

As he explained: “Every night will be headlined by a DJ from the north of Scotland with MLC representing Forres, Corran representing Fort William, Miss Cabbage representing Tain and Massie representing Aberdeenshire.

“We also have acts such as Feena who runs Miss World – a female club night in Edinburgh – and joeymousepads who runs Fast Muzik – a night that has become synonymous with queer culture in Glasgow.

“We also have reserved two DJ slots for locals who have never played in a club before – getting into the club scene can be very difficult.

Let’s see what the future brings

“We hope that the nights do well and leave people with an appetite for more. If so, then we have spoken about trying to organise a day event during the summer months.

“Fingers crossed it does, so we can keep putting on good shows.”

They’ve thrown themselves into the venture with boundless commitment. Let’s hope the reaction is a big hello/hello to baile/baile.

Tickets are available from:

Five questions for Sigi Whittle

  1. What book are you reading? I’ve recently started re-reading Limmy – That’s Your Lot.
  2. Who’s your hero/heroine? I don’t have one but seem to have copied everything my best pal Ruth has ever done.
  3. Do you speak any foreign languages? Yes, at one point, I could say that I spoke six languages – the perks of having an international family.
  4. What’s your favourite music/band? My favourite album of all time is Martyn Bennett – Grit. Nothing comes close.
  5. What’s your most treasured possession? I don’t have one, but can’t live without my glasses.