Island dance teacher on high security trip to Iraq

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A Lewis dancing teacher brought Highland Dancing to a rather different audience for Burns Night this year – in Northern Iraq!

Claire Wilson, who runs a dancing school in Lewis and Harris, was invited to perform at a dinner hosted by the charity Play for Progress in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq.

With continuing troubles in Iraq , the trip was extremely high security however Claire says she was captivated by the beauty of the country and the warmth and hospitality of its people.

Explaining how the unusual adventure came about she said: “In late 2014 an email came through asking if I was willing to dance for a Burns Supper in Erbil. I immediately replied, ‘Yes, of course as long as I can get a flight on and off the island!’ thinking that Erbil was a computer typo meaning Edinburgh. How wrong was I! Erbil, in fact was in Northern Iraq!”

Setting off on January 20th, Claire flew from Edinburgh to Erbil via Instanbul with a team from Play for Progress including musicians Anna MacDonald (co-founder of the charity) who plays guitar, notable accordionist Murray Willis and banjo player Brian Kelly. Claire was accompanied to dance at the Burns Supper by Piper Alastair Campbell.

Play for Progress is a not-for-profit organisation that delivers sustainable music-focused education programmes for children across the globe whose education and well-being have been compromised by conflict.

During their short stay in Iraq, Claire visited an orphanage where the charity are planning to set up a programme later this year working with existing NGO child protection services. She delivered jotters to the children on which P4 and 5 pupils at Stornoway Primary had written special notes and also brought donations of dancing shoes and costumes from the her own and Lynn Maclean Schools of Dance.

While there she gave the children a taste of Highland Dancing.

“Using music therapy and movement techniques with the girls and boys was a delight and the joy on their faces would have melted anyone’s heart,” she said.

Travelling in armoured convey with their own private security guards, they also visited the historic Citadel, the oldest continuously inhabited dwelling in the world and the Kurdistan Textile Museum, where the owner, Lohlan Sipan, was very interested in the similarities in the weaving of Harris Tweed and Tartan to the techniques used in Kurdish history.

She added: “We also explored the local bazaar where the colours, smells, sounds and characters continually caught my attention at every corner and then enjoyed a BBQ on the outskirts of the city in 19 degrees at a private oasis.”

The main event, the Burns Supper, was a thorough taste of Scotland in a far flung land with a champagne reception and an extensive five star menu of lobster, mussels, calamari and of course Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.

The address to the Haggis was performed by Mr Iain Macleod (nephew of Ms Ann Hossack, Stornoway).

Claire then performed for the esteemed guests who included Her Majesty’s British Consulate General of Erbil, the UN Ambassador for Iraq, the Minister of Oil and over 300 guests including Directors, CEOS and Managers of the biggest oil companies and businesses in Erbil.

An unexpected addition to the evening was when Claire was asked to judge a very important competition as she explained: “With a free bar, plenty were willing to try their hand at ceilidh dancing and take part in the biggest competition of the year so far, the ‘Knobbily Knee’ contest, where the winner won a bottle of Abhainn Dearg. The judging of which was by my good self and Anna and was entertaining to say the least.”

She added: “The Kurdistan people I met throughout Erbil and all the Scottish and multicultural guests at the event could not have been friendlier or more appreciative or welcoming. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience from start to finish. It was a privilege to dance for such dignitaries and to support such a worthwhile cause, Play for Progress. I cannot thank Fiona, Medya, Garth, Petra and the rest of the Erbil Caledonian Society enough for their five star care, attention and treatment before and during our trip and at the event itself. Thank you also to Mr Donnie Macdonald of Sleat, Skye, for his hospitality and accommodation whilst there. It is very much appreciated. “

To find out more about the charity Play for Progress visit their