Canna Gaelic job hits the right notes for singer

Fiona J Mackenzie, new curator of the Canna Collection.

Fiona J Mackenzie, new curator of the Canna Collection.

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A Scottish singer has landed her dream job - curating a legendary collection of Gaelic songs and poetry on the remote island of Canna.

Fiona J Mackenzie is a former Gold medallist at the Royal National Mod, and is now carer of a world-renowned Gaelic song ‘bible’ put together by American-born Margaret Fay Shaw.

Fiona J Mackenzie.

Fiona J Mackenzie.

Shaw had lived on the island with her husband John Lorne Campbell from 1938 and the couple built a unique archive of Scottish Gaelic song and poetry, including sound recordings, photographs and film.

It is now in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland, and Fiona has taken up the post as archivist of the Canna Collection.

Fiona said: “The Canna Collection is probably the world’s most important collections of Gaelic folklore.

“Shaw, who came from Pitsburgh, and Campbell had over the years on Canna collated hundreds of songs and pictures of a disappearing lifestyle.”

It is like a dream come true for me, to have this archive at my finertips. It is an incredible honour, but a huge challenge at the same time. All the time I am discovering new things.

Fiona J Mackenzie

Some 25 years ago, Fiona bought her very first Gaelic song book, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist by Shaw and says it has been “her bible” ever since, encouraging her to learn the langauge.

As a result, she claims: “Canna became my Holy Grail.”

When Shaw arrived from America and married Campbell the couple bought  the island in 1938. They farmed the island for 40 years and made it a sanctuary for wildlife.

At the same time they continued to record a disappearing Gaelic heritage and to write and publish extensively about Gaelic and Highland culture.

Together the married couple assembled an important archive of Scottish Gaelic song and poetry, including manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs and film.

Her growing love for the under-threat language has grown over the years.

Fiona, two years ago, developed a new piece of Gaelic theatre for the National Theatre of Scotland this led to the critically-acclaimed production Little Bird Blown Off Course, which toured the Highlands and Glasgow, as well as the island of Canna itself.

She said: “The opportunity to develop a piece of devised theatre with the NTS was a pivotal point in both my performing and my research careers and one which gave me the creative confidence I needed to pursue my work on the Canna Collection.

She continued to research the Canna House collections whilst studying for her Masters in Song Writing and Performance at the University of the West of Scotland. 

She developed a new piece of work - An Sgàthan- based on the old songs collected by Shaw and was the first ever Gaelic singer to receive the Master’s degree.

Fiona “landed on my feet” earlier this year when NTS appointed her as archivist on Canna, and moved there with her family, adding to the population of 22.

She explained: “It is like a dream come true for me, to have this archive at my finertips. It is an incredible honour, but a huge challenge at the same time. All the time I am discovering new things.

“I believe people are becoming more aware of the collection, which is really quite unique. 

Fiona said: “I never imagined that as someone who learned Gaelic as an adult, I’d be entrusted with the care and promotion of this priceless collection. 

“I’m absolutely committed to creating more awareness and usage of the collections whilst respecting and maintaining the integrity of the Campbell’s work.

“The folklore collections in Canna House are unparalleled in terms of uniqueness and quality, as well as quantity. 

“I’m looking forward to being able to immerse myself in Canna life and my hope is that the Campbell’s legacy will continue, and that fellow musicians, singers and writers will visit the island frequently to use the valuable collection and pass on the songs and stories to younger generations as well as creating new material inspired by their surroundings.”

Fiona has been touring Scotland introducing new people, particularly youngsters, to the songs created by Shaw and Campbell.

She has performed at Senior Feis in Ullapool and also this years Mod, hosted in Oban.

She is also promoting the works via social media and hopes they will encourage more people to learn the language.

Fiona has recently had a new song written by herself, selected to be included on a new recording by Greentrax Records “The Scotia Nova Project”- songs for a new Scotland, to be released later this year.

 Fiona’s song “Cronan a’ Chamhanaich - Dawn Lullaby” is the only Gaelic song to be included on the album.

She completed her Masters Degree in Songwriting and Performance at the University of the West of Scotland.

She won the premier prize for Gaelic Learners at the National Mod in 1996, the Silver Pendant and subsequently won many other major prizes at National Mods and other singing competitions.  

She won the Premier award for Gaelic Singing in Scotland, the Ladies Gold Medal, for Fluent speakers, at the Royal National Mod in Stornoway in 2005.  

In 2004 she won the coveted BBC Scotland Traditional Music Personality of the Year Award at the Scots Trad Music Awards.  She has also been nominated as Gaelic Singer of the year in 2005, 2006 and 2012.

Her work in the Fellowship took her abroad to teach, lecture and perform, to Cape Breton, Germany, Estonia, Brittany, Holland, Seattle, New York, Washington DC, North Carolina, Virginia,  Ireland and Wales.

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