Obituary: Flora MacNeil, MBE, Gaelic singer and tradition-bearer

Flora MacNeil MBE: Barra-born folk singer who became the figurehead of the Gaelic music revival. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Flora MacNeil MBE: Barra-born folk singer who became the figurehead of the Gaelic music revival. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Born: 6 October, 1928, in Barra. Died: 15 May, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 86

IN AUGUST 1951, the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh was held in Edinburgh’s Oddfellows Hall, part of a politically driven alternative to the early Edinburgh Festival. Heralding the advent of the Scottish folk revival, it introduced the glories of traditional Highland and Lowland song to many, not least the late Norman Buchan, MP and folk music activist, who later described his moment of epiphany: “Flora MacNeil was singing The Silver Whistle: beautiful! I’d never heard anything like this.”

Flora MacNeil, then just 23 and not long arrived in Edinburgh from her native island of Barra, would go on to cast a similar spell over audiences as far apart as Ireland and Brazil.

Widely regarded as one of the finest traditional singers in Scotland, her onstage presence combined poise and authority with utter musicality and a great warmth that communicated immediately to non-Gaelic speaking audiences and made her a figurehead of the Gaelic music revival.

As the carrier of a venerable, oral tradition of Gaelic singing, she brought the songs – so far as public performance was concerned – out of the constricting formalities imposed by Mòd competition platforms and Marjory Kennedy-Fraser settings.

She could give spellbinding accounts of songs of worthy pedigree, such as Seathan Mac Righ Eirean – “Seathan, Son of the King of Ireland” (which she sang as a magisterial lament, rather than its waulking song version) or Mo Run Geal Og – “My Fair Young Love”, 
but whatever she sang, be it some swaggering island vaunting, lament or rhythmic waulking song, it emerged naturally from a stream of orally transmitted culture going back generations.

As Neil Fraser, a former deputy controller of Radio Scotland, remarked in a 1999 documentary on the singer, “Flora has kept faith with the tradition. But for her and others like her, most of our heritage would be beneath the sod with the previous generation.”

Awarded an MBE in 1992 for her services to Gaelic music, and inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2005, she made just three albums.

The first was an early recording on the short-lived Gaelfonn label, followed by Craobh nan Ubhal – “The Apple Tree”, in 1976 and Orain FloraidhSongs of Flora MacNeil, in 1999, both with Temple Records.

However, during the two decades between these two recordings, the apple tree did indeed bear fruit, and she was delighted to see renewed interest in Gaelic song flourishing and the emergence of a younger generation of popular performers such as Karen Matheson and Julie Fowlis – not least due to her own inspiring example.

Fowlis described MacNeil yesterday as “a truly great traditional singer”, and recalled being introduced as “a Scottish Gaelic singer” to the Irish folk troubadour Liam Clancy at Tønder festival in Denmark: “He immediately took me by the hand, sat me down, and asked if I knew of Flora MacNeil, then regaled me with animated stories of when they met and how much he loved her voice. She was revered far and wide for her singing, and I feel fortunate to have known and sung with her.”

MacNeil was born on Barra on 6 October, 1928, and grew up with her brother and sister in a Gaelic-speaking and highly musical household in Ledaig, near Castlebay.

Domestic ceilidhs were commonplace: her mother, Anne Gillies and her aunt, Mary Gillies, in particular, were bearers of a rich heritage of hundreds of songs and she absorbed repertoire not just from them but from other island singers – “as naturally as breathing”, as she would later put it.

“Friends of my mother’s would gather in the house, not specially to sing, but it always ended up with a song, lots of songs.”

She also recalled occasionally feeling embarrassed, as a youngster, at her family’s “old-fashioned” ways, as well as by her primary school teacher making her come out and sing to the class.

In 1948, the 19-year-old MacNeil moved to Edinburgh to work as a telephone switchboard operator for a few years before returning to Barra to work on the local switchboard, fielding calls from impatient islanders disdainful of phone numbers and, the story goes, on at least one occasion from a caller who requested her to sing him his favourite song over the phone.

It was while in Edinburgh that she came to the enthusiastic notice of folklorists such as Hamish Henderson of the emerging School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, and the visiting American collector Alan Lomax. Like Norman Buchan at that seminal People’s Festival ceilidh, Lomax, hearing MacNeil sing Cairistiona in the Edinburgh home of the poet Sorley MacLean, was bowled over: “It was in Edinburgh one June night … that Scotland really took hold of me. A blue-eyed girl from the Hebrides was singing.”

As the eminent Gaelic scholar, Dr John MacInnes, has written, by the time Flora arrived in Edinburgh “she was already a most accomplished traditional singer, with a repertoire more varied and more extensive than anyone else of her age”.

MacInnes would later recall fondly, in the sleeve notes to her second album, Orain Floraidh, “My memory goes back 50 years and more to Edinburgh … Although we were very young then, you were already accomplished in the music and song of the Gael.

“This was the first time that the outside world heard those old songs that are now common and popular throughout the Gàidhealtachd – common because it was you who first brought them to people’s notice.

“Had you done nothing else but that in your life, your place and fame in Gaelic history would be secure – and so they are.”

It was at a ceilidh on the island of Vatersay, rather than in Edinburgh, however, that she met her husband, Alister MacInnes, a Glasgow-born solicitor whose parents were from Barra.

They married in 1955 and settled in Glasgow where they raised five children. One daughter settled in São Paulo, Brazil – where, by pure coincidence during a visit, Flora was contacted by Paul Mounsey, the São Paulo-based Scots musician and producer, and ended up featuring on his inventive Nahoo fusions of Gaelic music, Latin-American rhythms and state-of-the-art mixing technology, gaining fresh listeners in the process).

Having been ill for some months, she died on Friday night in Mearnskirk Hospital, Glasgow, with her family around her. Her husband, Alister, passed away at the end of 2013, and she is survived by her five children and nine grandchildren.

The MacNeil singing tradition has been carried on by her daughter, Maggie MacInnes, herself an award-winning Gaelic singer, who described her mother as “a traditional singer in the true sense of the word and one of the last bearers of an ancient oral tradition. She soaked up the songs when she was growing up and did so without thinking about it.

“When she took these songs to the stages of the world, her authenticity, sincerity and love for them shone through.”