SHE WAS the voice of generations who helped to popularise and revitalise Gaelic music while rescuing scores of traditional folk songs from being altogether lost and forgotten.
Flora MacNeil was born in 1928 into the remote community of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. The small island was, and still is, largely Gaelic speaking, and as a small child, Flora was fully-immersed in the ancient oral traditions of her surrounds. Flora hailed from a long line of singers on either side of her family, but it was through her mother and aunt, Ann and Mary Gillies, that she learned the most. From a tender age she was consuming old folk lyrics and melodies in their hundreds. At age 4, Flora was able to recite the mature Mo Run Geal Og (My Fair Young Love) – a Jacobite lament in which a woman blames Bonnie Prince Charlie for the loss of her beloved – and many others from the Oran Mor (the Great Songs). With little else other than work to distract them, Barra’s isolated islanders were great purveyors of their own heritage and engaged regularly in Ceilidhs and sing-a-longs. Flora’s parents were no different, and once it became clear that their young daughter possessed a singing voice of beauty, they encouraged her to make the most of it. Flora MacNeil would go on to become a global emissary for the great Gaelic traditions. In her early twenties, Flora’s big break came about somewhat by chance when she relocated to Edinburgh to work as a switchboard operator.