Joan MacKenzie

JOAN MACKENZIE Gaelic singer

Born: 2 September, 1929, in Point, Lewis. Died: 13 May, 2007, in Edinburgh, aged 77.

JOAN MacKenzie was one of four daughters of a crofter-fisherman. Her upbringing, while having a lot in common with that of all youngsters in the Gaelic-speaking islands, was perhaps uniquely involved with song. Her mother is reputed to have had a beautiful voice, and the young Joan came early under the influence of relatives and neighbours who were singers and bards.

An adept pupil in the local primary school, MacKenzie completed her school education in the Nicolson Institute in the nearby town of Stornoway. Nan Macleod and Annie MacKenzie taught Gaelic songs then, and MacKenzie and her sisters were eager learners. She also began to learn a more formal style of singing at this time which was to stand her in good stead later.

Teacher training came next, at Jordanhill College in Glasgow. There she started to compete at the National Mod, an annual Gaelic competitive festival. There was a competition for singing "in the traditional manner", in which she came top on more than one occasion. The media and Mod organisers, however, gave much more prestige to the gold medal for solo singing.

MacKenzie was presented with the gold medal by the Queen Mother in Aberdeen in 1955, and was for many the first of the gold medallists who, in spite of her training, always held on to her traditional roots.

It was at the Mod that she met Roddy Macleod, also from a village in Point. He was a pilot in the RAF. They married in 1956 and moved to Edinburgh, where they raised a family of three boys.

The early 1950s saw the inception of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, and increased interest in traditional aspects of song at the BBC. James Ross used MacKenzie to illustrate a series of talks he gave on Gaelic song, and this gave her a welcome opportunity to learn many songs from tradition-bearers throughout the Highlands and Islands.

More programmes of Gaelic songs on television followed, and Iona MacDonald, Mary Sandeman and Evelyn Campbell joined her to form a group called the Edin singers. They sang on television and at concerts throughout Scotland.

MacKenzie was also a regular guest on cruises organised by the National Trust which called in at St Kilda and she took part in volunteer work in the island.

She adjudicated at the Mod, and at local mods, the Uist one being her favourite. She was already a frequent and welcome guest at ceilidhs and concerts throughout the islands, and collectors such as Calum Maclean and his brother Alasdair were friends, as was the Barra singer Flora MacNeil.

In Edinburgh the Rev William Matheson, a reader in the department of Celtic in the university, was a regular visitor, passing on his own extensive knowledge of songs. This friendship was greatly appreciated and nurtured by Mr Matheson.

Teaching songs to Gaelic learners in Greenock and teaching the language to boys at Daniel Stewart's in Edinburgh were further sources of enjoyment. A colleague at Daniel Stewart's was pipe major Gavin Stoddart.

Some of the songs she learned from singers from Uist and Barra had a strong piping connection, and piping, especially Cel Mr, was one of her and Roddy's great loves. They regularly attended the northern meetings in Inverness, and would never miss the Donald Macleod competition in Stornoway.

In a busy life, singing here and there, and looking after her family, MacKenzie managed to take a crucial part in the choosing of wines for their shop, G Hush, in Morningside. Her skill was pointed out to me by a taxi driver. Having detected an island accent, he asked if I knew Joan Macleod,whom he described as the best wine taster in Scotland.

MacKenzie recorded two 45rpm records for Gaelfonn - four songs only. A CD, Seonag NicCoinnich, was released by the School of Scottish Studies in 1999 in the Greentrax Scottish Tradition series.

Too late for live recordings that would show her versatility, the sources for the CD were the archives of the School of Scottish Studies and the BBC.

She was, of course, involved in the selection, but had she been published at the sort of age of today's Gaelic singers, justice would have demanded a greater output than two 45s and a CD.

Those of us who are fans will remember MacKenzie's contribution to our culture with gratitude, as will those such as Mary Sandeman, who benefited from her great skill and knowledge. Our sympathies are with her sisters in Lewis, with Iain Calum in New Zealand, Murdoch in Edinburgh, but especially with her husband, Roddy, and son, Rory, who looked after her with unfailing devotion through her final illness.