There are few voices in Scotland that can have been as sweet-toned and distinctive as that of Gaelic singer and teacher Maggie Macdonald.
Although born in Glasgow, she belonged to the Campbells of Greepe on the island of Skye – one of the best-known and accomplished families of traditional Gaelic singers in Scotland. Maggie’s many musical talents include the puirt-à-beul, or mouth music, for which the Campbells are renowned.
Her father, Alasdair Michie, was a senior detective in the Glasgow Police, and belonged to a family from Camastianabhaig in Braes, Skye, well-known for their passion for, and skill in, the sport of shinty.
With this background, her interest in music was nurtured from an early age.
“I remember being at a party in a totally different room from my mother and my father and I was apparently singing away quite happily when my mother came to find me because she had never heard me sing before. I was very shy then,” she says.
Although she sang regularly as a youngster and joined the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir at 17, it was many years before she realised her singing potential and her ability to fulfil it.
She helped re-form the award-winning Inverness Gaelic Choir and in 1991 travelled to Vancouver, Canada, for a Gaelic festival there.
She said: “I started singing with Inverness, which was a good way for me to get back into singing because I didn’t stand out from everyone else. Then I went to the Vancouver Mod and I won the competition – and I suddenly thought to myself I can do this, this is where I belong.”
Maggie continued to grow as a solo singer and in 1994 won the prestigious Gold Medal at the National Mod, the ultimate award at Gaeldom’s premier festival.
She was a founding member of the seminal Gaelic band, Cliar, along with cousin Mary Ann Kennedy, Arthur Cormack, Chaz Stewart, Blair Douglas, and Bruce MacGregor. Many of the songs the band performed were sourced from the lengthy historical catalogue of Maggie and Mary Ann’s musical background.
“We were lucky to be able to ask my mother and her mother for material to perform and delve into the history behind the songs.”
For Maggie, the music of Cliar represented the fundamental elements of being from and living in the Highlands and Islands. “The culture, history and language behind what we do is very important. The songs can be very personal and contain a lot of emotion. The music is in our blood and this shines through in the way we perform.”
Maggie recorded four albums with Cliar on the Macmeanmna label, and made many appearances on radio and television at home and abroad. Their debut album was named ‘all-time’ Best Album at the inaugural Scots Trad Music Awards in 1993.
Maggie also performed with the family project, The Campbells of Greepe, recording two albums (the first a Sunday Times World Music Album of the Year), and contributing to the nationally award-winning biography entitled Fonn – The Campbells of Greepe: Music and a Sense of Place in a Gaelic Family Song Tradition.
She is also the only singer to have sung live by satellite from the remote Hebridean islands of St Kilda, being the central soloist at the heart of the Gaelic opera, Hiort, which was beamed live across Europe to several concurrent theatre performances.
Maggie was the female soloist for Blair Douglas’s ground-breaking Gaelic Mass and also a lead soloist in ‘Lasair Dhè’, a pivotal, large-scale work for massed choirs and Cliar, reimagining the Gaelic psalms through traditional and contemporary music.
She served as a Board Director on Fèis Rois, and was a central part of mentoring young tutors following in her footsteps.
She was married to John ‘Hearach’ Macdonald, a monumental sculptor originally from Harris, and had two grown-up children, Shona and Fraser, both married, with five grandchildren between them. She loved her family and her music and was never happier than when surrounded by both.
MARY ANN KENNEDY