Historic Hebridean song collection brought to life on new album

Drawing on the song collections and recordings amassed by John Lorne Campbell, folklorist, farmer and laird of Canna, and his American wife, collector and photographer Margaret Fay Shaw, Fiona J Mackenzie’s new album Tac’ an Teine is the culmination of three decades of work, writes Jim Gilchrist

Fiona J Mackenzie on the shore in front of Canna House
Fiona J Mackenzie on the shore in front of Canna House

You feel as if you’re entering another realm, culturally and temporally, as Fiona J Mackenzie’s new album opens with the sounds of a Calmac ferry disembarking, footsteps crunching up a gravel path amid birdsong, snatches of distant fiddle and pipe music, then you’re over the threshold and into the ceilidh.

The album is Tac’ an Teine – “The Fireside” (Greentrax Recordings), an encapsulation of the Gaelic singer’s years of working with the invaluable Hebridean song collections and recordings amassed by John Lorne Campbell, folklorist, farmer and laird of Canna, and his American wife, collector and photographer Margaret Fay Shaw.

Mackenzie has been working on the Canna collections for some three decades, the last seven of them as official archivist at Canna House, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, along with the rest of the Inner Hebridean island (where her husband, Donald, is harbourmaster).

She first encountered the fabled collectors’ work in 1996 when she bought a copy of Margaret Fay Shaw’s Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. “I was immediately enraptured with what she had done, not just with the songs but with the whole lifestyle that the book portrayed. It became my Gaelic song bible.”

Her interest continued until in 2011, when, as Gaelic artist in residence with the National Theatre of Scotland, she put together a show about Fay Shaw’s life called Little Bird Blown Off Course. “As part of that I was able to visit Canna for the first time and became very friendly with the then archivist Magda Sagarzazu, who was a wonderful lady.”

Sagarzazu, a Basque whose father had been a close friend of Campbell’s, had to retire due to ill health. At her suggestion, Mackenzie applied for the job and duly moved to Canna in 2015 as official archivist, employed by the NTS, “which is just a wonderful privilege.”

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With several albums under her belt, basing one on the 1,500 recordings in which she was immersed seemed an obvious choice but, owing to their unique importance, she was in no hurry to do so. Also, she didn’t want arrangements to take precedence over the voices: “It’s not about me as a singer at all. This is a tribute to the voices that have gone before us.” She wanted the original singers “to shine through”.

Consequently spare but effective settings come from just a few musicians including her daughter Katie Mackenzie on clarsach and piano and her son-in-law James Duncan Mackenzie (formerly of Breabach). The newly recorded music is intertwined with archive sounds of the original singers, such as Pèigi Macrae and Annie MacDonald, as well as their introductions and, not infrequently, ribald banter. Other engaging incursions range from an irate cat to Canna House’s impressively chiming music box.

There’s a wonderful moment when, at the end of Mackenzie’s plaintive singing of An Gille Donn – The Brown-Haired Lad, we hear through the vintage recorder’s crackle the piano playing then singing of Fay Shaw herself, recorded at her 100th birthday party in Canna House in 2003.

“She was a redoubtable character,” says Mackenzie. “She was completely blind by that time. That song was her party piece and she always had her book, Folksongs and Folklore, sitting on the piano open at that page.”

She laughs: “If I sit at that piano now, I feel like she’s sitting there beside me and correcting me – ‘No, no, you’re not singing that quite right!’”

Lorne Campbell died in 1996, Fay Shaw in 2004. Today, the island’s population fluctuates around 17, with Mackenzie currently its only permanent fluent Gaelic-speaking resident. What is more positive, however, is that Canna House, currently closed until 2024 for remedial works, will re-open with new, dedicated research facilities – which, says Mackenzie, is what the Campbells wanted for the collections.

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Tac’ an Teine may be often movingly elegiac, evoking a bygone way of life, but it also flags up the enduring importance of the Canna House Archive.

Tac’ an Teine – “The Fireside” is out now on Greentrax Recordings, www.greentrax.com