Maggie Macinnes

2 Jun 2003 in Gaelic, Music, Outer Hebrides

Gaelic Songs from Moscow to Mingulay

MAGGIE MACINNES is one of Scotland’s foremost Gaelic singers and clarsach players.  She comes from a long line of singers from the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  She describes her long-term relationship with Gaelic songs, and explains what they mean to her.

Songs have been a big part of life in my family for generations and thanks to this inheritance I have been lucky to travel with my music to many fascinating places and to meet many wonderful people.

When I find myself singing in places such as Moscow, Russia, or Theatres in Italy, Germany, U.S.A. or Canada, I often think of what my granny or my great granny would have thought not only of my experiences, but of hearing, in these far off places, the songs which they loved so much but took for granted to some extent as simply being part of life.

My great granny, Cairistiona Gillies, was born on the island of Mingulay at the south end of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Her parents had been forcibly cleared from the island of Barra by the landlord at the time in the 1830’s. While some emigrated to Canada, others went to neighbouring islands such as Mingulay to try to continue their lives of crofting and fishing. Mingulay is a particularly beautiful but very remote and rocky island. Life there must have been very difficult but in these situations people work together and communities are strong. In that environment, storytelling and song were a big part of life and songs would be sung while working or gathering socially in each other’s homes. Apparently, Cairistiona Gillies sang a lot of “work songs” and, for example, would sing while spinning wool or churning milk. She would also sing in the evening with friends and one of her favourite songs is also now one of my favourites. It is a very moving lament called “Oran na Bantraich” (The song of the Widow). The song tells of a woman who has watched a boat sink presumably after hitting rocks or a reef just off the coast. The boat was carrying her three brothers, her father and her husband, Angus from Barra.

Mingulay has been uninhabited since 1912 and the story of the island is a bit like the story of the island of St. Kilda although much less well known. Isolation, absentee landlords, and insufficient fertile land, all contributed to the evacuation of the island. Before my granny on my mother’s side was born, Cairistiona and her husband Michael returned the family to Barra. Following the setting up of the Crofters Commission around 1883, larger farms were broken up into small crofts and Lots were drawn to assign small crofts to those coming from Mingulay. The croft my great grandparents received was in Garrygall, Castlebay and it amounted to around 3 acres of quite rocky land.

My mother’s mother, Annie Gillies, was born on Barra and the songs and stories continued to be an important part of life. The remoteness of Mingulay and Barra from the outside world clearly contributed to the survival of a strong oral tradition going back for centuries.

My mother, Flora MacNeil, was born in Barra in 1928. She talks of never consciously learning the songs and she seems to have “soaked them up” while growing up on the island. Telling stories and singing songs when neighbours would gather together were the main source of entertainment in those days. The singing tradition appears to have been strongest amongst the women but then many of the men would have to leave home, sometimes for years at a time, to go to sea sending money home when they could. Whether the men were in the Merchant Navy or just private fishermen, the running of the croft along with the rearing of children was usually the work of the women and many of the songs were sung while working.

My granny, Annie Gillies, her sister Mary and brother Neil were all keen singers and great uncle Neil was also a noted Storyteller. The love of singing came primarily from a love of the poetry and stories in the songs. No one talked of quality of voice, as no one was performing the songs, just singing them because they loved them and enjoyed sharing them with each other. Songs were composed and sung unaccompanied and this fact has contributed to the use of ornamentation and vocables in the songs which help to give the songs a distinctive character.

In and around the 1950s, when my granny could afford a wireless (radio), there was a 15 minute Gaelic song recital broadcast once each week. These recitals usually involved trained singers singing Gaelic songs with formal voices and classical style piano accompaniments. My granny certainly thought that the recitals were very far removed from the way she would sing but nonetheless she was simply pleased that Gaelic was being broadcast on the radio at all!

My mother learned or “absorbed” literally hundreds of song from her mother, aunt and uncle and also from other singers on the island from the time she could talk.  At the age of 4 she could sing one of the greatest of the “Orain Mor”, called “Mo Run Geal Og” (My Fair Young Love), with its rich and complex poetry. This lament is said to have been composed by the widow of William Chisholm, who was the Standard Bearer at the Battle of Culloden, after his death.

My mother then took her songs with her (in her head of course!), when she left Barra at 19 years of age in 1948 and went to work in Edinburgh. It was around this time that mum began to be asked more and more to perform these songs at ceilidhs and concerts. She came to the attention of some of the Gaelic poets and academics living in Edinburgh at that time who were fascinated by the amount of stunning traditional songs this young woman knew. Many other Gaels were not interested in these songs and they were certainly not the fashionable Gaelic songs of the day.

Nevertheless, mum was encouraged to keep singing these songs she loved by people such as, Derek Thomson and the late Sorley MacLean, two highly respected Gaelic poets, Calum MacLean, Sorley’s brother and a very important folklorists and collector of Gaelic music, Professor John MacInnes then of the School of Scottish Studies, and the late Norman McCaig a world famous poet (although not in the Gaelic language).

She was also recorded by the famous American folklorist and collector, Alan Lomax. In the 1950s there was what is often referred to as a Folk Music Revival in Scotland and in 1951 mum took part in the first People’s Festival in Edinburgh which has now gone down in history as a landmark event at the start of the said Revival. And so, it is around that time that my mothers long singing career began and the songs of my family were taken out of the everyday crofting and fishing life to places such as London, Washington DC, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Paris, Stockholm… the list goes on.

I am glad my granny was alive to see what these songs had done for my mum and she at least lived long enough to pass on to me a few songs and see my love for them, although she was not to know and did not expect me to make the singing of these songs my profession.

Getting back to the journeys of these songs, I would like to stress that many of the songs I have learned from my granny and mother came into existence many years before they were born and often came from other islands or the mainland of Scotland. We cannot date many of the songs although some songs such as “Mo Run Geal Og” (above) mention a particular event from history, which allows us to get a rough idea of when they were composed. Other songs have been dated back to 12th Century and, as I said, many remain a mystery.

It is a very special feeling performing, especially for international audiences, these ancient songs which I know my ancestors sang .The most important thing I would like to say at this point is that the reason I continue to sing these songs is not because they are part of my ancient family tradition but because they are so beautiful and a real joy to sing.

WHEN I performed at the First International Celtic Music Festival of Moscow in 2000 I was struck by the reaction of the Russians to the songs. I think it is partly because, due to obvious political reasons, they have lost so many of their traditions and so much of their traditional music. To hear me introduce a song, as a song which I know was a favourite of my great granny around 1870 was amazing and wonderful to them.

I must say that when I sang one song in particular called “Laoidh Mhoire Mhaighdeann” a “Hymn to Our Lady”, composed by Sileas MacDonald of Keppoch in the early 18th Century, very many people spoke to me about it enthusiastically after the concert. I had explained to the audience that my great aunt, Mary Gillies, used to sing this song which tells the story of Jesus Christ from his birth to his death, to her mother, Cairistiona, when she was old and frail, as a form of helping her to pray. The melody is very chant-like and hypnotic and although I sing only a fragment of the whole song in concert, I have been surprised and pleased that it touches so many people’s hearts and I don’t mean only those of a Christian faith. I must also say that with songs such as this one there appears to be little or no language barrier.

I have spoken of the musical tradition on my mother’s side only and I would like to tell you a wee story that concerns another journey made by a member of my father’s family due to her knowledge not only of songs but also the skill of spinning wool. My father’s family all come from Barra also and his father, Donald MacInnes, had a sister, Mary MacInnes who later married and became Mrs.Mary Morrison. In 1938 she was asked to go to Glasgow with her spinning wheel and take part in the British Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, where she was introduced to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the current Queen’s mother. Mary would sing many songs while spinning and a great interest was taken in her. After the exhibition she was invited to San Francisco to perform and she went there by boat in 1939 returning just before World War Two broke out. I don’t know any details of her trip but I am sure it was quite a culture shock for her to leave Barra and arrive in San Francisco at that time.

Certainly, taking these songs onto a concert platform and adding instrumentation, as I often do, changes something about them but I do not think that there is anything wrong with that in itself. If you sing the songs from the heart, and if you are using instruments sensitively, leaving plenty of room for the beauty of the melodies and the words to shine through, I think that the music can help paint the pictures of the songs without taking anything away from them. I believe that these songs should be heard by as many people as possible and not preserved only in archives and glass cases. After all, this is a living language and tradition which should be celebrated and encouraged although the unbroken links to the past should not be forgotten.

I have spoken of the incredible journeys these songs have made over the years and the fact that, despite all odds and political anti-Gaelic feeling especially since the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, it is a testament to the power and worth of these songs that they are still sung today and will be, I hope, for a long time after many of us who are currently travelling with them are gone.

This article was originally written for Fiona Ritchie’s Thistle & Shamrock radio programme in the USA. For more information about Maggie and an opportunity to buy her music online, go to