The MacDonald Sisters

23 Nov 2010 in Gaelic, Music, Outer Hebrides, Showcase

Ceòl ‘s Craic, CCA, Glasgow, 20 November 2010

CONSIDERING the extent of the MacDonald Sisters’ fame in their 1960s and 70s heyday, it’s strange that this groundbreaking Gaelic girl-group has been so widely forgotten, outwith their own Hebridean generation. They predated Na h-Òganaich, who are still cherished as seminal pioneers of the contemporary Gaelic revival, and featured frequently on TV as well as headlining theatres and concert halls throughout the country, yet until now have rarely been credited as an influence on the current scene.

That’s been changing, however, over the last 18 months or so, through the combined good offices of BBC Alba and Finlay MacDonald, son of the sisters’ chief vocal arranger, Kathleen MacDonald, as well as an ex-member of Teenage Fanclub. Having retrieved a 1969 documentary about the group, A Song of Crotal and White, from the archives, the BBC held a 40th anniversary public screening on Lewis in May 2009, for an audience including many of the locals who’d featured in the programme, plus the sisters themselves and their families. This occasion in turn was filmed, along with supplementary interview footage, and broadcast last December and September as A Song of Crotal and White An-diugh (Today).

The MacDonald Sisters in the 1960s

The MacDonald Sisters

MacDonald fils has meanwhile been overseeing the remastering and reissue of all his Mum and aunties’ commercial recordings, with the resulting 26-track CD Sòlas Clann Dhòmhnaill/Joy of Clan Donald – sporting a vintage cover-shot of the four glamorous sisters in a white open-top Triumph Herald – newly out on the Scottish boutique label PoppyDisc, run by Creation Records co-founder Joe Foster.

The album’s launch, announced at last month’s Royal National Mòd in Thurso, was duly celebrated at the November outing of Glasgow’s monthly Gaelic club Ceòl ‘s Craic, with the MacDonald Sisters’ first live performance together in 33 years – since they sang for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – preceded by a showing of the recently expanded documentary. For those of us to whom the whole story was new, the latter provided a fascinating and sometimes hilarious introduction, following the group on a three-week visit back to Lewis, from which they’d all decamped soon after leaving school, having less taste for the strictures and remoteness of island life than for its song traditions.

Sympathetically narrated by the late lamented Iain Cuthbertson, the film presented a potted profile of that life – including religion, tweed-making, crofting, seafaring and village-hall dances – and its relationship to the music, via daintily mocked-up shots of the sisters spinning, waulking, peat-cutting and sitting winsomely by the shore, singing all the while, stylishly got up in mini-skirts, pedal-pushers and beehive hairdos. It was primarily this emphatically modern, fashionable image, coupled with their photogenic looks and pure, beautiful voices, that prompted such tags as “the Gaelic Ronettes”, and helped win them such a popular following: their actual song arrangements didn’t stray too far from traditional modes towards pop territory, though they did do a very pretty line in four-part harmonies, as well as incorporating instrumental accompaniment.

Even 40 years ago, many key aspects of the Lewis lifestyle were depicted as already anachronistic, and well en route to vanishing altogether – prognostications substantially affirmed by many of the present-day islanders quoted in the film’s new edition. It was notable and heartening, however, to hear Kathleen MacDonald declaring so firmly that Gaelic song remains a flourishing exception, and welcoming the existence today of “more opportunities to keep the culture alive”, than when she and sisters Una, Peigi and Fiona were blazing the trail – a point underlined by footage of her teenage granddaughter singing.

Another shot of the Sisters from the 1960s

The MacDonald Sisters

The foursome’s reunion set itself, accompanied by Finlay MacDonald on guitar and elder brother Alastair on bass, was fairly brief, comprising just half-a-dozen numbers from the new compilation – although even this, Kathleen assured us, had entailed intensive rehearsal, coupled with “great trepidation and reluctance”. Their singing, inevitably, was less dulcet than in their youthful prime, before the music career made way for the demands of growing families, but all that preparatory work paid off in delivering much more than an inkling of past glories, particularly in their harmony interaction, while the delight in the occasion they shared with its capacity audience lent their performance an unforgettable gusto. Opinions are apparently divided among the sisters themselves as to whether it might be reprised sometime back in Lewis, but regardless of how that’s decided, this was a meeting of past and present which everyone there felt privileged to witness.

© Sue Wilson, 2010