LOVE AND MUSIC WILL ENDURE
Liz MacRae Shaw
Living History £8.99
MAIRI Mhor nan Oran — Big Mary of the Songs — is both a political and cultural heroine to the Gaels.
Her songs, still a key part of the Gaelic repertoire today, also formed the soundtrack to the Land League struggle in Skye at the end of the 19th century as crofters fought for their rights – think Billy Bragg in a whalebone corset. Or on reflection, don’t.
Her life was certainly dramatic enough to attract a novelist’s interest and has also been the subject of a BBC film as well as being brought to the stage by 7:84 founder John McGrath. The latter starred Barra singer Cathy Ann MacPhee and led to a spin off album on Greentrax that is the perfect introduction to Mairi Mhor’s songs.
Liz MacRae Shaw’s biographical novel begins before Mairi’s birth when her parents are forced from the island by pressure on land and her father falling foul of the all powerful kirk. So Mairi Mhor is born in exile from Skye, her life already overshadowed by those twin influences by good or bad.
Her young life back on the island is hardly any happier as an unattractive young woman used as a workhorse by her family, while a move to Inverness brings more drudgery as a washerwoman.
Even when a man shows an interest, he adopts the unorthodox courting technique of getting her to hold a washtub at arms’ length to see just how strong she is.
Inverness was also the place where Mairi Mhor’s politicisation began. Accused of theft, Mairi finds herself in jail, not because she is guilty, but because her lack of English deprives her of the ability to defend herself.
But it is in Glasgow that she blossoms as a mother, poet and supporter of the battle for crofters’ rights, though an encounter with a fellow Gael shows not all can find the contentment in the city Mairi Mhor seems to.
The story comes full circle as Mairi Mhor returns to Skye and a satisfying conclusion to a novel that is by necessity episodic in nature, but a heartfelt tribute to a true Highland heroine.