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Gaelic music, old and new


By Liza Mulholland

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John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw at Canna House. Picture: National Trust for Scotland
John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw at Canna House. Picture: National Trust for Scotland

Fourteen years ago I took my four-year-old to Eden Court Theatre to see a show called Taigh Màiri Anndra (house of Màiri, Andrew’s daughter), a local production brought to the stage by Gaelic singer and songwriter, Eilidh MacKenzie, and drama worker, Roddy Nicolson.

Among many remarkable aspects, which I had to pinch myself to remember while watching this excellent production, was that its cast were all primary age children from the Gaelic unit of Inverness’s Central School.

The acting, singing, music, scenery, props, and dramatic presentation were of such a highly professional quality that Eden Court’s full house that night was in awe of these youthful thespians, musicians, and their directors/producers.

The show’s subject was also of a mature nature, telling of Margaret Fay Shaw – an American pianist, photographer, folklorist and film-maker – and the years she spent on South Uist, in the thatched cottage of sisters Màiri and Peigi MacRae, learning Gaelic, collecting old songs, and filming the traditional Hebridean way of life.

Shaw later married John Lorne Campbell, writer, historian, and member of the Sea League, whose political ideas for a modern Highlands & Islands were ahead of their time. In 1938 they bought the small inner Hebridean island of Canna and set about improving the farm and conditions for local people.

Although my son was a little young to appreciate the show’s content, he enjoyed seeing his cousins on stage, but I was delighted last week to be able to take him on holiday to Canna for the first time, where we both learned more about this far-sighted couple. Coming just days after watching two excellent BBC Alba documentaries on Shaw’s legacy and modern Canna, it was good timing!

Because of renovations, Canna House, where the couple lived and where their archive remains, was closed, so I was unable to see the Steinway piano that Margaret played until her death aged 101. We were, however, able to freely wander their beautiful garden and across the island, now belonging to the National Trust for Scotland.

Margaret Fay Shaw’s Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist remains a seminal collection, widely used by musicians, scholars, ethnomusicologists, and historians. I would venture that most of the singers in this weekend’s Virtual Gaelic Music Festival, Tional (Gathering), produced by Hands Up For Trad, are probably very familiar with this folksong bible.

Ways of sharing songs have changed immeasurably since Shaw learned from the MacRae sisters at their spinning wheel or milking the cow, but the passion for Gaelic culture remains.

Tional, hosted by the delightfully effervescent singer and TV presenter Joy Dunlop, will feature the beautifully soulful voices of Kathleen MacInnes, Christine Primrose and James Graham, stunning original compositions by songwriters Norrie MacIver, duo Brian Oheadhra and Fiona MacKenzie, and Iain ‘Costello’ MacIver, as well as instrumental performances and workshops by some of traditional music’s finest.

Details are at www.tionalgaelicfestival.com . Meanwhile, I see that Taigh Màiri Anndra, is now a holiday cottage. Now, there’s an idea!


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