Singer who brought Scotland’s Gaelic music to a world audience.
Flora MacNeil, who has died aged 86, was the standard-bearer of Scotland’s Gaelic musical tradition and a magnificent performer on the concert platform and at festivals around the world over a period of seven decades. A woman of immense grace and charm, she enjoyed a status as a singer that was matched by her zest for life. Veteran of a thousand ceilidhs, she was always there to the end – full of warmth, humour and music. She became an international ambassador for the language and culture in which she was deeply rooted.
Born on the island of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides, Flora assimilated a wealth of song, particularly from her mother and aunt, Annie and Mary Gillies, who had migrated from the island of Mingulay – southernmost of the Outer Hebridean chain and now long uninhabited. They brought with them a trove of song and lore that had survived unscathed in these outposts of Celtic culture.
From Flora’s earliest memories, song was around her from morning to night. Every aspect of work carried its own range of accompaniments. The Roman Catholic faith of Barra retained the ritual and musicality of the ancient Celtic church, while the memory of the Jacobites lived on in song. Flora saved much of this material from certain extinction.
Flora MacNeil sings A Mhairead Og (Young Margaret)
Her father, Seumas MacNeil, was a fisherman who died when Flora was 14. These were times of war and great hardship, so Flora had to leave school and become the breadwinner, working in the island’s telephone exchange.
In 1949, the Post Office offered her a move to Edinburgh and it was there that her singing career blossomed. Word preceded her of this rare phenomenon – a young woman with a magnificent voice who sang only the old songs. The Edinburgh literati, who included the poets Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Sorley MacLean, greeted her with open arms. She resisted every demand to adopt the popular ceilidh songs, far less sing in English. Those who appreciated the old songs, she reflected, “understood that they came from another world, a world that had passed and that they had a value beyond measure”.
In 1951, she represented the Scottish Gaelic tradition at the Festival of Britain and her profile soared. The same year saw the birth of the Edinburgh People’s festival – forerunner of the fringe – as a counterweight to the official festival. The highlight was an epic concert held in Oddfellows Hall, at which the leading exponents from various strands of Scottish traditional music were assembled. Henderson later wrote that it was “an event of incalculable importance because from it sprang a hundred other fruitful cultural enterprises in subsequent years”.
Ewan MacColl had advised Henderson to seek out the US collector Alan Lomax, who was in Britain looking for authentic voices of traditional culture. Lomax recorded the Oddfellows Hall event and, more extensively, Flora. She recalled: “He told me that he had expected an older woman – ‘then you came in as pretty as hell’!” Lomax’s recordings are now available online through the Association for Cultural Equity.
This sequence of events in 1951 elevated Flora’s reputation and opened up invitations to travel, perform and record. Four years later, she married a Barra man, Alister Macinnes, who became a lawyer in Glasgow, where the couple raised five children and made their home a celebrated outpost of Gaelic music and hospitality.
The Irish Gaeltacht – the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland – was another spiritual home for Flora. In the 1970s, when contacts between Gaels of the two nations were minimal, the Scottish Arts Council promoted annual cultural exchanges of which she and Sorley MacLean became valued mainstays. She sang at festivals all over Europe, North America and beyond. Age did nothing to diminish her love of travel, good company and the opportunity to sing.
Her stage finale in 2013 was a tribute concert in Glasgow organised by her daughter, Maggie MacInnes, herself a fine singer whose repertoire includes many of her mother’s old songs. The event climaxed with Flora taking the stage, her great voice soaring once more in the songs so long associated with her name. The audience rose to give her an emotional standing ovation.
Alister died last year. Flora is survived by their children, Kenneth, Cairistiona, Seumas, Maggie and Donald, and nine grandchildren.
- Flora MacNeil, singer, born 6 October 1928; died 15 May 2015