Flora MacNeil ‘The Queen of Gaelic’ dies aged 86

Flora MacNeil 'soaked' up hundreds of songs as a child. Picture: Donald MacLeod
Flora MacNeil 'soaked' up hundreds of songs as a child. Picture: Donald MacLeod
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THE singer known as “The Queen of Gaelic” has died.

Flora MacNeil, who was 86, passed away on Saturday after a short illness.

Ms MacNeil was heavily involved in the revival of Gaelic music after the end of the Second World War.

She grew up on Barra but later moved to Edinburgh, where her talent was discovered by the poet and folk song collector Hamish Henderson.

Her daughter, Maggie MacInnes, is also a Gaelic singer and harp player.

Ms MacNeil was born in 1928 on Barra. She came from a long line of singers on both sides of the family, but she learnt most of her repertoire from her mother, Ann Gillies.

At that time the men in the family would often be away at sea, and the women would sing as they went about their work on the croft.

Through this and ceilidhs with neighbours, Ms MacNeil spoke of how she “soaked up” hundreds of songs.

In 1948 Ms MacNeil left Barra to move to Edinburgh, where she began performing in public at ceilidhs and concerts.

It was these that brought her to the attention of Hamish Henderson, who in the 1950s was acting as a guide to the American folklorist, Alan Lomax.

Ms MacNeil was recorded by Mr Lomax as part of his ongoing project, compiling a library of field recordings of world folk.

In 1951, Henderson also invited her to perform at the inaugural Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh, which was feted as the first time traditionally performed Scottish music was performed on a public stage.

This helped bring her to wider acclaim. She performed across Europe and America and released two albums – Craobh nan Ubhal in 1976 and Orain Floraidh in 2000.

She has been described as “one of the last true carriers of a living oral tradition”, and numerous traditional musicians such as Karen Matheson and Julie Fowlis cite her as an influence on their careers.

Ms MacNeil once said: “Traditional songs tended to run in families and I was fortunate that my mother and her family had a great love for the poetry and the music of the old songs.

“It was natural for them to sing, whatever they were doing at the time or whatever mood they were in. My Aunt Mary, in particular, was always ready, at any time I called on her, to drop whatever she was doing, to discuss a song with me, and perhaps, in this way, long forgotten verses would be recollected.

“So I learned a great many songs at an early age without any conscious effort. As is to be expected on a small island, so many songs deal with the sea, but, of course, many of them may not originally be Barra songs.

“Nevertheless the old songs were preserved more in the southermost islands of Barra and South Uist possibly because the Reformed Church tended to discourage music elsewhere.”