Flora MacNeil

Flora MacNeil, MBE (6 October 1928 – 15 May 2015)[1] was a Scottish Gaelic singer. Originally discovered by Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson during the early 1950s, she continued to perform into her later years.

MacNeil in 2006


MacNeil was born in 1928 in her parents' Croft at Ledag, Castlebay, on the island of Barra, one of Gaelic song's most important strongholds. There were singers on either side of her family, but this was a time when the menfolk were often away at sea for long periods, leaving the women to raise the children and tend the croft – singing all the while, to assuage their labours – and most of MacNeil's repertoire was passed on from her mother, Ann Gillies.[2]

In these pre-television days (Flora's family did not even have a radio until the 1950s), ceilidhs with the neighbours were a regular occurrence in the MacNeil household, and from earliest childhood she remembers "soaking up" literally hundreds of songs, as if by osmosis.[2] One of Flora's sources of the Gaelic songs she learned at the ceilidhs was her mother's cousin, Mary Johnstone. Johnstone, whose parents had moved from Barra first to Bernerary and then to Mingulay after being evicted during the Highland Clearances, would regularly visit the MacNeil family's Croft and sing at the ceilidhs. For this reason, Flora's repertoire of songs included those from both Benerary and Mingulay[3]

Clearly, the music was in her blood: by age four, famously, she was already tackling the sophisticated poetry of Mo rùn geal òg ("My Fair Young Love"), one of the greatest of the Orain Mor, or "Big Songs".[citation needed]

Like many others before her, MacNeil left Barra in 1947 to find work in Edinburgh. She found a public platform in the burgeoning round of ceilidhs and concerts that marked the first stirrings of the British folk revival. These brought her to the attention of Hamish Henderson, who recorded her singing as part of his 1950s collaboration with American musicologist Alan Lomax.[2]

Henderson also invited MacNeil to perform at the 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh. The ceilidh, which brought Scottish traditional folk music to the public stage for the first time, took place in Edinburgh's Oddfellows Hall in August 1951. The Scottish Gàidhealtachd was represented at the Celidh by Flora MacNeil, Calum Johnston, and John Burgess. The music was recorded live at the scene by Alan Lomax.[2] In 2005, Lomax's recording was released on compact disc by Rounder Records. Until 1954, the Edinburgh Festival Ceilidhs were an annual event. Eventually, however, the affiliation of some board members with the Communist Party of Great Britain caused the events to lose the backing of the city's trade unions.

MacNeil also recorded two albums, Craobh nan Ubhal in 1976 (reissued in 1993) and Orain Floraidh in 2000.[2]

She died after a short illness on 15 May 2015, aged 86.[2]


Flora's daughter, Maggie MacInnes, is a Gaelic singer and harpist.[2]


  • "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 southernmost islands of Barra and South Uist possibly because the Reformed Church tended to discourage music elsewhere."[4]


  1. ^ Brian Wilson (20 May 2015). "Flora MacNeil obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "Flora MacNeil, the "Queen of Gaelic singers", dies at the age of 86". BBC News. 16 May 2015. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  3. '^ Edited by Eberhard Bort (2011), Tis Sixty Years Since: The 1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival, pages 75-80.
  4. ^ "Hands Up for Trad – Scottish traditional music for all". Footstompin.com. Retrieved 16 May 2015.

External linksEdit

Alan Lomax Research CenterEdit