Flora MacNeil

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MacNeil in 2006 Flora Macneil.jpg
MacNeil in 2006

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.

Scottish Gaelic Celtic language native to Scotland

Scottish Gaelic or Scots Gaelic, sometimes also referred to simply as Gaelic, is a Celtic language native to the Gaels of Scotland. A member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic, like Modern Irish and Manx, developed out of Middle Irish. Most of modern Scotland was once Gaelic-speaking, as evidenced especially by Gaelic-language placenames.

Alan Lomax American music historian, field collector, producer and filmmaker

Alan Lomax was an American ethnomusicologist, best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century. He was also a musician himself, as well as a folklorist, archivist, writer, scholar, political activist, oral historian, and film-maker. Lomax produced recordings, concerts, and radio shows in the US and in England, which played an important role in preserving folk music traditions in both countries, and helped start both the American and British folk revivals of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s. He collected material first with his father, folklorist and collector John A. Lomax, and later alone and with others, Lomax recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song, of which he was the director, at the Library of Congress on aluminum and acetate discs.

Hamish Henderson Scottish writer

Hamish Scott Henderson was a Scottish poet, songwriter, communist, soldier and intellectual.



MacNeil was born in 1928 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]

Barra island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland

Barra is an island in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, and the second southernmost inhabited island there, after the adjacent island of Vatersay to which it is connected by a short causeway.

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

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]

Edinburgh Capital city in Scotland

Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland and one of its 32 council areas. Historically part of the county of Midlothian, it is located in Lothian on the Firth of Forth's southern shore.

The British folk revival incorporates a number of movements for the collection, preservation and performance of folk music in the United Kingdom and related territories and countries, which had origins as early as the 18th century. It is particularly associated with two movements, usually referred to as the first and second revivals, respectively in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and the mid-20th century. The first included increased interest in and study of traditional folk music, the second was a part of the birth of contemporary folk music. These had a profound impact on the development of British classical music and in the creation of a "national" or "pastoral school" and led to the creation of a sub-culture of folk clubs and folk festivals as well as influential subgenres including progressive folk music and British folk rock.

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.


The Gàidhealtachd usually refers to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and especially the Scottish Gaelic-speaking culture of the area. The corresponding Irish word Gaeltacht refers strictly to Irish-speaking areas.

Rounder Records American record label

Rounder Records is an American record label specializing in folk, bluegrass, blues, and other forms of American roots music. Its roster includes Alison Krauss and Union Station, Béla Fleck, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, and Steep Canyon Rangers. Rounder's musicians have won over 40 Grammy Awards since the label's inception in 1970. The company also maintains book and video divisions.

Communist Party of Great Britain communist party in Great Britain dissolved in 1991

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was the largest communist party in Great Britain, although it never became a mass party like those in France and Italy. It existed from 1920 to 1991.

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]


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  1. Brian Wilson (20 May 2015). "Flora MacNeil obituary". The Guardian . Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Flora MacNeil, the "Queen of Gaelic singers", dies at the age of 86". BBC News. 16 May 2015. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  3. "Hands Up for Trad – Scottish traditional music for all". Footstompin.com. Retrieved 16 May 2015.

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