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Flora MacNeil - 6 October 1928–15 May 2015

Flora MacNeil was one of the giants of Scotland’s folk revival. Just as the singers who sing in Scots acknowledge the influence of Jeannie Robertson, all of the current generation of Gaelic singers acknowledge their debt to Flora MacNeil.

Flora came from a family with a long history of singing and music making on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. As far as her position in the folk revival goes, for Flora it was a case of being in the right place at the right time, although for her it wasn’t a revival, it was a continuation of a family tradition. In 1948, she moved to Edinburgh to work and found herself in the capital at the time when American folklorist Alan Lomax was visiting Scotland to research traditional song. Lomax’s work with poet and song collector Hamish Henderson was one of the foundation stones of the folk revival. Flora soon came to their attention and was one of the singers who Hamish Henderson chose to appear at the first Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1951. With an extensive repertoire of songs that had been in her family for generations, her reputation as a genuine tradition bearer soon spread. She went on to sing all over Europe and America.

Flora was a gentle woman with a great sense of humour, dignity and a charismatic stage presence. She was fun and adventurous and, with her young family in tow, attended folk festivals, kicking off their interest in traditional music. She sang at the early Scottish folk festivals including Thurso and Inverness, at The National Festival in England and in major concert halls in London and America. She recorded and toured as a guest of the Boys Of The Lough and later recorded two acclaimed albums for Robin Morton’s Temple Records, Craobh Nan Ubhal in 1976 and Orain Floraidh in 2000. In 1992, she was awarded an MBE for her services to Gaelic music and in 2005 was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

Flora’s last major public appearance was in January 2013 when she took to the stage during a concert at Celtic Connections held in her honour. The concert, 70 Years Of Flora MacNeil, attracted a star studded cast.

Flora’s legacy lives on in her own family. As a singer, Flora was known by her family name of MacNeil, although she married Alister MacInnes, a Glasgow-born solicitor, in 1955. Alister’s parents were from Barra so Gaelic language and culture was ever present in the MacInnes household. Alister and Flora went on to have five children who grew up being not only exposed to Gaelic music at home but also to all aspects of Scotland’s folk revival. Two of the children, Donald and Maggie, went on to become significant figures in Scottish music in their own right. Donald MacInnes played flute with the Glasgow folk group, Setanta, before going on to be a producer with the BBC. Among other things, Donald was a producer for BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk and more recently with specialist TV programming. Much of the television coverage of the Celtic Connections festival will list Donald in the production credits. Maggie MacInnes also sang with Setanta for a short while and, sharing a similar sense of musical adventure with her mother, has sung with many groups, at one time touring America with Ossian. In more recent years Maggie is carrying her mother’s legacy of song forward as a soloist.

Flora MacNeil was a star, in all senses of the word, and her passing marks the end of an era.

Pete Heywood