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The songs of Seonag Niccoinnich
(Joan MacKenzie)
by Peter Urpeth.


In the late 1930s any visitor to Point on the Isle of Lewis on a spring or summer’s day, may have encountered a young girl sitting on top of the crumbled, over-grown walls of a derelict croft house and heard her singing the verses of a traditional Gaelic song - singing with the sounds of the sea and the sounds of the waves breaking on the near-by shore and the birds of the croft lands singing, as her only accompaniment.

That girl was Seonag Niccoinnich (Joan MacKenzie), and both the ruined black house and her song were made by the bard Uilleam MacCoinnich (William MacKenzie), a blood-relative of Seonag’s on the paternal side of the family and a very close friend and neighbour of her grandfather’s. Acutely aware of the family origins of many of her songs, and their often painful subject matter - the brutal loss and subsequent profound lament that surrounded the mass emigration of Highland and Island people in the two centuries before her birth - Seonag acquired at an early age a deep insight into, and feeling for , the real emotions of many traditional Gaelic songs. Insight and emotion that became her hallmark, as she went on to become one of the great traditional singers of the age.

From her seat on those tumbled stones, Seonag viewed the expanse of Broad Bay and The Minch, an expanse of sea that is etched deeply into the psyche of the Isle. For it was out into these waters many years before, that the emigrant ships sailed with their desperate cargo of souls. One such journeying had taken with it many of her own close relatives. Today, among contemporary Gaelic traditional singers from the Isle of Lewis, there is widespread agreement that the radio broadcasts that Seonag Niccoinnich made in the 50s and 60s, have not only been a great influence on their own work but also made a unique and vital contribution to the survival of this rare and beautiful art form, at a time when its truth and integrity were threatened by the wider, non-Gaelic, broadcast media's desire to promote romantic distortions and disfigured versions of traditional songs.

But it was only early in 1999 that Seonag’s songs became available on CD (Greentrax9019) in a collection of twenty one songs, (produced with great sensitivity by Morag MacLeod of the School of Scottish Studies in the Scottish Tradition series), drawn from the archive of the recordings Seonag made for the BBC and The School of Scottish Studies in the 50s and 60s. However, while it remains a great shame that the opportunity to bring the beauty of the song's verses to a wider, non-Gaelic speaking audience has been missed by the total lack of an English language translation in the extensive accompanying booklet, chief amongst the many pleasures of this CD is the fact that it features Seonag's recordings of Uilleam's songs.

The youngest of five sisters and two brothers, Uilleam MacCoinnich (William MacKenzie) was born in 1857 in Shader, on the peninsula of Point on the Isle of Lewis. Like his father and grandfather before him, Uilleam built a house on the croft and there, as a crofter and fisherman, raised his own family. However, following the emigration of his surviving sons and the death of his wife, Uilleam was forced to emigrate to Canada where he settled in Fort William, Ontario, and where he died in 1908. The sorrow of this departure and his awareness that he was never again to see his beloved Isle, sparked in Uilleam a profound sense of loss that he turned toward the creation of laments and other verse of immense power and beauty.

It is ironic that in Canada he was considered by many of his contemporaries to be only of the status of bard balle, or a village Bard, one not fully worthy of the grand title Bard.

Uilleam’s artistry was eventually fully recognised following the publication by his family (in 1936) of his verse in a commemorative volume "Cnoc Chùsbaig", and songs from this collection are shown in all their glory on this recording. In particular, the last track of the CD is Uilleam's song "An till mi tuilleadh a Leòdhas" ("Will I ever return to Lewis?"). This song, which contains some of The Bard's most powerful writing, was written in Canada and speaks of the Bard's longing to return to his native district, praising the beauty of the hillock Cnoc Chùsbaig, close by the family croft. Uilleam’s wish in the song is that one day all his family will be united there again in song.

But Uilleam’s song’s are not the only songs from the villages of Point featured on this recording. One of the albums' most beautiful and startling songs is "O cò thogas dhìom an fhadachd" (lit. trans:"Who will take from me this longing?"). This song, a bitter lament for lost love, is typical of a type of song popular with the herring girls, the women whom in the early parts of this century followed the herring fleets from port-to-port with the progression of the fishing season, processing fish in often appalling physical conditions. Seonag learnt this song from a woman in her own village, Shader.

If one song on this recording, the only full-length commercially available recording that Seonag ever made, bears testimony to the full power of her art it is, the remarkable, An till mise chaoidh ("Will I ever return (to the glen where I was young?)" . Written by Calum MacLeod from Gearrannan on the west coast of Lewis in 1925 when he was living in Detroit, it too is a song of longing for return. In this song Calum Macleod recalls hearing the birds singing in the moon light, their songs blending with the sounds of the sea and beach at Uig and Loch Roag, and he yearns to return there before the sunset sets on his life, to be buried in Daile Mòr. But, Calum MacLeod was one of the few that did return and he is buried in Daile Mòr, on the west side of Lewis. The sleeve notes record that Seonag first encountered this song at a ceilidh in the Port of Ness.

Any visitor today to the white sandy beach and the neat shoreline cemetery at Daile Mòr, complete with its home made headstones and steep ring of sea cliffs, cannot help but be moved by the fierce beauty of this remote location. It is worth carrying an echo of Seonag’s rendition of MacLeod’s fine song with you in your mind if you visit this lonely spot. For to hear her voice here, superimposed on the sound of the Atlantic breakers, is to realise the deep, concentrated emotions of her art.

Born in 1929, it is however natural that Seonag's first songs came from within the extended family. Her mother, (nee Murray) who was originally from Ness, and her uncles were fine singers and musicians who instilled in her a love of song and gave her the beginnings of a unique and substantial traditional repertoire. With her performances as a young child reserved strictly for family and school events, it was not until Seonag's vocal abilities attracted the attention of a retired local teacher, Nan Dag, that her path toward traditional song was firmly secured. Nan Dag, who lived in the Manse opposite Seonag’s school The Nicolson Institute, was a great collector and promoter of traditional songs and with another local music teacher, Annie MacKenzie (another blood relative of Seonag’s), compiled one of the finest collections of Lewis songs.

Under Nan Dag's enthusiastic guidance, Seonag began to distinguish between the traditional and non-traditional songs in her repertoire, and quickly discovered that the songs she had always loved the best, those she loved most to sing, were the most traditional songs she knew. In 1951, Seonag entered her first Mod and won the traditional singing contest – a feat she was to repeat four years running. But it was not until 1955, when she entered the Mod in Aberdeen and won the Mod Gold Medal at her first attempt, that her singing reached a wider audience.

Although Seonag is now able to reflect on how much support and encouragement she received from those around her, it remains a bitter truth that under the influence of the Church, and to some degree the Mod, there was very little official encouragement in Lewis for any singer to pursue traditional song except on a domestic level. Traditional song, being associated by the Free Church with sinfulness, was actively discouraged. Seonag recalls visiting one local Minister on the Isle who loved traditional song but who remained so concerned for his own future should his love of this music be discovered, that he made secret recordings of local singers in the kitchen of The Manse whilst his wife kept watch for visitors. The recordings he made being strictly for his own families quiet private entertainment.

However, along with Nan Dag, Seonag was blessed with an ability to see beyond the lingering religious divide of the Isles and as a consequence, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Seonag’s singing was heard throughout the Western Isles, with, unusually for the time, visits to South Uist and Benbecula as well as regular performances in Harris. he trips to the southern Isles were conducted with the support of the musicologist and song collector Calum MacLean and his brother Dr. Alisdair MacLean. In Benbecula, where Seonag performed at ceilidhs, Seonag’s music came to the attention of Father John McCormack, a catholic priest and great supporter of traditional music who regularly visited Lewis and joined in the ceilidhs at Nan Dag’s house in Stornoway. Seonag also recalls performing in Benbecula at the ceilidh Father John organised to celebrate the Coronation!

There was, of course, at this time very little opportunity for a traditional singer from the Isles to even contemplate professional work as a singer and Seonag’s main employment for much of her early working life was as a nursery and infant teacher in the Point area, her musical performances being mostly reserved for ceilidhs and charitable concerts. Following her success at the Aberdeen Mod Seonag did, however, form a duet with the pianist and music teacher Major Duncan Morrison, and she began to make recordings for BBC Radio. By 1964, Seonag was a regular performer on Fred MacAulay’s radio show, where she worked with James Ross. The format of their performances being that Ross would introduce and explain the verses and stories behind songs he had collected for The School of Scottish Studies, and Seonag would then sing the song. For this programme Seonag was given a Vortexian recorder, and much of the material she made for broadcast she recorded herself at home, recording the songs Ross gave her for the following week’s show. Seonag identifies this process as being greatly responsible for the rapid expansion of her repertoire, particularly in traditional songs from other Isles but Lewis. Seonag also recounts that the huge, lumbering frame of the Vortexian recorder was largely to blame for the disability suffered by Calum MacLean, who used to carry a Vortexian recorder around with him when he was collecting songs in the Isles!

If Nan Dag was a primary influence on Seonag’s early development as a traditional singer, when she moved to the mainland the Rev. William (Willy) Matheson became a close family friend and a weekly visitor to the household. During these visits William Matheson would share and discuss with Seonag his encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and stories of the Isles and this experience strengthened Seonag’s repertoire and commitment to traditional song.

Following her marriage to Roddy, Seonag had moved to the mainland and settled in Edinburgh. Here, with the assistance of her husband she pursued her second love in life, fine wines, qualifying as a wine merchant and eventually opening a famous off license in Morningside. However, her two great loves, music and wine, remained inextricably linked for with the cheque Seonag received for an entire contracted series of radio broadcasts, she invested in a sizeable proportion of one French vineyards’ output during a downturn in the wine market, only to see her investment mature. The wine was recognised as vintage and the wine market quickly picked up!

Although at the age of 70 Seonag is no longer performing she remains one of the great traditional singers of the post-war period.

Peter Urpeth

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