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CATHERINE ANN MacPHEE - "Sings Mairi Mhor" - Greentrax CDTRAX070

This is Catherine-Ann MacPhee's third album and is dedicated to the songs of one of Gaeldom's greatest female songwriters, Mary MacPherson, known as "Mairi Mhor Nan Oran" (Big Mary of the Songs). The performances came from the soundtrack of a TV production of Mairi Mhor's life, which is soon to be screened by the BBC (not to be missed).

Mairi Mhor did not begin to write songs until she was fifty, when she was a widow with five children, long exiled from her native Skye. The incident which ignited her genius was her imprisonment for forty-two days on a malicious accusation of petty theft. The shame and anger she felt resulted in her first song "Luchd Na Beurla" (The Speakers of English):-

"I am weary of the speakers of English I long for some warmth and music ... Our land is defiled by sheep Coming up from the South like a plague, There's not a creature that moves Not tormented and torn apart".

For the next twenty-six years of her life, Mairi Mhor wrote prolifically on the issues, great and small, which affected her people - songs of exile, songs praising the beauty of the Skye landscape, songs recalling the joys and contentment of her childhood, humorous songs, songs celebrating the sport of shinty, songs of hope for the future of the Gaels, and most importantly, her songs recording the ravages of the Highland Clearances - the forcible eviction of the people to make way for sheep:-

"Who has ears or a heart Beating in their body? Who won't sing with me Of the wrongs done to us? Of the thousands driven away, robbed Of their land, their rights, everything All over the seas dreaming of The Green Isle of the Mists".

Mairi Mhor returned home to Skye in the 1880's, as Bard of the Land League, her songs drawing huge crowds to rally the crofters' resistance to decades of landlord exploitation:-

"For the children of our people Driven over the seas will come back again And the thieving lairds and landlords Will be driven out, as they were. The sheep and deer will be cleared And the glens be fertile again".

There are twelve examples of Mairi Mhor's songs on the album, including probably her most famous song, "Eilean A Cheo" (Island of Mists), which is the name given by the Gaels to Skye. The powerful emotions expressed in the lyrics are evident, even in the written translations provided. Catherine-Ann MacPhee is a great singer and is the perfect vehicle for the performance of these songs. The musical arrangements by Jim Sutherland, with Mary Ann Kennedy on clarsach and keyboards, Allan MacDonald on Highland pipes and whistle, John Martin on fiddle and Jim Sutherland himself on percussion, are splendid and fully complement the songs, without being obtrusive.

Catherine-Ann MacPhee's first two albums were excellent, but I believe this one will be impossible to better. The TV production and this album give long overdue prominence to Mairi Mhor's work. Those who have heard Catherine-Ann MacPhee before, will no doubt acquire this album with haste. Those who have not should remedy that immediately.


Malcolm MacInnes

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This album was reviewed in Issue 7 of The Living Tradition magazine.