Breakfast on a wintry Edinburgh morning to the background melodies of South Uist. I woke this morning with tunes from last night’s show dancing a jig in my head. It’s a sign of a good performance when both the singer and the songs follow you home.
‘The song is older than the sorrow.’
A haunting line from Mairi MacRae’s song, a poem by Kathleen Raine. It was read by the Gaelic singer, Fiona MacKenzie during her remarkable, lilting and lyrical performance of A Little Bird Blown Off Course, a musical tribute to the life and work of Margaret Fay Shaw. Upbeat, foot-tapping tunes are deftly interwoven with island echoes of loss and sorrow.
Ray and I saw first saw Little Bird in September last year on the island of Canna, the home of Margaret and John Campbell which was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland. It was an extraordinary and moving experience then, siting among islanders and old friends from elsewhere – some of them, like us, old enough to have known the Campbells. Outside, the autumn equinox storms were stirring up a gale.
I think it was even more moving to see the performance again at the Tron Theatre as part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Flickering figures in Margaret’s films and photographs evoke what was even then (back in the 1930s) a disappearing way of life. On crackling recordings, gutteral voices sing ancient melodies, handed down from generation to generation: crofters, weavers, fishermen, mothers, abandoned lovers.
Seen from an urban distance, the fragility of Hebridean culture seems even more poignant. But then, I admit, I cannot watch the performance without filtering it through my own nostalgic memories. Those early holidays on Canna with our boys so many summers ago, the more recent excitement of delving into Canna House archives as Ray began his researches for The Man Who Gave Away His Island. A sudden glimpse of John’s gravestone which Ray helped to find, Margaret, playing the grand piano in the drawing room, on her 100th birthday.
‘The song is older than the singer.’
This morning on impulse I Googled the phrase and find a Mercenary Romantic a blogger who was moved to tears by reading Kathleen Raine’s poem, one of those Poems on the Underground, on her way to work in Bond Street. Somehow it’s an absurdly cheering discovery. Like a message in a bottle. You never know where treasures will wash up or who will find them. Hebridean love lament bringing tears to rush hour Londoners: wouldn’t Margaret Fay Shaw love it!
The song is older than the singer
Shaped by the love and the long waiting
Of women dead and long forgotten
Who sang before remembered time
To teach the unbroken heart its sorrow.
Last night Fiona also read in Gaelic and English lines from Margaret’s friend Fred Gillies, poet and shopkeeper in Lochboisdale: “an ember was dying, she blew on it and brought it back to life” Which of course is what Fiona MacKenzie and her band are doing, rekindling Margaret’s collection of folk songs, weaving music and words together to tell a story with heart and soul and a dancing rhythm that just won’t let you go.