Maggie MacInnes,
Leaving Mingulay
(Marram, 2009)

Most of us know of Mingulay only from "Mingulay Boat Song," covered by a range of folk musicians from the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem to (most recently as far as I know) Richard Thompson. Abandoned since 1912, Mingulay is a real place -- an island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides -- but "Boat Song" is not a real folk song even if often mistaken for one. The folkish lyrics were written in 1938 by Sir Hugh Roberton (1874-1952). The lovely melody, however, is familiar and traditional, known in Scotland as "Lochabar" and in Ireland as "Fear a Bhata."

Maggie MacInnes, who grew up on Barra 12 miles north of Mingulay, has followed an impressive career as Scottish harp (clarsach) player, singer and composer. Leaving Mingulay (A Fagail Mhiughalaigh) remembers the island with authentic songs and airs associated with its once-thriving rural culture. Much of the material derives from MacInnes's family, the maternal side of which has deep roots in Mingulay's soil. All of this is sung in Gaelic, with lyrics provided in the liner booklet.

Accompanied by some first-rate Scottish musicians on pipes, fiddles and other native instruments or providing harmony vocals, MacInnes offers up a dozen cuts' worth of something like musical perfection. Her strong and clear voice communicates emotions even if in a language with which few of us are conversant. Stylistically, MacInnes comes out of both the tradition and its revival. The songs are largely from genuine oral transmission, the settings from the Bothy Band-generated Celtic-music movement of recent decades, in other words a sophisticated, textured chamber-folk sound.

Every cut has something to reward a discerning ear. For reasons beyond the music (notwithstanding its excellence), though, I find one song -- the title translates as "Come Home With Me to the Fairy Knoll" -- particularly intriguing. The words, collected in the 19th century on Mingulay, were allegedly "heard in a fairy mound." (The melody was not preserved, and MacInnes has written her own.) I have a particular interest in songs and tunes said to have been learned from supernatural sources and in fact have something to say about them in an upcoming book. The lyrics have the elfin singer seeking to lure a child away into a happier otherworldly realm, also the theme of W.B. Yeats's famous poem "The Stolen Child."

In any event, Leaving Mingulay attests eloquently to the richness and beauty -- not to mention bottomless quantity and diverse quality -- of Scotland's homegrown music. MacInnes is among the best living carriers of an admirable tradition.

review by
Jerome Clark

28 November 2009

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