Song, craic and seal obsessions at Hebridean Women

Hebridean Women at An Lanntair last night… what a lovely start to HebCelt16, the festival’s 21st year. A special night of traditional Gaelic singing that was good for the soul and unique in terms of performances.

It’s not entirely to my credit that I don’t think I had seen any of the previous Lewis Women concerts, which followed the same concept of putting together the best voices from the island (in this case, islands) in a collaborative show.

So beyond knowing that we would be treated to a one-off concert from some of the finest traditional Gaelic singers in the world, I hadn’t really known what to expect.

Julie Fowlis

Also, somewhat incredibly given that she sang on the soundtrack for the Disney/Pixar movie Brave, I wasn’t even familiar with the voice of the wonderful Julie Fowlis!

Well thankfully two wrongs are now righted. The combination of the voices of these five singers — Cathy Ann Macphee, Kathleen Macinnes, Isobel Ann Martin and Mary Smith, as well as Julie — was something else.

The harmonies were to die for. So much so that at one point I thought my heart had actually stopped.


Later on, listening to their laments delivered with that traditional and powerful understatement and restraint, it could have broken. There were a couple of songs for men lost at sea. After hundreds of years, this grief, expressed in music, is still relevant — and touches a very raw nerve for a community who lost the Louisa a few months ago.

The show, planned and orchestrated by An Lanntair’s project director Alex Macdonald, put together voices that were all beautiful but all with different characteristics.


Every one of them — hailing from the Butt to Barra — had something different to bring. As well as being themed Hebridean Women, it was also about island songs. There was a notable ‘master and apprentice’ element to the project too, particularly given their range across the generations.

In one particularly nice moment, near the end, Isobel Ann (we’ll call her Bellann) led the ladies in singing Cul do chinn.

It was a song she had learned years ago from Mary, who was sitting beside her on the stage. She sang it so beautifully — it was one of the finest moments of the concert, for me — and afterwards Mary leaned across and said quietly, in Gaelic, something along the lines of “you’ve been working on that”, before telling her it was “direach sgoinneal” (just terrific).


Mary is a real tradition bearer, with the most authentic style of performance and delivering a song. Listening to her, before I settled into it, I was struck by the feeling that sometimes she was singing ‘off’ the beat… but that’s a bit of a trait in traditional Gaelic singing and it only adds to the richness of the performance.

To put the likes of Mary and Bellann together — Bellann is a young mum, still suffering from ‘baby brain’ as she so hilariously told the audience (anyone who’s been there can relate to her story of answering a wagon wheel while putting her phone in her mouth) — ensures that traditions are passed down, where they will be preserved and cherished.


Another standout moment for me came early on, when Julie led on two songs. Her subject matter was seals (!) which she introduced by explaining that she had been “a wee bit obsessed by seals” ever since going on a boat trip round the islands with Mary Smith.

She also explained that she would be playing “a very un-Hebridean instrument”, referring to an odd-looking contraption on her lap, which I had thought was an antiquated leather binder for sheet music or similar. No great shame in that. Cathy Ann Macphee thought it was a handbag!

But the effect created by the combination of Julie’s voice and this rather Eastern-sounding instrument (I still have no idea what it was)… that’s when I thought my heart had stopped. And then when the other women joined in and the band came in behind them… that was an Oscar for Best Soundtrack right there.

I’ve never heard anything like it. The musical equivalent of seeing the northern lights in a perfectly choreographed ballet.


I know this show was all about the Hebridean Women but it must be said they were exceptionally well backed by a band of three talented men — Alex Tearse on piano, James Mackenzie on pipes and whistles and Norrie Maciver (also fear an taighe) on guitar.

While being incredibly moving at times — the great dollops of tears that splashed onto my cheeks were quickly swiped away — the show was also great craic.

Fear an taighe Norrie actually set that tone, introducing these “beautiful, bubbly, ambitious women” and adding he had been “looking forward to becoming a Hebridean Woman”.

In between the songs, there was the banter, and you could imagine that a good time was going to be had backstage, especially as Bellann revealed she had remembered the champagne (but initially forgotten her outfit).


Cathy Ann Macphee is nothing short of hilarious, telling us that she would need “high heels or a stepladder” to reach the notes hit by Bellann, adding: “I’ve got the jet lag note”. When Kathleen told how she said ‘yes please’ right away to the invite for the show, Cathy Ann pitched in with: “I asked for more money…”

But while there was great craic, there was music and lore at the centre and it had to be correct.

After giving the backstory to one song, Bellann was corrected by Mary Smith. It became a running joke and after one elaborate tale from Cathy Ann, Bellann cast an inquiring glance at Mary. “You don’t say no to Cathy Ann,” was the retort.

It was a great performance. Well conceived by Alex, well performed by all eight Hebridean Women, well staged by An Lanntair’s sound crew. We won’t ever hear the same again. I’m glad I was there and the more knowledgeable and richer for it.


All the pictures used are by the fabulous Leila Angus and appear courtesy of the Hebridean Celtic Festival


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.