Seònaid NicLachlainn, Ban-rìgh nan Òran - Jessie MacLachlan, The Queen of Gaelic Song
Jessie Niven MacLachlan (1866-1916) was, in her day, the undisputed Queen of Gaelic song. A musical superstar as famous as Scottish contemporaries such as Harry Lauder and James Scott Skinner, she made the first ever recording of Gaelic song, and sang at the first National Mòd in 1892. Her career took her around the world, accompanied by her pianist husband Robert Buchanan, but she died just short of her 50th birthday.
Jessie is buried in Cathcart Cemetery on the south side of Glasgow alongside Robert, with a beautiful bilingual dedication to "a Queen of Melody" on her gravestone. Today however, that imposing Celtic cross has completely toppled over in disrepair.
Sadly, for such a positive female role-model who made her name in a male-dominated world, Jessie is almost forgotten today. We want to remedy this!
This project aims to restore Jessie’s memorial stone and raise awareness of her life and achievements - amongst the Gaelic community, today’s emerging Gaelic singers, and in the wider world.
"Cho fad 's a mhaireas òrain 's ceòl nan Gàidheal 's nan Gall ..."
"While Scots and Gaelic song endures ..."
Jessie MacLachlan’s grave lies in Cathcart Cemetery, which is now managed by East Renfrewshire Council. The graveyard is the final resting place of many Glasgow notables, including other artists such as the actress Margaret Jefferson, mother of Stan Laurel; Wee Alick Knight, a disabled penny-whistle busker whose stone was erected through public subscription; and Eric Woolfson, co-founder of prog rock band The Alan Parsons Project.
A ‘Friends of Cathcart Cemetery’ community group has been established to promote the care for and interest in the cemetery, and it was through a post on social media that Professor Wilson McLeod of the University of Edinburgh first learned of the damage to Jessie MacLachlan’s grave.
Jessie MacLachlan - The Scottish 'Prima Donna'
Dr Priscilla Scott has written extensively about women in the Gaelic movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and shares here some more detail on Jessie’s life:
“The name Jessie Niven MacLachlan is not one that many people will recognise now but she was widely known in her day, celebrated for her expressive and captivating performance of Scottish and Gaelic song. During her career she sang in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world, bridging the gulf of separation from home, language and culture for many of those who flocked to hear her sing.
Born in Oban in 1866, with connections to Mull on her father’s side, the unique quality of her voice was recognised in her youth. Early in her career, she returned to her hometown to sing at the evening concert of the first Mòd of An Comunn Gàidhealach in 1892. A few weeks later she was invited to perform for Queen Victoria at Balmoral, when her repertoire of Gaelic and Scottish songs included ‘Fear a’ Bhàta’ and ‘Hò rò mo nighean donn bhòidheach’.
Despite her stardom, Jessie MacLachlan remained loyal to her Gaelic roots and to her Highland name, communicating a positive message for Gaelic and its place in the modern world. In 1899, she was the first Gaelic singer to be recorded on gramophone, and through these recordings we can today get a sense of her glorious soprano voice. Her last public performance was at the Amsterdam Opera House in New York State in 1914.
After travelling home during the turmoil of the outbreak of WW1, she was in poor health, and died in May 1916. Restoring the stone cross that marks her final resting place in Cathcart Cemetery in Glasgow, ‘facing the west and looking towards the Argyllshire hills’, is the least we can do to honour this remarkable woman.
Jessie MacLachlan’s family connections on both sides were rooted in Argyll; in Oban, Mull, Lismore and Appin. It has been a pleasure to have been put in touch with one of her relatives on the Niven side, Morag Forbes, whose late mother, Rhona Black, kept the memory of Jessie MacLachlan alive in the family, and we are very grateful for Morag’s enthusiasm and support for the project.”
Celebrating Jessie MacLachlan’s Life and Work
After consulting with the legendary Gaelic stonemason, John ‘Hearach’ Macdonald in Inverness, we have launched this crowdfunder initially to raise £3,000 to restore the Celtic Cross that is Jessie MacLachlan’s memorial stone. The stone is a large and impressive carving, originally sitting atop a stone double dais, with inscriptions in Gaelic and English marking her life and achievements. The cross is currently lying on its back, although miraculously it fell in soft grass and appears to have remained intact. The stone will need to be lifted (no small task), re-pinned and re-set into the plinths, and the whole memorial cleaned and the lead lettering at the base restored.
We do not want this project to be merely a memorial, however, but a celebration of Jessie MacLachlan’s life and work. When we have reached our initial goal we plan to work with Gaelic groups in the city, including the Gaelic Medium schools, to raise awareness of the talents and achievements of a young woman and role model who made her mark on a world stage, singing in the Gaelic language of her native Argyll.
"'S Ged Chaidh Mi Uat Air Faondradh..." - How You Can Help
This is a community effort, celebrating one of Gaeldom’s true stars. By contributing to this fundraiser, you will be part of that community promoting a positive role model for young (and not so young!) Gaels, and remembering a woman who took her language and music worldwide to great acclaim.
In Gaelic, when creating a remembrance of someone, we talk about putting ‘clach air càrn’ – a stone on the cairn. We invite you to do the same for Jessie, and help restore her memorial with a donation, large or small - whatever you can afford. In this altered world, we know that so much of our lives is uncertain, so we truly appreciate whatever help you can give this project, and we look forward to being able to share Jessie’s story once again with the world.
Le meas is taing,
Mary Ann Kennedy
Prof. Wilson MacLeod
Dr. Priscilla Scott
Thanks to Darren MacLean and Dani Garavelli for their skills and support.