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MacNeil was born in 1928 on the island of Barra, one of Gaelic song’s most important strongholds. There were singers on either side of her family, but this was a time when the menfolk were often away at sea for long periods, leaving the women to raise the children and tend the croft – singing all the while, to assuage their labours – and most of MacNeil’s repertoire was passed on from her mother, Ann Gillies.
In these pre-television days (Flora’s family did not even have a radio until the 1950s), ceilidhs with the neighbours were a regular occurrence in the MacNeil household, and from earliest childhood she remembers “soaking up” literally hundreds of songs, as if by osmosis. Clearly, the music was in her blood: by age four, famously, she was already tackling the sophisticated poetry of Mo Run Geal Og (“My Fair Young Love”), one of the greatest of the Orain Mor, or “Big Songs”.
Like many others before her, MacNeil left Barra in 1947 to find work in Edinburgh. She found a public platform in the burgeoning round of ceilidhs and concerts that marked the first stirrings of the British folk revival. These brought her to the attention of Hamish Henderson, who recorded her singing as part of his 1950s collaboration with American musicologist Alan Lomax.
Henderson also invited MacNeil to perform at the 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh. The ceilidh, which brought Scottish traditional folk music to the public stage for the first time, took place in Edinburgh's Oddfellows Hall in August 1951. The Scottish Gàidhealtachd was represented at the Celidh by Flora MacNeil, Calum Johnston, and John Burgess. The music was recorded live at the scene by Alan Lomax. In 2005, Lomax's recording was released on compact disc by Rounder Records. Until 1954, the Edinburgh Festival Ceilidhs were an annual event. Eventually, however, the affiliation of some board members with the Communist Party of Great Britain caused the events to lose the backing of the city's trade unions.
MacNeil has also recorded two albums, Craobh nan Ubhal in 1976 (reissued in 1993) and Orain Floraidh in 2000.
Flora's daughter, Maggie MacInnes, is an award winning Gaelic singer and harpist.
- "Traditional songs tended to run in families and I was fortunate that my mother and her family had a great love for the poetry and the music of the old songs. It was natural for them to sing, whatever they were doing at the time or whatever mood they were in. My aunt Mary, in particular, was always ready, at any time I called on her, to drop whatever she was doing, to discuss a song with me, and perhaps, in this way, long forgotten verses would be recollected. So I learned a great many songs at an early age without any conscious effort. As is to be expected on a small island, so many songs deal with the sea, but, of course, many of them may not originally be Barra songs. Nevertheless the old songs were preserved more in the southermost islands of Barra and South Uist possibly because the Reformed Church tended to discourage music elsewhere."
- Traditional Music Hall of Fame
- Description of a 2000 Ceilidh in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
- Scottish Music from Flora MacNeil
- Flora MacNeil Sings "A Phiuthrag 'S A Phiuthar"
Alan Lomax Research Center
- Ailein Duinn a ni's a Naire
- Nach Freagair Thu Charaistiona
- Phiuthrag 'S A Phiuthar
- Mhic Iarla Nam Bratach Bana with Calum Johnston.
- A Bhradag Dhubh
- Faca sibh Raghall na Ailean
- Cadal cha dèan mi
- 'S mi ri imeachd 'nam aonar
- Mo Rùn Geal Og
- Co Siod Thall Air Sraid Na H-eala?
- Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach