The tour will celebrate pioneer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser who saved Gaelic folk songs

NEW light is shed on an early supporter of Scottish independence who was a pioneering but controversial collector of traditional music.

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, who also supported women’s suffrage, realized that Gaelic folk songs were in danger of disappearing when she traveled to the Isle of Eriskay from her Edinburgh home in 1905.

Driven by a desire to preserve and celebrate the musical riches of the islanders, she began collecting songs from the Hebrides and also made films offering a snapshot of her work and the culture of the people.

Films are now due to premiere with music by award-winning singer Mairi Campbell (below) and narration by acclaimed performer and storyteller Marion Kenny on a tour of Scotland called Journey to the Isles.

While some criticized Kennedy-Fraser’s arrangements, which often altered the original tunes and lyrics to suit early 20th century musical tastes, he is now credited with his field recordings and also for inspiring other composers, as well as to draw attention to the richness of Gaelic culture.

Even the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean softened his opinion of his work after first protesting: “This Celtic twilight never had any earthly relation to anything in Gaelic life.”

Although they may have been seen through a Celtic haze, Kennedy-Fraser’s collections have attracted much attention, with Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing often performing his songs at his UK and US recitals.

Kennedy-Fraser also gave a recital of folksongs in New York at the Aeolian Hall, accompanied by her daughter Patuffa, clarsach and pianist.

In its review, The New York Times said, “The music itself is most interesting. Subjects range from poetic rhapsodies based on the natural features of the islands or her life to warmer songs that are sung to the accompaniment of various forms of manual labor. They are generally preceded by a brief statement explaining their origin and the way in which they were heard and written.

Born in Perth, Kennedy-Fraser’s father, David, was a well-known Scottish singer, and as a child she played the piano for him on his tours of Scotland and beyond. They were a musical family but three of their siblings, James, Kate and Lizzie, tragically died in a theater fire in France in 1881.

As a mature, extra-academic student at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Music, Kennedy-Fraser began collecting Breton and Gaelic folksongs.

She married Alexander Fraser in 1887 but was widowed three years later when she was only 33.

With two young children to support, Kennedy-Fraser moved with her mother and two sisters to their Edinburgh home where she befriended the painter John Duncan, who shared her interest in a Celtic revival.

Visiting Eriskay with Duncan in 1905, she realized that Gaelic folk songs were in danger of disappearing due to population decline in the Hebrides and began to visit the islands regularly to collect them using a wax cylinder phonograph , later arranging them for clarsach, piano and voice.

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FOUR volumes of songs, with English translation by the Reverend Kenneth MacLeod, were eventually released. One of the songs became widely known as Eriskay Love Lilt.

During her lifetime, Kennedy-Fraser was known for her support of women’s suffrage, as well as Scottish independence, and sometimes used the songs she collected to promote her views.

In recognition of her work as a musician and collector, she received a CBE and an honorary doctorate of music from the University of Edinburgh in 1928. She donated her archives to the university just before her death in 1930. The wax cylinder recordings were re-taped years later and recently digitized.

The tour begins at An Talla, Tiree, on September 23 and ends at Eden Court in Inverness on October 17.

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