Anne Souter was born and raised on Barra, surrounded by Gaelic. Her family were prolific speakers and singers of the language, she spoke no English until she started school.
The reverse of how things happens now, children learning English at home, and Gaelic at school, their parents perhaps likely from the generation who missed the opportunity to learn their mother tongue in the manner of their own parents, grandparents, and more distant forebears.
Over her life, Anne’s work was in preserving, promoting, and celebrating gaelic language and song, through involvement in her local community, An Comunn Gàidhealach, The Inverness Gaelic Society, as well as performing internationally.
In her earliest years on Barra, she was surrounded by the language and culture in a way likely impossible in the present day. Members of her family feature in some of the earliest School of Scottish Studies recordings, taken by Calum Iain MacLean and John Lorne Campbell. Particularly her grandmother’s brother Ruairidh Iain Bhàin, described in John Lorne Campbell’s book Gaelic Folksongs from the Isle of Barra; and his son Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon – Dòmhnall Eòsaph.
Things changed for Anne as she began secondary school. At this time, all over the Hebrides, and some more remote parts of the Highlands, children heading for secondary school were sent to board at a few larger, more central schools. She and her sisters headed for Fort William, where the only Gaelic to be heard was in the islanders’ dormitory, or at the school’s Gaelic choir.
It wasn’t until later, until after she met her husband Donald that gaelic started to become part of life again. He was in the police, and these early days of his career saw them move around a lot – to Fort Augustus, and then to Harris. This return to the Hebridies was something of a homecoming to Anne, but with her married name being Souter, this wasn’t immediately apparent to the locals.
In the first days on the island, she’d visit the shop, obviously new in a place where everyone knows everyone else. The wife of the policeman as well, in a well intentioned attempt at politeness, the locals in the shop spoke in gaelic “You should serve this lady first”. To which she replied “Oh I’m not in any hurry!”
From that moment she was home, spending three very happy years on the island before Donald’s work took them to Inverness.
Upon their arrival, preparations were in full swing for the 1972 Inverness Mòd. Very quickly she became heavily involved in the effort: Organising the event, fundraising ceilidhs and singing.
In 1976, she had her own success at the Mòd in Aberdeen, winning the gold medal for traditional singing. This led to a period of touring internationally – to Ireland and Cape Breton, alongside the likes of Flora McNeil and Willie MacDonald, Donald Riddell, Norman MacLean, Farquhar MacRae, and Iain Crichton Smith.
In 1982, she received a phone call – the Mòd scheduled to take place in Aviemore had run into issues, and needed a new host. She responded that of course the An Comunn Inverness branch would take it on, even with the greatly reduced period to fundraise. At this point, she was the secretary of the Inverness branch, and quickly set about fundraising and organising what turned out to be a greatly successful Mòd.
Anne was also on the committee of the Royal National Mòd, and in 1994 she became it’s convenor, responsible for the festival for almost a decade. The job grew still when in 1997 she became the convenor of the Inverness branch as well, holding the dual roles until her retirement in 2001.
She’d retired from An Comunn, but her work only continued, in a new role as secretary of the Inverness Gaelic Society, finally retiring in 2010.
Less busy now, she speaks in Gaelic as often as she can – with the community she’s gathered over nearly fifty years of involvement with the language, and as a familiar voice appearing as a regular guest on Coinneach MacÌomhair’s Friday morning BBC Radio nan Gaidheal show.