From singing by candlelight before electricity arrived on Barra to racking up nearly 80,000 views on YouTube for her singing of Gaelic anthem Cànan Nan Gàidheal, Catherine-Ann MacPhee has sung through a world of change in establishing herself as one of Gaelic music’s favourite voices.
Catherine-Ann was born into the Gaelic speaking community on Barra in 1959 and grew up in Eoligarry, a village full of singers who entertained each other at ceilidhs and social gatherings. Electricity didn’t become an everyday amenity on the island until Catherine-Ann was six, by which time she was already singing in local village halls, in the light given off by tilly lamps where necessary.
In the summer she would sing for tourists as well as keeping up the regular round of local ceilidhs and at the age of seventeen she was approached by Mairead Ross, who was in the process of setting up the first professional Gaelic touring theatre company, Fir Chlis, or Northern Lights. After a successful audition Catherine-Ann joined the company and for three years she travelled throughout the Highlands and Islands, acting and singing, until council budget cuts forced Fir Chlis to close.
Thinking her acting career was over too, Catherine-Ann took a job in the Mishnish Hotel, run by her sister’s father-in-law, accordionist Bobby MacLeod, in Tobermory on Mull. She and Bobby sang and played in the hotel bar and it was here, after his repeated phone calls offering her work with the English speaking 7:84 Theatre Company almost resulted in her reporting him to the police, that John McGrath persuaded Catherine-Ann to join the company.
With 7:84 Catherine-Ann travelled from Leningrad to Tiblisi, Toronto, Cape Breton, Berlin and Castlebay. Then, at a festival in Dingwall, she met Ian Green of Greentrax Recordings who, on hearing her singing, offered to record her first album. Released in 1987, Cànan Nan Gaidheal (The Language of the Gael) featured mouth music, songs by Lewis bard Murdo MacFarlane and Rory and Calum MacDonald of Runrig’s Cearcall a’ Chuain with accompaniment from musicians including Tony Cuffe and William Jackson from the band Ossian.
Subsequently, Catherine-Ann went on to work with musician, composer and producer Jim Sutherland, incorporating drum machines and New Age influences into her singing of waulking songs and Gaelic songs, and contributed to the song cycle The Stones of Callanish by the Manchester-based Mrs Ackroyd Band.
She also sang on the soundtrack to the BBC Television film Màiri Mhór: Her Life and Songs, which starred Alyxis Daly as the nineteenth century poet and songwriter from Skye, and featured in Orain Nan Gàidheal (The Song of the Gael), a series of concerts staged during the Edinburgh International Festival’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1997 to honour the Gaelic song and music tradition.
After living in Ottawa for many years, in 2017 Catherine-Ann moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from where she travels across Canada and North America, teaching Gaelic singing as well as giving concerts. She continues to find new admirers across the world and among the projects that have acknowledged her place on the international stage is the album Chansons des mers froides (Songs from the cold seas) by French composer and producer Hector Zazou on which Catherine-Ann features alongside Björk, Suzanne Vega, Japanese singer Tokiko Kato, and Sami musician Lioudmila Khandi.