Donald MacRae is one of Gaelic music’s underpraised treasures, a singer who has always sung for the sheer pleasure of singing – or the crack, as he puts it – rather than in the pursuit of prizes or glory, and a tradition bearer who has kept the lifeblood coursing through the ancient songs of his homeland, the Isle of Lewis.
Donald was born in Stornoway on August 26, 1941 and grew up on a croft at Habost on Lewis. Gaelic was his first language – he only knew a few words of English before he started school – and he remembers listening in during the old-style ceilidhs around the township when there would occasionally be singing but mostly just conversation at what were essentially social gatherings.
The first songs he learned were the Gaelic psalms, which his grandfather, an elder in the local church, taught him and his earliest experiences of singing were in church and in the local Gaelic choir. There were, however, plenty of good singers near at hand and Donald learned songs from all of them, especially from his near contemporary at school Kathleen MacDonald. He also listened to Big Angus MacLeod from Scalpay off the island of Harris and to Calum Kennedy, who was born and brought up six miles from Habost and went on to take Lewis songs around the world.
In 1961, Donald, who had worked on the family croft after leaving school, moved to Glasgow and was soon involved in the Gaels’ busy social scene around the city. He joined the Glasgow Gaelic Choir but with his rich repertoire of particularly Lewis songs he was invited to sing solo at all the Gaelic societies and he became a regular at the Park Bar, the then-hub of Gaelic social life, and at the Highlanders’ Institute, where he sang on programmes featuring Fergie MacDonald’s band.
Gigs could sometimes be nerve-wracking occasions for Donald, especially if there were people in the audience who were knowledgeable sticklers for tradition. Many of the songs that had been passed on to him consisted of lots more verses than time would allow him to sing, so he learned to abridge them without, he felt, losing the threads of their stories. He could still find himself upbraided afterwards for missing bits out, though, and having to apologise.
One of his proudest moments came during the 1960s when he sang at his first Lewis and Harris Annual Gathering in St Andrews Hall, a great venue to sing in, he remembers, and with three thousand people listening, a gig that gave him a feeling of triumph for overcoming his nerves. Sadly, a week before the following year’s gathering the hall burned down, so it was a triumph never to be repeated, at least in that venue.
There have been many other triumphs, though. Donald has taken part in many, much coveted recordings and has watched technology advance from the time he recorded his first EP for Gaelfon Records, a session that took hours and hours, through his experiences with the Bluebell, Thistle and Smith & Mearns labels.
A Lewis man through and through, however, he maintains that his favourite venue to sing in is Stornoway Town Hall.
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