JOHN Macmillan, widely known as “Seonaidh Beag”, is the Harris Tweed weaver from Lewis who, with his brother Angus and Donnie “Gazette” Macinnes, formed a trio to enter the newly created folk group competition at the 1968 National Mòd. Little did they realise that they would still be singing half a century later and that their Gaelic songs would take them on to major festival stages, winning them the reputation of an early Gaelic supergroup.
John, who retired in 2014 after more than 50 years at the loom, was born and grew up in the village of Lemreway in the Lochs district of Lewis, one of the six children – five boys and a girl – of John and Jane Anne Macmillan. The family was steeped in Gaelic culture and music. During the winter months, the five schools in the area would take turns at holding a ceilidh, attended by local singers and melodeon players, and it was in such an event that John first sang in public.
It was in the late 1950s, however, that things really took off for him in the singing stakes: his first time singing “away” was in Tarbert, Harris. After that, he recalls, “there was hardly a Friday night that I wasn’t singing in some hall or other, from Ness at the Butt of Lewis to Leverburgh in Harris”.
He sang Hank Williams songs, which were particularly popular at the time, with his brother Angus accompanying him on guitar, while for Gaelic repertoire they looked to the stars of the day, such as Calum Kennedy and Donald Macrae – both of whom hailed from nearby villages in the Lochs district.
It was in the summer of 1968 that Seonaidh formed the Lochies with Angus and their friend Donnie “Gazette” Macinnes, simply with a view to competing in the Mòd at Dunoon later in the year. Already meeting regularly to perform their country and western and Gaelic songs, they were also members of the Lochs Gaelic Choir, with whom they had already competed at the Mòd, so the idea of entering again as a Gaelic folk trio seemed a natural progression.
The new trio won the newly created folk group class, which brought them to the notice of David Silver of Bluebell Records, with whom they made their first LP, Westerly Gaels, in 1972. Six more albums would follow on – Lewis Folk, Home to Lewis, North by North West, Slainte Math, (all with Lismore, produced by Silver), Lewisbound, produced by Noel Eadie at croft records and finally, in 1998, Tir Aluinn with Smith/Mearns Recordings.
Their popular songs included Mairi Bhan, Oran na Hiortaich – “The St Kildans’ Song”, the poignant Deireadh Forladh, 1940, about the young islanders who went off to war, and appropriately for Seaonaidh, Oran Na Beairt , “The Song of the Loom”. They also sang Sgaoth Sgadain, a Gaelic translation of Ewan MacColl’s well known Shoals of Herring.
While they were productive in terms of album releases throughout the Seventies and drew crowds for concerts across the country, the logistics became increasingly difficult as, while John and Donnie were still based in Lewis, Angus’s work took him to Newcastle and then to Dumfries: “It was always a struggle to get together for these events and get adequate rehearsal time,” he remembers. “A lot of material was learned by exchanging tapes, again and again, or by singing over the phone.”
When they recorded, they also made a point of seeking out fresh and previously unrecorded material: “there was a tendency at the time for singers recording in Gaelic to re-do material that was already firmly established in the body of Gaelic song, so numerous versions of the same song would be heard on the airwaves. A further issue was that the writers of these songs would often set their material to well-known and established melodies, somewhat diminishing their own original work, lessening its impact.
“We were fortunate in being able to source substantial amounts of unrecorded material and also in being given the freedom to set others’ writings to our own new melodies.”
John composed new tunes for numerous songs on their albums, including Graidh n h-oige, Seoladh Dhachaidh, Comhairle don t-seaganach, as well as for the St Kilda song.
The Lochies won new fans and delighted their old ones when they performed a “comeback” concert at Glasgow’s Gaelic cultural hub, Ceòl ‘s Craic , in November 2012, and subsequently at the Hebridean Celtic Festival in Stornoway and at Inverness last year, selling out the venues each time.
The music gene is strong in the Macmillan family. Back in the Seventies, it was at one of those many island ceilidhs that he met his wife, Etta, who was a member of the Eileanaich Drama Group which was performing at it. They married in 1975 and all their four children are musical, notably Calum Alex Macmillan, who has made a reputation for himself as a singer and piper, winning both Gold and Traditional singing medals at the National Mòd and playing and singing in the groups Dàimh, Na Seòid and Marloch. John was able to join Calum Alex on his first solo album, Taladh nan Cuantan, in 2005.
John was also involved in Calum Martin’s Gaelic psalm recording project, Salm, and has taught widely – not least helping his grandchildren prepare for mòds and local ceilidhs, as well as tutoring over the years at his local fèis, Fèis Eilean an Fraoich. He was also involved in the Scots-Irish song festival, Fèis nan Òran, on the Isle of Skye.
His singing, he says, has taken him to places he would never have visited otherwise, with he and Calum Alex performing together at the Blas Highland festival and HebCelt and crossing the Atlantic for the renowned Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia: “I will never forget our trip to Cape Breton. Etta joined us for the trip, and we met so many people who had their roots in the Highlands and Islands that we really felt at home with them there.”
Written by Jim Gilchrist 2015