As her award of an MBE in 2017 ‘for services to Promotion of the Gaelic Language, Music and Gaelic Medium Education’ acknowledged, Kenna Campbell has made an invaluable contribution to Gaelic culture.
Her individual successes, including the Gold Medal at the 1959 National Mod and her acclaimed CD Guth a Shnìomhas, have been matched by her nurturing of natural talents, including her daughters, Wilma and Mary Ann Kennedy.
Kenna was born into a crofting family in the Skye township of Greepe on July 21, 1937. All the family were, in Kenna’s word, ‘songaholics’. Her father was a great singer and Gaelic song was a feature of everyday life, being especially useful in accompanying chores such as churning butter. A good-going reel helped to turn the handle until the arm tired and the reel became more of a slow air.
Kenna’s earliest memory of singing to an audience is as a four-year-old, hiding behind the kitchen curtains. Later, aged six, she sang for Dame Flora Macleod at Dunvegan Hall, and growing up, she enjoyed ceilidhing with neighbours, absorbing songs and the stories behind them.
Having taken her diploma in primary school teaching at Jordanhill College in Glasgow, Kenna made this her career, latterly becoming head teacher of Newhills School in Easterhouse for children with special needs.
Song remained her passion, however. She took classical singing lessons privately and sang with her older sister Mary, appearing on the BBC and Scottish Television’s Jigtime. She also formed a group, Na h-Eilthirich – or The Exiles – with her brother Seumas, sister Ann, and guitarist Ian Young from Kintail, visiting Ireland and France, performing throughout Scotland, broadcasting regularly and releasing an LP.
As Glasgow’s European City of Culture year in 1990 approached, Kenna was determined that Gaelic would feature in the celebrations. She formed Bannal, a septet of women specialising in waulking songs. Despite busy lives, the group continued and in 2006, they entered the DVD age by including, with their second CD, Bho Dhòrn gu Dòrn, a film of them pitting themselves and the process of shrinking the cloth by hand against modern machines. Bannal won.
Kenna has been in at the beginning of many of the Gaelic language and culture’s significant developments. She taught at the first-ever Fèis in Barra in 1981, was an early trustee of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College in Skye, and served on the boards of PNA and An Lòchran, Glasgow’s Gaelic arts agency.
One of her proudest moments, however, was as part of the campaign to establish the first-ever Gaelic-medium primary education provision in Glasgow in 1985, at Sir John Maxwell Primary School. The Gaelic School in Glasgow followed as a result.
In 1996, Kenna joined the staff of the Royal Academy of Music and Drama’s Scottish Music course. Her formidable knowledge and motivational powers have helped to nurture Gaelic singing talents including Rachel Walker and James Graham, the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year 2004.
Kenna has sung as far afield as Cape Breton and North Carolina and is never happier than when singing. She loves learning new songs and sharing old ones, and she was thrilled to tour the Highlands for the 2006 Blas festival with Mary Ann, Wilma and Kenna’s niece, Maggie Macdonald, as part of Clan, a fitting family-based vehicle for her rich legacy of song.
This legacy has subsequently been captured on two Campbells of Greepe recordings, Fonn and No2 Grepe, featuring Kenna, Seumas, Mary Ann, Wilma, and Maggie and produced by Jerry Boys, whose many top line credits include the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club album.