One of 2020’s inductees to the Scots Trad Music Awards Hall of Fame is Lewis-born Gaelic singer, researcher and academic Margaret Stewart.
Stewart was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, north of Stornoway in the small village of Upper Coll. At the time, the language of the house and the village was Gaelic, her first contact with English only came when she started school. English was confined to the classroom, the rest of her formative years spent entirely speaking in her native tongue.
The activity at home centered around the community and the outdoors, where she would help her father and grandfather at the fishing, bait gathering, peat digging, sheep shearing, even a bit of salmon-poaching in her teens!
In this community she was surrounded by Gaelic music and poetry, they were truly connected to her way of life. She’d sing while going about her work, writing: “My favourite auditorium was the little glen to the back of our house, as I knew that I could sing as loudly as I wished and not be heard by another soul”.
Throughout her youth, Stewart would compete at the Local Mòds, but it wasn’t until later – in 1993 – that she’d go on to compete at the National Mòd, in the gold medal category – An Comunn Gaidhealach’s most prestigious award.
For Stewart this was a step into a different idiom. She was completely rooted in a very traditional style, but the competition required a much more strict adherence to a written score, without the freedoms of inflection and individuality to which she was accustomed. She rose to the occasion though, winning the gold medal.
Ever since, Margaret has enjoyed a broad and varied diet of work as a performer, tutor, academic and researcher.
She’s graced stages all over the world, at events including the Edinburgh International Festival, Celtic Connections, Piping Live, Willie Clancy’s Summer School and Earagail Arts Festival in Donegal. Touring has taken her as far afield as Canada, Singapore, Lebanon, Germany and France.
Her work in TV and radio has been prolific, appearing on numerous shows and series, as well as contributing to soundtracks of films including: Am Pòsadh Hiortach, Na h-Eilthirich and Innsean an Iar. She was commissioned by the National Trust to compile and record Jacobite Songs for the visitor centre at Culloden Battlefield, and the Highlanders’ Museum at Fort George.
Margaret’s career as a recording artist has been no less fruitful, having made guest appearances on some twenty albums, as well as a number of releases under her own name. Those include two duo albums bringing Gaelic song together with another great Highland tradition, with piper Allan MacDonald – Fhuair Mi Pog and Colla Mo Rùn. Then her solo release Togaidh Mi Mo Sheolta, or Along The Road Less Travelled. The album, produced by Ian MacDonald brought together an A list cast of Scottish and Irish musicians, to showcase some rare gems from the Gaelic song tradition.
The road less travelled is a recurring theme in Margaret’s work in Gaelic. An expert in rare and lesser known Gaelic song, she is one of the core researchers on the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o’ Riches project, tasked with cataloguing songs from the School of Scottish Studies archive. She is also credited as an advisor on a number of albums by fellow musicians and singers, including Kathleen MacInnes, Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm. Her research is not limited to song though, having completed a MSc in Material Culture and Gaidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, and acting as advisor to Ainmean Àite na h-Alba, the national advisory partnership for Gaelic place names in Scotland.
She shares her knowledge more widely still through tutoring, for organisations including: Ceòlas, The Willie Clancy Summer School, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Her work was recognised with the award of Gaelic Singer of the Year at the 2008 Scots Trad Music Awards. As Dr John MacInnes said:
“She retains the verbal dexterity and natural ornamentation of a native speaker of Gaelic while never becoming over precise or artificial in her diction, nor are the underlying rhythms of the language ever distorted. Margaret sings her songs sensitively, intimately and with unfailing dignity.”