Singer, piper, storyteller, teacher and all-round tradition bearer, Rona Lightfoot is one of Gaeldom’s great characters, a one-woman ceilidh with a treasure trove of folklore and the spirit to take on authority and win.
Born on South Uist on April 17, 1936, Rona grew up in a family that was rich in tradition. Just how rich was their culture inheritance became clear when the family doctor decided to record Rona’s mother, expecting her to contribute a song to his collection, only to discover that Kate had a veritable treasury of songs passed down through the generations committed to memory. Rona’s father, Eairdsidh Ragnaill, was a piper, as were all the men in his family, and a seanachaidh of renown and the family home at Gearraidh-sheilidh was known as a ceilidh house, where Rona heard music and song from day one.
By the age of nine Rona was already copying her father’s fingering on the chanter and shortly afterwards she began playing the pipes. Her uncle showed her how to read music and she began taking lessons from the man who would remain her tutor for many years, Angus Campbell. A teacher who, Rona says, could draw music from a stone, Campbell lived three miles from Gearraidh-sheilidh and Rona would walk there sometimes in the dark on a Friday night and stay until Sunday, learning tunes and hearing ghost stories that would make the walk home all the more interesting.
After leaving secondary school in Fort William, Rona moved to Glasgow to train as a nurse. She met and married her husband, a sailor, and would often go to sea with him, taking her pipes so that she could continue teaching herself pibroch and would receive honest but supportive appraisals of her progress when she next caught up with Angus Campbell.
Having begun competing as a piper at the age of twelve at the College of Piping in Glasgow on her first trip to the city, Rona continued through her teens and into adulthood, winning prizes at the annual South Uist meeting. Many of the competitions were for men only and Rona campaigned against this, proving her point by becoming the first woman to take part in the coveted Bratach Gorm (or Blue Banner), the Scottish Piping Society of London’s premier pibroch competition.
In Rona’s own words “I have to tell you that whilst I fought for the right to be allowed to compete in the Bratach Gorm competition in London, I was only ever permitted to compete on one occasion”
It was a proud moment but she’s equally proud that she later piped the Skye Bridge toll protesters to the court house and that they won that argument, too.
Meanwhile, her value as a singer, tradition bearer and raconteur were being recognised and appreciated ever more widely. She has sung all over Scotland, across Canada and the United States and in 2004 she finally recorded her first album, Eadarainn. She has also recorded with Margaret Stewart and made an important contribution as a storyteller to Duncan Chisholm’s multi-media commission for Blas 2007, Kin.
The young singers and pipers who have benefited from Rona’s tuition are legion. She has taught at feisean including Inverness, Bettyhill and Ullapool and has been an instructor at Ceolas on South Uist every year since its inception. She has also given workshops throughout Scotland, in Canada and America, as well as crossing over from competitor to judge at piping meetings, and she continues to be a source of inspiration, songs, wisdom and humour to the Gaelic community worldwide.