Mischa MacPherson - Gaels and gracenotes

These are exciting times for Mischa MacPherson. When she speaks to the Herald, the young Gaelic singer and harper from the Isle of Lewis is on a break from rigorous rehearsals for Air falbh leis na h-eòin (Away with the Birds), a song cycle that will be performed outdoors on a semi-submerged stage on the Isle of Canna at the end of August.

By then she and her group, the Mischa MacPherson Trio will have performed Lahore Ceol Mor, in collaboration with a troupe of Pakistani musicians at Kelvingrove Park as part of Glasgow 2014, and will also have appeared at Glasgow’s annual pipe music festival, Piping Live! in a celebration of the deep connection between pipe music and the Gaelic language, Gaels and Gracenotes.

And all this comes on top of the trio winning two awards earlier this year, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards’ Young Tradition title and just before that, a Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections.

If MacPherson sounds breathless, it’s little wonder because although she began singing Gaelic songs at nursery school in Sandwick and is about to go into her third year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the native Gaelic speaker never intended to become a professional musician. She was all set to read psychology and biology at Glasgow University until, a week before her first term, she realised that she would be happier studying music. A plan B was hastily drawn up and she took a gap year trip to Ghana, during which she discovered that her application to the Scottish music course at the RCS had been successful.

“Music was just a natural part of life on Lewis,” she says, “and there was lots of Gaelic singing, as well as accordion and fiddle clubs, when I was growing up.”

Her parents aren’t musicians but they’re big fans of folk music, Shooglenifty and Capercaillie being particular favourites, and having shown a talent for Gaelic song at nursery school, Mischa entered her first local mod in Primary 1.

“I was really lucky because there was a woman, Alma Jamieson, who lived between our house and the school and she had won the National Mod gold medal when she was eighteen, back in the 1950s I think,” she says. “So, once a week I’d visit her and we’d go over my songs and that was a great help.”

By the time she was in secondary school, MacPherson had taken up the harp and was having lessons from the doyenne of Scottish harp playing, Alison Kinnaird, who gave monthly classes and workshops on Lewis. With a school friend accompanying on her piano, MacPherson was also to be found entertaining the local angling club and other social occasions on her first, modestly paid, engagements.

Having moved on to the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music in Plockton, where she was introduced to group work and took part in the Centre’s annual showcase album and tour, she returned to Lewis for her final year at school to concentrate on getting the Highers needed for university entrance.

A diversion into the ceilidh trail organised each summer by Fèis Rois, whereon musicians are pitched together into bands before going on tour for up to six weeks, found MacPherson, fellow Lewis native, guitarist Innes White and piper Conal McDonagh, from Poolewe, getting on like a house on fire. They continued playing together beyond the first ceilidh trail, went on a Fèis Rois trip to Australia, worked up a repertoire and when they returned to Glasgow, where they were all now based, they made a studio recording, which the engineer emailed to MacPherson on the evening of the deadline for the BBC Young Tradition Award.

A quick phone round confirmed that all three agreed they should enter and the application, complete with recording, was filed minutes before the midnight cut-off point. A similar scenario saw them enter and win one of Celtic Connections’ Danny Kyle awards but they never dreamed of pulling off the double.

“We were pretty sure that other bands were going to win the BBC award – we all had favourites,” says MacPherson. “And even when they were about to announce our category, I noticed they had cameras on another band’s table and I said to Innes, ‘It’s definitely them.’ Then they announced us and we were completely shocked. But so much has come out of that - festivals, trips abroad. It’s been brilliant and being asked to appear at Piping Live is really special because Finlay MacDonald, who programmes it, is head of piping studies at the Royal Conservatoire, and that’s a great endorsement for our music.”

The Mischa MacPherson Trio appear in Gaels and Gracenotes at the New Athanaeum, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on Wednesday August 13. Piping Live! runs from August 11-17; for further information log onto

From The Herald, August 6, 2014.

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