She may have lived in Canada for the last 15 years, but for Cathy Ann MacPhee the call of home still comes in Gaelic.
The Barra-born singer has been performing all her life in the native tongue and today still travels from her base in Ottawa to teach Gaelic singing at workshops from Toronto to Seattle.
This summer she will be back in Scotland to join other leading traditional vocalists from the islands in a celebration of the female voice in a sold out show that will open the 21st Hebridean Celtic Festival.
Cathy Ann will take the stage with Julie Fowlis, from North Uist, Mary Smith and Isobel Ann Martin, from Lewis, and Kathleen Macinnes, from South Uist, in Hebridean Women, a project designed to encourage collaboration, promote the music and song from the area, and provide a ‘master and apprentice’ style of working, with singers chosen from all generations.
The show, which will focus specifically on songs for and about women, will be HebCelt’s opening concert on 13 July and also herald the start of a programme of events hosted by An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway during festival week.
Hebridean Women is part of ‘Bealach’, a wide-ranging creative partnership project, hosted by An Lanntair, to represent Lewis and Harris as the ‘gateway’ and ‘passage’ into the Gaelic culture and which won the Creative Place Award from Creative Scotland in 2015.
It is a new version - specially created for HebCelt’s 21st birthday - of the original Lewis Women show, devised by An Lanntair for its opening in 2005.
Alex Macdonald, head of performing arts and cinema at An Lanntair, said: “For the original show I selected five female Gaelic singers from Lewis to showcase the vocal talent we have available to us. But, importantly, each time we have presented the show since then the line-up has changed, therefore each show is completely different.
“Although we find that the singers concerned may already know each other very well, in some cases it has given them a chance to work together for the first time, and certainly to work together collectively. It also allows us to put singers together from across all age groups and promote the sharing of songs – the central part of the idea is collaboration.
“This year we wanted to do something extra special for the HebCelt’s 21st, so I extended the idea to include singers from throughout the islands. The format will be the same though, so essentially I have selected the singers but the songs will be their own choice. To make the final selections they are in touch in advance of the show and they will rehearse just before the festival. We really appreciate the work the singers put in to make sure this is a unique and special event.”
It will be something of a homecoming for Cathy Ann who is travelling back to her native Hebrides to take part in the show.
“I am so excited to be going home and have the opportunity to be part of the festival on and off stage. I am looking forward to the opening show - we will warm the cockles of hearts from Ness to Northbay.
“I was over the moon to be asked to be part of what will be an amazing night, especially on the 21st birthday of the festival. The opportunity to get together with friends onstage is always exciting, but this even more so as we get to share song ideas from our own doorsteps.”
Being geographically so far away, there are logistical issues for Cathy Ann to deal with in rehearsing with the other performers, but she is confident they will be in harmony at the festival.
“It’s a little scary to be far from home on the ‘getting it together’ bit, but we live in a hi-tec world, everything at the touch of a button, and the women I am appearing on stage with are voices that I love and am so tuned into. I reckon we will blend beautifully.”
After HebCelt she will continue to use her voice as a singer and teacher to promote Gaelic: “I sometimes think it’s time to sit back and knit, but God gives you a gift to be shared and while there is a song still in me I’ll sing. given the chance. And I am not a very good knitter!”
The 21st HebCelt will be held from 13-16 July in Stornoway.
Runrig will head a line-up of nearly 50 acts over the four days, including the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Hayseed Dixie, Astrid, King Creosote and Breabach.
HebCelt has grown from a small event attracting less than 1,000 fans, to an international showpiece for roots, Celtic and traditional music, drawing an audience of around 15,000. It is estimated it has generated more than £20 million for the local economy over two decades.
Cathy Ann MacPhee