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One of Barra’s greatest Gaelic tradition-bearers and folklorists, Annie Johnston, is celebrated this week on the Scottish audio archive Tobar an Dualchais ~ Kist o Riches.

Born in the late 1880s, she was raised in a community rich in Gaelic language and culture. However, Barra was still coming to terms with decades of displacement, famine and institutional neglect that blighted the island for most of the 19th century, writes Tobar an Dualchais.

Annie’s mother, Catherine MacNeil, was originally from the now uninhabited Isle of Sandray, and it was from her that Annie learned many of her songs and stories. 

Comments  Tobar an Dualchais: “Annie was especially known for her vast knowledge of òrain bheaga (short songs), which were especially popular with children, and òran luaidh (waulking songs), many of which feature on the Tobar an Dualchais websites.”

John Lorne Campbell’s arrival in Barra in the 1930s marked the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration and friendship between Annie and John. Annie used her position in the community to reach out and encourage people to be recorded by Campbell. 

She also worked with Campbell and supplied him with local information for publications, including his edition of Father Allan MacDonald’s “Gaelic Words from South Uist” (1958), “Deoch-slàinte nan Gillean” (1948), “Gaelic Folk Songs from the Isle of Barra” (1950) and “Stories from South Uist” (1961). 

Following the establishment of the BBC and Gaelic broadcasting, Annie contributed greatly by broadcasting songs for Gaelic radio programmes, contributing over forty songs between 1947 and 1962. She also featured in broadcasts of the National Mòd. 

There are over 160 recordings of Annie on the Tobar an Dualchais website from 1938 until 1962. She is also listed as a fieldworker on several recordings, most notably for Mrs Mary Johnston of Glen, Barra.

In this recording from 1950, Annie sings “Cò leis an crodh druimfhionn ud thall.”  The Barra Folklore Committee made the recording, which is part of the Canna Collection.

Image credit: School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh