MacPhail: the legend that is Rona Lightfoot

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Rona Lightfoot from South Uist is among the most dangerous people to meet when one is trying to obverse Lenten abstinence.

Just five minutes in her company – even first thing in the morning – is enough to put anyone in the mood for a good party.

This soon-to-be 83-year-old legend of piping, Gaelic song and tradition is a woman who has a positive effect on anyone lucky enough to be in her company.

Last Saturday morning she was recording a small bit of backing vocals for the new Skipinnish album and it was a great pleasure to see her again after nearly 10 years.

We played at Rona’s 70th birthday party and, a few years after that, at her and her husband Tony’s golden wedding.

I was delighted that in the decade since seeing her, she’s lost none of her vigour and electric charisma.

Long before the current emphasis of gender equality, Rona was breaking down boundaries of sexism in the very much male-dominated world of piping. She had a highly successful solo piping career and is credited as being the first woman to gain a prize in a major piping competition.

She was also the first woman to compete in the prestigious ‘Bratach Gorm’, the premier pibroch competition run by the Scottish Piping Society of London. She had to campaign to be allowed to enter this competition because, as with many similar events, women were customarily excluded.

The piping world is not too similar to the Hollywood movie industry but if Harvey Weinstein had ever tried his behaviour with Rona, he would have been very firmly put in his place.

While Rona is full of fun and good humour, she is certainly not someone to be tangled with and her track record of fighting the corner of female piping competitors is a clear indicator of this.

Apart from competition success, Rona is a well-respected piping judge and in fact this weekend is heading to Stornoway to judge at the Donald MacLeod Memorial Piping Competition.

In 2009, she was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in recognition of her achievements as a piper, singer and tradition bearer. The following year, she received the Balvenie Medal for Services to Piping.
She was also the first and yet to be only woman to hold the position of president of the Inverness Piping Society.

Her achievements, her competition success and these other accolades that have been deservedly bestowed upon her are a clear mark of her talents and attributes as a performer, musician and character. However, none of them reflects the incredible experience it is to meet this great woman in person.

To quote someone I know well while talking about Rona, I will finish with this. ‘She is so deeply rooted and down to earth but with such a wondrous star quality at the same time.’

I will make sure it isn’t 10 years till I see her next.