Remembering Jessie: ‘undisputed Queen of Gaelic song’

Jessie Niven MacLachlan, singer of Scottish and Gaelic song, who was known worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th century.

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At the first Mòd of An Comunn Gàidhealach held in Oban in 1892, an evening concert took place in the railway station that had been specially adapted for the occasion.

Photograph courtesy of Annette Niven, who emigrated with her family to Australia in the early 1970s. Her late father was a relation of Jessie MacLachlan and the cherished picture went with them from Taynuilt to Melbourne where it had pride of place in their family home, and still hangs today in her Mum’s lounge.

For those of us who remember, even in its faded glory, the beautiful glass and iron structure of the original Victorian station, we can imagine the scene that evening, with the gas lights reflected in the glass roof against the night sky.

The building was full to capacity, partly due to the presence of the Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, who was married to the Marquis of Lorne.

The real attraction, however, was Jessie Niven MacLachlan, a daughter of the town who was embarking on what would be a glittering career as a professional singer of Scottish and Gaelic song.

Shortly after this event, on the recommendation of Princess Louise, Jessie MacLachlan received an invitation to sing before Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle, where she sang four Scottish and four Gaelic songs, the latter receiving particular praise from the Queen.

From this point on, Jessie MacLachlan’s star was in the ascendant, and during her career she sang in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world, as well as throughout Britain and in Ireland. Hers was the first voice in Gaelic to be recorded on the newly invented gramophone when she sang in 1899 for the record company Berliner, and in 1904 for Pathé in Paris.

It is through these recordings that we can today get a sense of her glorious soprano voice and why thousands flocked to hear her sing.

Born in Oban in 1866, with connections to Mull on her father’s side, Jessie Niven  MacLachlan was, in her day, the undisputed Queen of Gaelic song. A musical superstar as famous as Scottish contemporaries such as Harry Lauder and James Scott Skinner. Her career took her around the world, accompanied by her pianist husband Robert Buchanan, but she died just short of her 50th birthday.

Over the years, her name has slipped from public memory and her story is little known, despite the fame she enjoyed in her lifetime. The Celtic cross marking her final resting place and that of her husband, has fallen into disrepair and is now lying on the ground in Cathcart Cemetery in Glasgow.

However, plans are now being made to restore and refurbish the memorial and, once circumstances are less restricted, to share and celebrate the life and work of this remarkable woman from Argyll.

A Crowdfunder Page has been set up to raise the £3,000 needed for the repair
work, and which also provides information on the project. There has been a
very positive and generous response and it is hoped that the target will soon be

Pricilla Scott, who initiated the project along with Professor Wilson Mcleod (University of Edinburgh) and Mary Ann Kennedy, said: ‘It is clear that retelling the story of Jessie Niven MacLachlan has jogged memories and more information on her fascinating life is coming to light.

‘She was very proud of her Oban and Mull roots, remarking on one occasion, ‘Why should I not extol my native Argyllshire, the home of Deirdre and the Sons of Uisneach, of Duncan Bàn MacIntyre, of Livingston, the poet, and of Evan MacColl, who has given us the very cream of Gaelic poetry’.

‘Argyll should be very proud of Jessie Niven Maclachlan.

‘Since the Crowdfunder was launched, some people with family connections to Jessie MacLachlan have been in touch, one from the other side of the world, and have shared photographs of the singer that have been treasured and passed down.

‘We would be most interested in hearing from anyone from the Maclachlan or Niven families with connections to Jessie Niven Maclachlan, and particularly if they have stories or memorabilia that have been preserved within their family.’

If anyone would like to donate to the Crowdfunder the details are in the link below and all donations will be most gratefully received.