Celebrating ‘The Queen of Gaelic Song’: Oban’s Jessie MacLachlan

Jessie Niven MacLachlan from Oban was, in her day, the undisputed Queen of Gaelic Song.

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A two-year lockdown project to restore public awareness of one of Scotland’s greatest singers came to fruition this week, when a magnificent memorial cross was reinstated in one of Glasgow’s most historic and enigmatic cemeteries.

On Friday May 13, a rededication ceremony was held to mark the return of the beautiful Celtic cross that marks the grave of Jessie MacLachlan, a young woman from a modest background in Oban, who became the toast of European royalty and topped the bill at some of the world’s top venues.

Jessie Niven MacLachlan was, in her day, the undisputed Queen of Gaelic Song. A superstar as famous as Scottish contemporaries such as Harry Lauder and James Scott Skinner, she made the first ever recording of Gaelic song, singing Oro Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach (Ho-ro my nut-brown maiden) to piano accompaniment, and performed at the first National Mòd in 1892.

Her stellar career took her round the world, but she died just short of her 50th birthday following a traumatic journey escaping the outbreak of the First World War. Jessie was buried in Glasgow’s Cathcart Cemetery, one of Britain’s iconic Victorian ‘garden’ cemeteries which is the final resting place for some 15,000 souls.

Her cross, like so many other Cathcart memorials, had fallen into disrepair and lay on its back in pieces until 2020, when three Gaels – musician Mary Ann Kennedy, and academics Dr Priscilla Scott and Professor Wilson McLeod – came together to restore both the memorial and Jessie’s memory.

A public crowdfunder raised more than £4,000, including donations from many of the places that Jessie toured around the globe. And with match funding from Creative Scotland’s Maoin nan Ealan Gàidhlig (Gaelic Arts Fund), the expertise of fellow Gael and master stonemason Alex MacIntyre of Glasgow company MacIntyre Memorials was engaged and work began on the restoration of the 3.5m, 14 tonne structure.

‘Team Jessie’, left to right: Dr Priscilla Scott, Mary Ann Kennedy, Niall Campbell of MacTV, and Alex MacIntyre of MacIntyre Memorials.

Despite many challenges and delays, from Covid to finding unique technical solutions, the stone has now been completely restored and cleaned, and stands in a prominent position in the cemetery, looking out towards Jessie’s beloved Argyllshire hills.

The cleaning of the stone has revealed the beautiful pale pink of the Aberdeenshire Balmoral Red granite, a nod to the royal approval of Queen Victoria that helped propel Jessie to fame.

Friday’s ceremony featured some of the songs that Jessie was known for, and world-class Argyll piper Angus MacColl played MacCrimmon’s Lament at the graveside, as his grandfather John MacColl did at Jessie’s funeral in 1916. BBC ALBA will also broadcast a documentary on Jessie’s life and career in June, as part of their Trusadh series.