Oban’s Queen of Melody

Born in Oban in 1866, the eldest of eight children, Jessie was known as a Queen of Melody for her reputation for belting out nostalgic songs in Gaelic, Scots and English alike.

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Oban-born Queen of Melody Jessie Niven MacLachlan is the star of  BBC ALBA’s new Trusadh documentary.

The showmakers follow Jessie’s remarkable story as one of Scotland’s greatest musical exports and best-kept cultural secrets until now.

Gaelic songstress’s rise to fame and forgotten legacy can be seen now on BBC iPlayer.

The hour-long programme explores Jessie’s life on and off the stage using archive material and a dramatic recreation.

It also follows the restoration of MacLachlan’s grave in Glasgow’s Cathcart Cemetery.

Presented by musician Mary Ann Kennedy – who plays Jessie in the recreation and was a key figure in the restoration efforts – the film reveals how MacLachlan went from humble beginnings to worldwide top billing soprano and, in death, became a lost legend.

As the epitaph on her gravestone in the Victorian south side graveyard indicates, it was expected that Jessie’s legacy would stand the test of time.

The inscription reads: ‘While Scots and Gaelic song endures, so long will the memory of Jessie N. MacLachlan remain fragrant as the heath upon Scotland’s bens and her name and fame be remembered as that of a Queen of Melody.’

Sadly, this was not the case until the intervention of a group who led the restoration project, completed in May 2022.

Singing plenty along the way from Glasgow’s Britannia Panopticon, the documentary sees Mary Ann go on a journey to ‘walk in her footsteps and learn more about the path she took’.

Mary-Ann said: ‘It was almost by coincidence that myself and a few others with an interest in Gaelic and music came across Jessie Niven MacLachlan and her amazing, but short, life.

‘As a singer, it’s been a good opportunity for me to walk in her footsteps and to delve into her life at the end of the 19th century.

‘She must have been a strong, brave woman who embraced the huge challenges of that era.

‘Although we still face some of these challenges as women in the present-day music industry, we are completely indebted to Jessie being there first to carve a new path for herself and we who have just got to know her.’

Born in Oban in 1866, the eldest of eight children, Jessie was known as a Queen of Melody for her reputation for belting out nostalgic songs in Gaelic, Scots and English alike.

Her achievements were significant at a time when it was unusual for women to gain celebrity status in society.

At a time when Gaelic was ‘despised’ and ‘punished’ in mainstream education, business and politics, it made her rise to prominence from church singer to touring star all the more impressive.

Scotland was changing in many ways in the Victoria era with Highlands and Islands becoming more accessible.

Singers like Jessie gave Scots and Gaelic a voice as tourism boomed and music halls offered opportunities to entertain and be entertained.

After learning her trade in London, her career accelerated upon meeting husband Robert Buchanan – also her accompanying pianist.

Jessie was present at the inaugural National Mòd in Oban in 1892 and even performed for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle.

She travelled the world with her music and was a favourite with the diaspora in America, Canada, New Zealand and the United States; she was a star of her day.

Jessie was the first Gaelic voice captured on record as the era of touring crossed over with advancements in recording at the end of the 19th century.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914, Jessie fell ill as she travelled back to Britain on a boat.  A long-term lung condition was aggravated and ultimately caused her death, two years later at the age of 49.

Over 100 years later the memory of Jessie N MacLachlan was restored through a crowdfunded project.

Dr Priscilla Scott, member of the campaign group, commented on the restored grave stone with emotion.

She said: ‘When our campaign started we shared information about the life of Jessie MacLachlan and organised a crowdfunder.

‘I became aware that Jessie’s story captivated people, just like her voice did when she was alive. I felt encouraged that this was an important venture and was worthwhile.

‘When you now see the stone standing upright it’s like a new symbol of the story of Jessie MacLachlan’s life.’

Mary Ann added: ‘It’s a way of bringing back to life the memory of a woman who contributed so much to music and language.

‘It reminds us how important it is for us to keep history alive, to keep our ancestry alive and it is especially a reminder that there is still hope for our language, for Gaelic in this country and abroad.’

The Celtic cross, set on a double plinth, has now been repinned, cleaned and the lead lettering revamped to have Jessie’s memorial anew, facing west and looking towards the Argyllshire hills once more.

Trusadh: Jessie N MacLachlan – Queen of Melody is available now on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.