NEW light is being shed on an early supporter of Scottish independence who was a pioneering but controversial collector of traditional music.

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, who also supported women’s suffrage, became aware Gaelic folk songs were in danger of disappearing when she made a visit to the island of Eriskay from her home in Edinburgh in 1905.

Fired by the desire to preserve and celebrate the musical riches of the islands’ people, she began collecting songs of the Hebrides and also made films providing a snapshot of her work and the culture of the people.

The films are now to be presented with music from award-winning singer Mairi Campbell (below) The National: Mairi Campbell.and narration from acclaimed performer and storyteller Marion Kenny during a tour of Scotland called Journey to the Isles.

While some criticised Kennedy-Fraser’s arrangements, which often altered the original tunes and lyrics to suit the musical tastes of the early 20th century, she has now been given credit for her field recordings and also for inspiring other composers, as well as drawing attention to the richness of Gaelic culture.

Even the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean softened his opinion on her work after first protesting: “This Celtic Twilight never bore any earthy relation to anything in Gaelic life.”

While they may have been seen through a Celtic mist, Kennedy-Fraser’s collections attracted a lot of notice, with the Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing often performing her songs in his recitals in the UK and the United States.

Kennedy-Fraser also gave a recital of the folk songs in New York at the Aeolian Hall, accompanied by her daughter Patuffa, a clarsach and piano player.

In its review, the New York Times said: “The music itself is most interesting. The subjects range from poetic rhapsodies founded on the natural features of the islands or its life to the homelier songs that are sung as an accompaniment to various forms of manual labour. They are prefaced generally with a short talk explaining their origin and the manner in which they were heard and written down.”

Born in Perth, Kennedy-Fraser’s father David was a well-known Scottish singer and as a child she played the piano for him on his tours in Scotland and beyond. It was a musical family but three of her siblings, James, Kate and Lizzie, died tragically in a theatre fire in France in 1881.

As an adult and extra-academical student at Edinburgh University’s music school, Kennedy-Fraser began gathering Breton and Gaelic folk songs.

She married Alexander Fraser in 1887 but was widowed just three years later when she was only 33.

With two small children to look after, Kennedy-Fraser moved in with her mother and two sisters at their home in Edinburgh where she became friendly with the painter John Duncan, who shared her interest in a Celtic revival.

Visiting Eriskay with Duncan in 1905, she realised the Gaelic folk songs were in danger of disappearing because of population decline in the Hebrides and began visiting the islands regularly to collect them using a wax cylinder phonograph, later arranging them for clarsach, piano and voice.

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FOUR volumes of songs, with translation to English by the Rev Kenneth MacLeod, were eventually published. One of the songs became widely known as the Eriskay Love Lilt.

During her lifetime, Kennedy-Fraser was known for her support of the women’s right to vote, as well as Scottish independence, and sometimes used the songs she collected to promote her views.

In acknowledgement of her work as a musician and collector, she was awarded a CBE and an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Edinburgh University in 1928. She donated her archive to the university just before she died in 1930. The wax cylinder recordings were re-recorded on tape years later and recently digitised.

The tour starts at An Talla, Tiree, on September 23, and finishes at Eden Court in Inverness on October 17.