‘Fonn’: The life and times of the Campbells of Greepe

ROGER HUTCHINSON on books

The word ‘fonn’ means melody. ‘Fonn’ is the title of a wholly melodious history of one remarkable musical family: the Campbells (and their offshoots) of Greepe in Skye.

In an island of small communities, Greepe is tiny. But in a region where the littlest places produce the largest talents, we should not be surprised that a remote cluster of crofthouses around the northern inlets of Loch Bracadale has issued some of Scotland’s greatest musicians.

They occasionally perform as Na Cambeulaich and they were and are mostly Campbells, with some dashes of Montgomery, MacInnes, MacSween, Ross and others.  The current generation derives from Seumas Campbell and his wife Mary Ann MacLeod, who settled in Greepe in 1936 and who died in the years 2000 and 1990 respectively.

The-Gold-Medalists

The only picture of the seven family gold medallists, taken at Wilma’s wedding in 1997

The sister, children and grandchildren of Seumas and Mary Ann have taken home no fewer than 10 gold medals from National Mods between the late 1950s and two years ago. (No fewer, but possibly more: the total of 10 is the result of rudimentary addition.)

That in itself would be an amazing haul. We know those gold medallists, of course, as Seonag Campbell, as Seumas Campbell, as Anna and Maggie Michie, as Kenna Campbell, as Kenna’s daughters Mary Ann and Wilma Kennedy. They are the latest blooms of a family which has been singing for centuries, and some of them are internationally renowned.

‘Fonn’ is this extraordinary family’s story. It is a big and varied book. It is lavishly illustrated throughout. Its first half is devoted to their life and times. Its second half is a compilation of their music. ‘Fonn’ is presented bilingually in Gaelic and English. It is, in short, a perfect seasonal gift.

In the interviews with family members which make up a good part of ‘Fonn’ we find the story, not only of the Campbells, but also of the townships around Greepe over the past 100 years. We learn — surprise! — that piping and singing was hereditary in Seumas Campbell’s line.

“Music and singing,” recalls Kenna of her girlhood, “were so natural to us, like drawing breath.” Kenna’s daughter Wilma remembers that “There was just music happening, not constantly, it was something natural. It was something that you did… At the time you didn’t realise that it was something special because you thought, well, everyone sings.”

Wider recognition of their talents first began in 1954, when the 17-year-old Kenna Campbell, then a student at Portree High School, went to Edinburgh to sing peurt-a-beul on a nationally-broadcast St Andrew’s Night television show in the company of Kenneth McKellar and other “leading Scottish variety artistes”. In 1957 Aunt Seonag won the gold medal at the National Mod in Glasgow. Two years later Seonag’s niece Kenna, who was then 22 years old, repeated the achievement.

Brother Seumas did the same in the men’s section in Stirling in 1971. Sister Ann won the traditional gold medal at Ayr in 1973. The Campbells had by then decided to do what any self-respecting bunch of singers did in the 1960s and 1970s. They started a group.

As they were mostly living away, Ann, Seumas and Kenna called their band Na h-Eilthirich. In the company of Iain Young the three siblings won the folk-singing competition at the 1972 Mod in Inverness.

That last fact is of course the giveaway. Na h-Eilthirich looked better than two-thirds of Peter, Paul and Mary, they had superior material to Peter, Paul and Mary and they certainly sang better than Peter and Paul. But their medium was Gaelic.

Na h-Eilthirich were not entirely alone. They were among a few pioneers who in the early 1970s decided to offer Gaelic on the same popular musical stage which had for a couple of decades been an almost exclusive province of English language music, whether or not it was sung by Kenneth McKellar. Somewhere else in Skye at around the same time, two MacDonald brothers were hawking their Run R­ig Dance Band from hall to hall.

Kenna’s daughter Mary Ann Kennedy was born in 1967. “I reckon my earliest memory is of Mam and Seumas and Ann — Na h-Eilthirich — singing in the front room… So music, and Gaelic, and the family’s music in particular, is the first thing I remember,” she recalls.

With a background and an upbringing like that, Mary Ann and her younger sister Wilma had a certain responsibility. Fortunately they also had a lot of talent. Just as Kenna remembers performing in Dunvegan Hall when she was seven or eight, and Seamas at the Portree Mod when he was five, so did Kenna get her daughters Wilma and Mary Ann to discipline their vocal cords shortly after they could walk.

The two girls leapfrogged each other in medal competitions right up to the National Mod itself. And there — for Mary Ann in Glasgow in 1988 and for Wilma in Dingwall in 1991 — they filled what had come to be a family destiny by taking the gold medal.

They are, naturally, still singing. Those Campbells of Greepe command much larger and wider audiences now, whether individually or on those precious occasions when the generations share a platform and a couple of microphones.

They are a phenomenon. It took an exceptional book to do them justice. ‘Fonn’ is that book.

‘Fonn: The Campbells of Greepe’; Acair, £30