Skye Olympian launches charity album in honour of life-saving sister

Karen MacLeod
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

An Olympian from Skye whose life was saved by her sister has teamed up with top Scottish folk acts to raise funds for Highlands and Islands renal services through a new charity album.

Karen Nicolson, formerly MacLeod, enjoyed a fantastic career in athletics at the elite level.

Her achievements included finishing 45th in the marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and a fourth-place finish in the marathon at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Canada, as well as numerous victories across the UK and Europe from Bath to Bordeaux.

Karen, who was brought up in Kyleakin and now lives in Edinbane, finished running in 1998 when her career was brought to an abrupt end during the Boston Marathon, an event she was unable to complete after falling ill.

Recalling that race, she told the Free Press: “That’s where it all came home to me that something was properly wrong.

“I got the worst cramp ever all over my body and I had to stop in the race — I had only got 14 miles into it.

“Once I got home, I got some tests done and discovered that I had a condition called IgA nephropathy.

“Apparently, a lot of Japanese marathon runners — many males, have been known to have it.

“Because it attacks your immune system, I think it had come about with me because I had tried to keep training hard while I had a virus and wasn’t listening to my body.”

Karen’s sister, Deborah, who works in the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh as a research manager, looked into the condition and declared: “Well, if you need a kidney, you’re going to have mine, you won’t need anyone else’s!”

Karen added: “We had a silly joke between us. When we were younger I had eaten a bit of steak from the frying pan that was meant for her, so she said you had the steak so you might as well have the kidney too!”

Karen, who was living in Bath at the time, was told by her renal consultant that she would require a transplant by 2008. “He was bang on!” said Karen.

Recounting the frightening events as they later unfolded, she added: “It all came to a head one weekend when I was in bed.

“My sister was over in Uist and asked if she could drop in on me in Skye on her way back to Edinburgh — but I had said not to bother, but she did and after taking one look at me, she said: ‘This is really bad’.

“I had to go immediately to Raigmore and I literally hobbled into the hospital with my husband as I was in so much pain.”

Karen told the Free Press that Deborah was prepared straight away, having already undergone all the necessary tests in Edinburgh.
“I was able to have the transplant after four weeks of emergency dialysis because of Deborah’s actions,” said Karen.

Now 12 years on from her life-saving operation, and on the 60th anniversary of the first living donation, Karen decided it was high time the focus switched to all those who had given their kidneys to save others.

“Though I know Deborah would say seeing me well again was all she wanted, the purpose of the CD is to somehow say thank you in a tribute tune to her, but also raise awareness and funds for the renal services and kidney patients’ associations.”

The CD, entitled ‘Back on the Floor,’ is a nod to the fact that, after her transplant, Karen was able to get back on the dance floor and dance her favourite dance once again.

‘Back on the Floor’ comprises 17 tracks, some new and some kindly donated from a huge roster of talent including Skipinnish, Tidelines, Donnie Munro, Trail West (featuring Malcolm Jones), Kathleen MacInnes, Beinn Lee, Archie & Farquhar, Peat & Diesel, Isy MacLean and many more.

Photo: Archie MacFarlane

Archie MacFarlane (pictured), who helped produce the CD, said: “It was a challenge putting it all together over lockdown with studios being closed and musicians being unable to travel but, somehow, with the wonders of modern technology we managed to get some new tracks recorded and get it all put together and release ready.”

Karen said: “Archie was great to work with.

“I’d always wanted Archie to compose the waltz and schottische, based on a waltz he had previously composed.

“All I really did on top of that was to contact the bands, singers, and musicians to ask if they would donate a certain track based on the themes of dance, life, and giving.”

Karen added: “This album is dedicated to my sister Deborah – ‘The Wee BB’ – and all the renal staff involved at Royal Infirmary and Raigmore’s Renal Unit back in 2008. It will also hopefully raise awareness of the fantastic work being done by renal services in some of Scotland’s most remote regions.”

The album is available for £10 via the website
All proceeds from the CD will be donated to the Highlands and Islands Kidney Patients Association and the Kidney Patients Association of the Western Isles.