TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Precious legacy of Barra’s Annie Johnston 

The youngsters on stage in Castlebay

A recent initiative has helped to share Barra’s rich musical tradition with the islands youth. Flòraidh Forrest, director of the Tobar an Dualchais project, and researcher Fraser MacRobert explain the significance…..

Thanks to funding from the ‘Maoin nan Ealain Gàidhlig’ scheme, Tobar an Dualchais have recently had the privilege of working with Barra singer Claire Frances MacNeil to tap into the rich store of songs from island featured on our website, sharing them with and teaching them to the local youngsters.  

These songs were performed at a ceilidh in Castlebay on Saturday 25th March, and thanks to the local community and especially music teacher Lisa MacNeil, the night was an overwhelming success.

Annie Johnston

Plenty folk turned out to see the talented young people of Barra sing these recently acquired songs. They were joined by music students from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, keen to immerse themselves in the island’s Gaelic musical heritage. Solo spots were given to local singers Lisa MacNeil, John Joe MacNeil and Ann Marie Maclean and school pupils, Aithne, Annie and Maya.

The fèis band also had a slot, and there was much whooping and clapping (mostly from the other children) when they seamlessly went from ‘Fàgail Bharraigh’ to ‘Fr John MacMillian of Barra’ – classic Barra tunes. 

The pipe band performed their recent freestyle entry for the Scottish schools pipe band championship, which kicked off with a beautiful rendition of ‘Gruagach Òg an Fhuilt Bhain’, the song written by South Uist Bard, Donald Allan MacDonald (Dòmhnaill Ailean Dhòmhnaill na Bainich) for the beautiful Barra woman Mòrag NicAmhlaigh (Mòr Bhàn), after he was regretfully was unable to walk her home after the South Uist Highland Games dance. 

The ceilidh was brought to a close with the song ‘Teannaibh leam Fhearraibh’ composed by the Barra Bard Donald MacKinnon (Dòmhnaill Iain Nìll Eòin – Rabbie) which the pupils learnt from a recording of the bard’s mother singing it on Tobar an Dualchais (TAD ID 19611).

The children (and the adults) sung the song with gusto and pride as they praised their ‘eilean beag maiseach’ (bonny wee island). 


Throughout the night references were made to the great Gaelic tradition-bearers from Barra whose recordings are available on TAD, including Nan MacKinnon, Captain Donald Joseph MacKinnon (An Eòsag), Calum Johnston, Kate Buchanan, and Annie Johnston.

All these people are important in their own right, but Annie Johnston can be set apart in some ways, her contribution to folklore recordings is what we aspired to achieve with this project.

Clare Francis MacNeil

The continuity that is achieved through teaching young people their own songs, stories and customs is something that Annie nurtured and encouraged throughout her life, and – more than 130 years since her birth – it is worth taking the time to reflect on her life and achievements which continue to resonate with and inspire us to this day. 

Annie Johnston (Annag Aonghais Chaluim Bhàin ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Chaluim) was a Gaelic tradition-bearer, folklore collector, activist, and teacher from the Isle of Barra.

Born in the late 1880s, she was raised in a community which was rich in Gaelic language and culture, but one which was also still coming to terms with the decades of displacement, famine and institutional neglect which had blighted the island for the larger part of the 19th century. 

Annie was one of eight children born to Catherine MacNeil (Catrìona Aonghais ’ic Dhòmhnaill Mhòir) and Angus Johnston (Aonghas Chaluim Bhàin). 

Her mother was originally from the – now uninhabited – Isle of Sandray, and it was from her that Annie learned many of her songs and stories.

She was especially known for her vast knowledge of òrain bheaga – short songs which were especially popular with children, and òran luaidh – waulking songs, many of which were recorded, and which now feature on the Tobar an Dualchais website. 

Although a tradition-bearer in her own right, Annie was known throughout her life for her ability to encourage and empower others to share their rich stores of song and story.

A schoolteacher of young children by profession, she used her status in the community and her nurturing nature to encourage neighbours, friends, and family to be recorded by folklorists and collectors who visited Barra.

When Marjory Kennedy-Fraser visited in the 1920s, Annie would invite groups of older women to her parents’ home, where she would encourage them to sing while Kennedy-Fraser recorded them.

John Lorne Campbell’s arrival in Barra in the 1930s would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration and friendship between Annie and John. Similar to the help she offered Kennedy-Fraser, Annie would use her privileged position in the community – independently and as part of the Barra Folklore Committee – to reach out and encourage people to be recorded by Campbell.

She also worked with Campbell and supplied him with local information for publications, which included his edition of Father Allan MacDonald’s ‘Gaelic Words from South Uist’ (1958), as well as ‘Deoch-slàinte nan Gillean’ (1948), ‘Gaelic Folksongs from the Isle of Barra’ (1950) and ‘Stories from South Uist’ (1961).

She often visited John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw in Canna, following their purchase of and relocation to the island in the late 1930s.

Following the establishment of the BBC and of Gaelic broadcasting, Annie took full advantage of the new technology and contributed greatly through the broadcasting of songs for Gaelic radio programmes, contributing over forty songs between 1947 and 1962. She also featured in broadcasts of the Royal National Mòd, and two such recordings can be found on the Tobar and Dualchais website – ‘Coisich a Rùin’ [Track ID: 40960] agus ‘Tha an Oidhche a-nochd Fuar’ [Track ID: 40956].


The legacy and reach of Annie’s dedication and encouragement of Gaelic culture did not stop at Castlebay Pier.

From the 1920s until her death she nurtured a strong connection with the Gaels of Nova Scotia, keeping in touch with many of them by letter and also through contributions to Nova Scotia publications such as ‘Mosgladh’ – the Scottish Catholic Society Magazine, and to Achadh nan Gàidheal – the weekly Gaelic column in the Antigonish newspaper The Casket, which was edited by Msgr PJ Nicholson – a Professor of Physics at Saint Francis Xavier University from Cape Breton.

In 1954, Annie journeyed across the Atlantic, visiting Nova Scotia and Boston, visiting fellow Gaels and often also collecting folklore from them.

The transatlantic trip had a profound effect on Annie, and in a letter to Msgr Nicholson she stated that she enjoyed it more than anything else in her lifetime.

She made reference to the kindness and generosity of the people, especially in the Grand Narrows of Cape Breton, where she stated that she was so happy she wondered if she might have been in the ‘Sìthean’ – the Fairy Mound.  

Annie was also recorded extensively in her own right, and there are over 160 recordings of her on the Tobar an Dualchais website spanning from 1938 until 1962 from all three of our partner archives.

Amongst the earliest of these recordings is a rendition of the children’s song ‘Tobar, Tobar, Sìolaidh’ [Track ID: 27063] from the Canna Collection – a song that would be sung by children at the well when fetching water.

Other notable recordings include ‘Cainnt nan Eun’ [Track ID: 27097] – a compilation of rhymes imitating native birds, and ‘Brà Brà Bleith’ [Track ID: 62331] – a rendition of a quern song, recorded in 1951.

She is also listed as a fieldworker on a number of recordings, most notably for those of Mrs Mary Johston (Màiri Mhòr Iain Choinnich) of Glen, Barra [Person ID: 1091]. 

Back to the present and Barra is lucky to have the likes of Claire Frances MacNeil and Lisa MacNeil who, like Annie Johnston, inspire young people in Barra to continue learning their own songs and stories. 

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.