Islanders’ Stories Brought to Life by Musician a Century After Mass Emigration

Estimated read time 2 min read

Gaelic singer Mairi MacMillan has produced a breathtaking rendition of a centuries-old island song, portraying life on South Uist during the 1920s. The emotional single, Fàgail Bhornais, was originally written by Donald MacDonald from Bòrnais in South Uist. The track captures the essence of island life before the mass exodus that saw over 300 Hebrideans board the SS Marloch, headed for Eastern Canada, in 1923. At a time when Islanders faced famine and widespread unemployment, leaving home was the only option for many. It’s a profound reflection on Scottish heritage and the bittersweet emotions tied to emigration. Mairi’s vocals, accompanied by Allan Henderson’s beautiful piano playing, shine throughout the track, depicting the heartfelt farewell of a departing friend, regretfully leaving Bòrnais behind in search of a better life in Canada. The track was recorded on the island in February last year and concludes Mairi’s latest project Marloch 23 – Gu Fada Dhan lar. Despite not being released as part of the initial collection, the rendition of Fàgail Bhornais is a poignant individual tribute which Mairi was keen to share. ‘January 2024 is 100 years on from when Scots would have had their first ever New Year away from home, so I wanted to mark that anniversary with this release,’ she said. ‘The song has been sung in different melodies over the years, but this is the best-known version, and also my favorite, so I wanted to give it its own place. Fàgail Bhornais is a tribute to the deep-rooted emotions tied to leaving one’s homeland and the profound connections we hold onto. Being from South Uist myself, I feel a strong connection to the song and its lyrics, which I hope to share through this rendition. ‘It is hard to imagine the feeling of leaving home in the early 20th century, when making contact with loved ones was either extremely difficult or impossible. What it must have been like for those emigrating, not knowing what was ahead of them, when or if they would return, it’s hard to comprehend.’ To support her upcoming single, which will be out on 19 January, Mairi will also release a podcast sharing information on the period of emigration, the original composer of the track, and what life would have looked like in Bòrnish, South Uist in the 1920s 1923.

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