Joan Mackenzie

Biography by

Joan Mackenzie was a vital link to the fading traditions of Celtic folk music, preserving the songs and stories of Scotland's Western Isles both as a singer and as an intrepid archivist. Born September…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Joan Mackenzie was a vital link to the fading traditions of Celtic folk music, preserving the songs and stories of Scotland's Western Isles both as a singer and as an intrepid archivist. Born September 2, 1929, in Stornoway, on the Outer Hebrides isle of Lewis, Mackenzie (Seonag NicCoinnich in her native tongue) spent her childhood steeped in Gaelic folklore: her mother was a singer, and her grandmother was a storyteller of considerable local renown, passing the traditional songs of the Western Isles -- music of hardship and melancholy -- down to her grandchildren. While a student at Stornoway's Nicolson Institute, Mackenzie began performing publicly, often at the home of retired schoolteacher Nan Dag. As word of her clear, poignant voice and extensive repertoire spread, she was invited to appear across the Western Isles, encouraged by song collector Calum MacLean to seek out new material in her travels. After World War II, Mackenzie relocated to Glasgow to earn her teaching certificate from Jordanhill College. In 1951, she entered the Royal National Mod, an annual festival celebrating Gaelic culture, and won the traditional vocal contest, a feat she repeated four years running. In time the School of Scottish Studies of Edinburgh University gave Mackenzie a tape recorder to document the songs she discovered in her travels, and in the years to follow she was a staple of BBC radio broadcasts, performing these traditional folk ballads while School of Scottish Studies professor James Read discussed their origins and meaning. Mackenzie was also a recurring presence on the BBC series Se Ur Beatha, performed with the Edin Sisters, and for the Gaelfonn cut a pair of commercial recordings, decades later collected on CD as part of the Greentrax label's Gaelic Song: Scottish Tradition Series. During the early '60s Mackenzie gradually retired from performing to concentrate on raising a family. She and her husband also launched careers as wine merchants. She died in Edinburgh on May 13, 2007.