Maeve Mackinnon

Even amid the wealth of gifted musicians thronging today’s Scottish folk scene, singer Maeve Mackinnon stands out as an exceptional young talent. With a repertoire spanning Gaelic and English-language material, both traditional and contemporary, she’s won acclaim equally for the eloquent emotional connection she forges with every song, communicated in a bewitchingly honeyed, husky yet vibrantly earthy voice, and for her music’s dynamic interplay of boldness and sensitivity. After winning major praise for her 2007 debut album Don’t Sing Love Songs – culminating in her winning Up and Coming Artist of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards, and a prestigious Classic Album show at Celtic Connections 2008 – she now releases her eagerly-awaited follow-up, Once Upon an Olive Branch, which also marks her first public foray into songwriting.

“Recording this one felt like quite a different process,” Maeve says. “I think with any first album you’re always quite on edge, trying to second-guess how people will respond to your stuff. But I feel I’ve become a lot more settled in myself since then; I’ve learned a lot through gigging and working on different projects, and I’ve gained in confidence from the reactions last time around. I felt much more freedom just to focus what I’d really like to sing, which initially led me back to songs I’d always loved as a child, and the idea of making the album a kind of homage to my roots. Then as the material came together, I realised there were other themes emerging: a lot of the songs centred on feelings of longing or hope, or a mixture of the two – which are often connected with feelings about home, so it all tied in very organically.”

Far from the customary “difficult” second album, then, Once Upon an Olive Branch gloriously parades Maeve’s enriched vocal range and maturity. Produced by celebrated instrumentalist and friend Angus Lyon, as well as being in company with such sought-after guests as Fraser Fifield on whistle, fiddler/guitarist Innes Watson, bassist James Lindsay and percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir, her lifelong affinity with most of the songs provides the springboard for an artistic spreading of wings that’s sure to extend her reputation as one of Scotland’s most creative vocal interpreters – and to launch it as a talented songsmith herself.

The album’s title is taken from its sole original composition, “The Olive Branch”, an arresting, groove-driven, potently allegorised reflection on the troubles in the Middle East, suffused with the longing for peace. “It’s an incredibly daunting thing,” Maeve says, “writing your own songs and putting them alongside traditional stuff, which has already stood the test of time, and songs by other writers who’ve inspired you. But as someone who has the opportunity to sing for a living and get radio play or whatever, I feel in a very privileged position, and I’m starting to become a bit more confident about using that in a positive way to raise issues I feel strongly about.”


This sense of a wider responsibility behind Maeve’s music derives directly from her upbringing in Glasgow’s working-class Partick district, where both her parents were highly active in causes such as trades unionism, the anti-apartheid movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

“Politics was a massive part of our lives,” Maeve recalls. “I pretty much learned to walk on protest marches, and I knew the anti-apartheid salute by the time I was two or three. Conversation round the dinner table was all about current affairs and human rights, and we’d often give up our beds for political refugees or visitors from Chile, South Africa, former Yugoslavia: this was pretty normal for us.”

Accompanying all this everyday activism was a richly varied soundtrack, laying the foundations for Maeve’s wide-ranging tastes of today – and ultimately for the lovingly-crafted collection that is Once Upon an Olive Branch. “A lot of it was political song, not surprisingly – but that meant everything from Bob Marley to The Laggan, Dick Gaughan to Bob Dylan, plus Latin American singers like Victor Jara, so I learned early on to listen for songs that had some kind of social conscience, and more broadly always to listen to the words,” she says. “My Dad was also a big blues and jazz fan, all the classic stuff – Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday – and I remember a lot of Beatles and Eagles, too: there was always some kind of music round the house.”

Singing, too, was an integral part of the domestic fabric – “I just sang loads around the house, right from when I was a wee girl: you couldn’t shut me up” – a pastime which, for Maeve, gradually acquired a deeper significance during regular family holidays on the Hebridean island of Jura, home to just a couple of hundred souls. “Mum and Dad had been going there since before I was born, and it was a place that stirred up a lot in me,” she says. “I was always quite shy and self-conscious about singing in front of other people, but at ceilidhs in people’s houses on Jura they’d always persuade me to do a song, gave me loads of encouragement, which really helped bring me out of my shell.”

It was also on Jura that Maeve was first inspired by Gaelic song, partly from listening to a friend’s grandfather, the island’s last surviving native Gaelic speaker, and partly through hearing Capercaillie’s 1992 hit ‘Còisich A Ruin’ – the first Gaelic song to reach the UK Top 40 – on the radio there the summer she turned 11. “I remember it really vividly,” she says of the latter. “I was just completely blown away: I’d never heard anything like it, though I knew it was Gaelic – and I knew I wanted to hear more.

“Dad’s father was from Skye, so there had been Gaelic speakers in his family, but his dad was of the generation who were discouraged from using it. Mainly I just loved the songs and the sound of the language, but looking back now, given how Gaelic seemed very much in decline at that point, I think the underdog element was also part of the appeal – not that it became a ‘cause’ or anything, but it kind of chimed with all the politics stuff at home.”

She began learning the language aged 17, and just a couple of years later – despite her complete lack of formal music qualifications – won a place on the Scottish Music degree course at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), majoring in Gaelic song. After graduating in 2004, she gained a year’s scholarship to continue her studies at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the pioneering Gaelic college in Skye. She was taught at the RSAMD by two of Gaeldom’s most highly esteemed singers, Kenna Campbell, of renowned Skye dynasty the Campbells of Greepe, and South Uist’s Mairi MacInnes. “They certainly put me through my paces,” Maeve says appreciatively. “It was a really productive time for me, not just for my singing, but my confidence as well. Besides the actual teaching, it was just the whole thing of being surrounded by loads of really good musicians, all in the one place: it just makes you want to improve.”


Soon after completing her degree, Maeve was a finalist in that year’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year contest, run by Scotland’s Hands Up For Trad development agency. Though she didn’t win, the distinctiveness of her performance so caught the ear of the organisation’s director Simon Thoumire (also MD of leading folk label Footstompin’ Records) that he signed her on the spot to record Don’t Sing Love Songs – subsequently hailed by Scotland On Sunday as “one of the most absorbing albums to be released in Scotland in a long time”.

Since that debut success, in addition to building her solo career, Maeve has found herself increasingly in demand across a variety of other projects. Over the last few years she’s toured with hotly-tipped folk/electronica outfit Sketch and film/music show The Island Tapes, recorded with flute/whistle supremo Mike McGoldrick, and is soon to release an album with Irish Gaelic singer Gráinne Holland as part of a new cross-cultural lineup, Nasc. Her steadily growing reputation was further affirmed by two more Scots Trad Music Awards nominations, for Gaelic Singer of the Year, in 2008 and 2011.

Also in 2011, she was commissioned by BBC Scotland, with funding from Creative Scotland, to compose The Exile, an ambitious original song suite linking the experiences and cultures of Gaels and Africans displaced to the New World, featuring four movements, three languages and two choirs. Following Maeve’s appointment in 2012 as an Associate Gaelic Artist for the National Theatre of Scotland, an exciting new vocal-led project is currently under development for theatre.

All the while, though, Once Upon an Olive Branch has been gradually in gestation, as these wide-ranging experiences, including extensive international touring, eventually brought Maeve back to some of those touchstone songs from her childhood. “I’ve been a massive Dick Gaughan fan from a very young age, and obviously Ewan MacColl was a big hero in our house,” she says, explaining her heart-tugging inclusion of the latter’s ‘The Father’s Song’, which she first heard in Gaughan’s version. The feistily funked-up Irish song ‘Fionnghuala’ pays tribute to another early inspiration, The Bothy Band, while the traditional, hauntingly bittersweet valediction ‘Kind Friends and Companions’ and a boldly arrayed North Uist work song, ‘Gilleasbuig’, hearken back to those summer ceilidhs on Jura. ‘Sugartown”, originally by Irish folk-rockers The Saw Doctors, is a poignant contemporary reflection on once-thriving communities in decline, as the young folk leave to find work, an experience common to much of Scotland. Maeve also tackles that formidably timeless classic ‘She Moved Through the Fair’, which she’s known as long as she can remember, and pulls off the feat of making it stunningly her own.


The sensuously shaded timbres and vividly nuanced expression of Maeve’s voice are more firmly to the fore than ever, in all their opulent variety, with the jazz and blues inflections of her debut release still subtly discernible, though more fully absorbed within the whole. Together with the album’s adventurous yet unerringly tasteful arrangements, it’s a sound that simultaneously encompasses both her deep musical roots and her life as a 21st century urban travelling musician – as well as sharing the fundamental delight she finds in her vocation.

“Singing’s been such a vital part of my life, in so many ways,” she affirms. “When I’ve gone through changes or difficult times, I’ve been able to channel it singing. And having the chance to communicate the stories within the songs to so many other people – that’s given me the most tremendous highs. I just feel very, very lucky to do what I do.”

  • Sue Wilson
Photo: Martin Forry

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