A two-year lockdown project to restore the memory of one of Scotland’s greatest singers came to fruition in May 2022, when the magnificent memorial cross over the grave of Jessie MacLachlan and her partner in life and music, Robert Buchanan, was reinstated in one of Glasgow’s most historic and enigmatic graveyards, Cathcart Cemetery.
The Celtic cross marks the final resting place of a young Gaelic-speaking woman from a modest background in the west Highland town of Oban, who became one of the greatest musical stars of the Victorian era and the toast of royalty.
Jessie toured Europe and the British Empire - New Zealand, North America, Australia - topping the bill wherever she went and connecting with emigré Scots the world over, especially those who longed to hear their native Gaelic tongue.
She died however at a very early age, not quite fifty: her memory faded with the years and the cross erected in her memory toppled into complete disrepair.
Dr Priscilla Scott, Prof Wilson MacLeod and Mary Ann Kennedy banded together to raise the funds to restore and reinstate the stone, and to raise awareness of Jessie's remarkable legacy - not least as the first voice ever to be recorded in Gaelic. Her memorial now stands once more in a prominent position, looking out towards Jessie's beloved Argyllshire hills.
Dr Priscilla Scott has written extensively about women in the Gaelic movement of the late 19th and early 20th century and shares here some more detail on Jessie’s life:
“The name Jessie Niven MacLachlan is not one that many people will recognise now but she was widely known in her day, celebrated for her expressive and captivating performance of Scottish and Gaelic song. During her career she sang in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the world, bridging the gulf of separation from home, language and culture for many of those who flocked to hear her sing.
Born in Oban in 1866, with connections to Mull on her father’s side, the unique quality of her voice was recognised in her youth. Early in her career, she returned to her hometown to sing at the evening concert of the first Mòd of An Comunn Gàidhealach in 1892. A few weeks later she was invited to perform for Queen Victoria at Balmoral, when her repertoire of Gaelic and Scottish songs included ‘Fear a’ Bhàta’ and ‘Hò rò mo nighean donn bhòidheach’.
Despite her stardom, Jessie MacLachlan remained loyal to her Gaelic roots and to her Highland name, communicating a positive message for Gaelic and its place in the modern world. In 1899, she was the first Gaelic singer to be recorded on gramophone, and through these recordings we can today get a sense of her glorious soprano voice. Her last public performance was at the Amsterdam Opera House in New York State in 1914.
After travelling home during the turmoil of the outbreak of WW1, she was in poor health, and died in May 1916. Restoring the stone cross that marks her final resting place in Cathcart Cemetery in Glasgow, ‘facing the west and looking towards the Argyllshire hills’, is the least we can do to honour this remarkable woman.
Jessie MacLachlan’s family connections on both sides were rooted in Argyll; in Oban, Mull, Lismore and Appin. It has been a pleasure to have been put in touch with one of her relatives on the Niven side, Morag Forbes, whose late mother, Rhona Black, kept the memory of Jessie MacLachlan alive in the family, and we are very grateful for Morag’s enthusiasm and support for the project.”
Mary Ann Kennedy Live performance in Cathcart cemetery with Finlay Wells
Fundraising including a public crowdfunder raised over £8K, including donations from many of the places that Jessie toured around the globe.