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MacAskill [née MacIver], Isabella Margaret [Ishbel] [Iseabail NicAsgaill]locked

  • Iona MacDonald

MacAskill [née MacIver], Isabella Margaret [Ishbel] [Iseabail NicAsgaill] (1941–2011), Gaelic singer, was born near Edinburgh on 14 March 1941. On 16 February 1942 she was adopted by Allan MacIver, a weaver then serving as an able seaman with the Royal Naval Reserve, and his wife, Christina, née Macleod, of 2 Broker, Portnaguran, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. She attended the local high school, the Nicolson Institute, before moving to Glasgow to take a secretarial studies course at Stow College. She was employed as a shorthand typist in Glasgow when she met a sales representative, William Wilson (Bill) MacAskill (1930–2011), a native of Lochinver in Sutherland, son of Murdo MacAskill, crofter. They married on 6 March 1964, at the Free Church of Scotland in Kenneth Street, Stornoway. For the next fifteen years or so she concentrated on raising her family of three sons and one daughter, Lewis, Joanne, William, and Tormod.

It was while she was singing at a fringe event during the National Mòd in Stornoway in 1979 that Ishbel MacAskill's discovery by a local music producer, Noel Eadie, led to her taking up a musical career. Singing was not one of the household's activities as she was growing up, although she sang to herself almost as soon as she could talk. As a member of various choirs, she had never considered her own voice to be suitable for competitive solo singing. Nevertheless she had a rich, distinctive, and powerful voice, and soon became recognized as one of the finest Gaelic singers of her generation. She recorded four solo albums in her career, showcasing her wide repertoire, and featured on several compilations. She felt a strong affinity with the music of the highland bagpipe, and included several songs from a long piping tradition in her performances. A frequent concert artist, and with several television appearances to her name, she also acted in the STV Gaelic soap opera Machair, in which she played the shopkeeper, Nora.

Eager to encourage young Gaels to participate in their own culture, Ishbel MacAskill was in demand as a tutor in the Fèis movement (the Gaelic arts tuition-based festivals for young people aged eight to eighteen), a role in which she excelled. Her deep knowledge and understanding of the songs which she chose to share was evident to her peers, and appreciated by her young protégés. She was a strong advocate of traditional learning methods, and used them to good effect. When the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton high school was under threat, shortly before her death, she campaigned strongly for its reprieve.

MacAskill's reputation as a singer extended far beyond the boundaries of highland Scotland, and she developed an extensive international following. She received many invitations to perform elsewhere in the world, the USA, Australia, Israel, South Korea, and Ukraine being among the countries that she visited. She was given the appellation 'Gaelic Diva', which she both relished and mocked in equal measure. Arthur Cormack, her brother-in-arms in the Gaelic music world, described her as the 'golden voice of Gaelic song' (BBC website, 1 April 2011). Her musical tastes extended wider than the Hebridean shores of her youth, however, and blues and country songs were part of her informal repertoire.

Ishbel MacAskill died following a fall at her home in Inverness, on 31 March 2011. No funeral was held as she left her body to medical research. Her husband, Bill, died exactly seven months later; they were survived by their four children. A memorial concert in the company of family and friends was held for her at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 16 June 2011. The artists were among some of the most prominent names in Gaelic and folk music, and featured a group of young musicians from the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton which included her grandson, Charlie Grey. A further memorial concert was held at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Lewis, on 18 October 2011 as part of the Mòd nan Eilean Siar programme of events.


  • The Times (11 April 2011)



  • performance and interview recordings,