Nan MacKinnon (Nan Eachainn Fhionnlaigh) lived from 12 December 1902 to 24 June 1982. She was a traditional singer and storyteller on Vatersay. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Nan MacKinnon was born on Barra, the daughter of a fisherman, Hector MacKinnon and his wife Mary MacPhee. At the age of four she moved with her family to the neighbouring island of Vatersay. During the 1930s and 1940s she brought up the children of her late sister.
What set Nan MacKinnon apart was her apparently inexhaustible memory for the traditional folklore and songs of Vatersay. In 1931 the population of the island stood at 240. It had diminished to about 100 by the time of her death. She was also the last surviving link with the songs and folklore of the nearby island of Mingulay, whose population had fallen from 135 in 1901 to northing at all in 1912.
Nan MacKinnon was first "discovered" by Donald MacPherson of Barra. Later on, the University of Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies recorded her singing 600 songs she knew, and relating over 1000 stories, anecdotes and proverbs. Her singing voice was highly unusual, and debate continues to this day as to whether she simply had a unique personal style, or represented the last survivor of a now lost traditional style. She died on Vatersay in 1982.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".