Sunday 28 August 2016


CD Review


There is something endearingly genuine about Donald MacNeill as he opens up about his life on Colonsay in what is a musical scrapbook and something of a very personal journey. His storytelling style of singing lies somewhere between Dick Gaughan and Leonard Cohen and the clarity of his vocals and strength of his lyrics draws you into the stories from the first syllable.

Roberto Diana and Donald MacNeill
This new album of songs about his life, family, growing up on a Scottish island and wider world views is a collaboration with Sardinian multi-instrumentalist Roberto Diana.
MacNeill and the renowned guitarist Diana met while he was working on another album in Italy and the story goes that a throwaway remark led to this album.
There is something earthy and honest about MacNeill's songs and the perfect example is the wonderfully titled My Mother Rode Her Motorbike. The song tells of life during the war for his parents and the devastating affects the horrors had on his parents. It's really part one of his musical biographies of his mother and father, the second being Man of the Land.
The latter is a subtle, thought provoking and emotional song which couldn't have been easy to write for MacNeill, let alone record it for the rest of the world to hear, but record it he has and you feel both the regret and kindness in his voice.
They sound very simple tunes but besides MacNeill, Diana plays no less than six instruments with further layers added by Jeff Lewis and Mario Careddu.
No Tears, No Chains is a song of migration which never lived up to expectations. The Darochs left Colonsay to make a new life in Canada but found the depression of the 1920s they were leaving behind had arrived in the new land before them. The simple ballad tells the story of their trials and eventual return to make a life back home in Scotland.
The lyrics are stark, honest and accompanied perfectly by straightforward guitar strumming to add to the dour feel of the story.
MacNeill's island home relies a great deal on tourism but here his song, Solitary Traveller, picks out the visitors who skirt around his home turf but never really add anything to the lives or economy of the small community. It is a low key song with Diana's playing adding much more colour and texture to what is essentially MacNeill having a musical gripe.
Julie and Jennifer Nicholson
Brightest Star is a heart-breaking ballad about Jennifer Nicholson who, aged 24, left for work one morning and the last that was heard of her was a text to her mother Julie. She was the victim of the London terror attack on July 7 2005. MacNeill, accompanied on vocals by his daughter Jen, tries in song to find some comprehension or empathy for what Jennifer's mother felt and continue to live with.
On a much lighter note with The Hall In '59 MacNeill gets all nostalgic for the dances which were such a feature of community life on Colonsay. He narrates a story of islanders putting on their glad rags and all meeting for the social highlight of the week as they danced occasionally to live bands but mostly to records.
MacNeill has a wonderful knack of finding inspiration in the most mundane and ordinary of daily life and The Journey is a perfect example. A simple tale of the one of the few times, as a child, he left the island for the mainland which involved a tractor ride to the ferry. MacNeill's lyrics create a vivid picture of the journey and the full travelling sound which belies the simple trip is something Bruce Springsteen would be proud of.
As a child it obviously made a massive impression on MacNeill for him to relate the experience where he keeps the wonderment and excitement adults often lose in the simple things of life. With Lizzie Brown MacNeill taps into the experience we have all had where one single incident or abstract such a sound or smell can recreate a memory to the point where you can relive it in incredible detail. Following on from the previous track, once again MacNeill takes the ordinary and creates a wonderful song.
The Tractor is of course about the machine but it's also about the people who are around it, who have used it, borrowed it, talked about it, cursed it, thanked it and realised just how important it can be. There is a wonderful nostalgic feel to the music on this track which for many will recall a simpler time.
Home is Where The Dog Is is guaranteed to bring a smile to every listeners' face as MacNeill sings about the domestic life he and his family experienced while living in Wick.
The new album Timeline
His wife would go to work every day leaving MacNeill as head cook and bottle washer.
In his own words this time is "remembered by his then teenage children as the 'freezer years' when they would reheat 'brown surprises' on more than one occasion."
In keeping with making the ordinary entertaining there is a bonus or "Ghost Track" which is simply the sound of mandolin and family voices.
MacNeill has a wonderful knack of making the ordinary and mundane immensely interesting through his songs which are given depth and texture by Diana.
This is an honest and earthy album of a musician sharing his experiences and thoughts.
What's remarkable about it is he doesn't try to embellish them, exaggerate them or try to beat you over the head with them. He simply lays it down as this is how I see things, these are some of my experiences and memories and it's that openness which makes this album so endearing.

Timeline is available now from the artist's website by emailing, Birnam CD Online shop,,, iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play and Spotify

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