Kathleen MacInnes brings a new collaboration with the Icelandic string ensemble amiina to Celtic Connections next month knowing that one of its central themes has already worked its magic on a select audience.

The Gaelic singer from South Uist with the distinctive smoky tone has been researching the common threads in the Icelandic and Gaelic traditions and has found that the lullabies from her own culture that she sang to her three sons as infants have echoes in Icelandic songs.

“I sang all my boys to sleep when they were babies,” she recalls. “I’d mostly sing Gaelic lullabies, just rolling one into another, and they worked really well. Now the boys are past the lullaby stage I no longer needed these songs for that purpose so I decided to share them with parents who might appreciate them.”

MacInnes never set out to become a professional singer. Growing up with Gaelic as her first language in the Hebrides in the 1970s, she sang at school and joined in the ceilidhs that were at the centre of the local social life. Her native language proved handy as, when she arrived in Glasgow to take up a job at the BBC, Gaelic television was just beginning to take off and she was chosen for acting roles – she’s appeared in Gaelic soap Machair and comedy shows including Ran Dan and PC Alasdair Stewart - and offered work as a presenter.

It was while she was presenting the music programme Tacsi that MacInnes met Donald Shaw, the founder of Gaelic band Capercaillie and Celtic Connections’ artistic director for the past decade, who was the programme’s musical director. Shaw encouraged her to sing and she has gone on to win admirers including film producer Ridley Scott, who described her voice as “beautiful” and chose her to sing in his 2010 film of Robin Hood, and to perform in a variety of musical situations.

As well as singing with musicians from the Gaelic world, including the piping brothers Iain and Allan MacDonald, and the Scottish tradition such as singer Fiona Hunter and multi-instrumentalist Mike Vass, she has sung with Transatlantic Sessions stalwarts Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas, bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. She has also embraced music technology, appearing on Gaelic electro-experimenters Niteworks’ Maraiche, and music from wider cultures, singing with Malian singer Oumou Sangare and kora player Toumani Diabate. Then, at Celtic Connections 2018, she showed another example of her willingness to try something different by joining jazz duo Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock onstage.

“That was terrifying and yet at the same time, exhilarating,” she says. “We did an improvised fifteen minutes during their set and I’d only met them for the first time and spent fifteen minutes with them just before the concert.” She’s now looking forward to exploring this musical collaboration further in June in one of two appearances she’s making as part of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh’s fortieth anniversary celebrations, the other one being on a folk music concert with John McCusker, Heidi Talbot, Phil Cunningham and others.

Her project with amiina came about when she decided to record some of the lullabies and melodies she’d sung to her sons. She spoke to Donald Shaw, who has continued to champion her singing (he it was who suggested she sing with Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock and with Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate), about working with Icelandic musicians. Having heard a number of Icelanders whose music she enjoyed, she felt they might help to produce the sound she was after. She’d also felt a connection with Iceland for some time, not unnaturally as the Hebrides and Iceland have links going back centuries.

“In the late 1990s I lived in New York on and off for three or four years and the way we travelled back and forth was always via Iceland,” she says. “When I'd get off the plane for the connecting flight I’d feel at home because the light there was exactly the same as it was in the Hebrides.”

The Norse, or Viking, influence on the Hebrides has been well documented. MacInnes reels off place names such as Stornoway (from the old Norse for steering bay), Laxdale (salmon valley) and Lingashader (a farm or shieling) and says that many Lewis place names can be matched to locations in south-west Iceland around Reykjavik. There’s also research suggesting that Hebridean women were taken to Iceland by Vikings who realised they had a problem when they settled in Iceland in the 9th century – no women.

“Leif Erikson, the great Icelandic explorer and son of Erik the Red, visited Lewis and while wintering in Uig, fathered a child with a noble young woman, Thorgunna,” adds MacInnes. “The boy was named Thorgils, which is now used frequently in Lewis as Torcuil, and other Viking names, such as Tormod and Ruairidh, are still commonly used in the islands.”

It was the common use of fairies – or huldufolk (elves in Icelandic and Faorese folklore)- in both Gaelic and Icelandic lullabies that particularly intrigued her. When she was singing to her sons she used to think it was just as well as that they hadn’t yet learned Gaelic as a lot of the Gaelic lullabies, as with other cultures across the world, are quite dark. Children frequently get carried off by these fairies and huldufolk.

“When I spoke with Donald about exploring the musical connections between the Hebrides and Iceland I mentioned artists I had heard producing quite gentle and magical sounds that I thought would work really well,” she says “Donald did some research and approached amiina, who worked with the Icelandic avant-rock band Sigur Ros for a long time. They use a lot of instruments to make their sound and when playing live they swap instruments during a piece to create dreamy soundscapes.”

The collaboration with amiina is just one of the shows at Celtic Connections that MacInnes is involved in. As part of a large cast of traditional singers and musicians, she has been working with former Danny Wilson and current Simple Minds bass guitarist Ged Grimes on a Gaelic soundtrack for the computer game The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep, which gets its live premiere at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 31. She will also be singing backing vocals for fellow South Uist singer Sineag MacIntyre, who launches her debut album at St Andrew’s in the Square on January 26.

In the meantime she’s been enjoying sitting in for BBC Radio Scotland presenter Iain Anderson and readying herself for her project with amiina, in the process no doubt fielding questions about whether she believes in fairies and huldufolk.

“A few years ago I was in Slieve Mór, Teelin in south west Donegal with the brilliant harp player from County Mayo, Laoise Kelly,” she says. “We met Cití Sean Cunningham, a beautiful old Irish lady who was in her nineties at the time. We got talking about na daoine beaga - the small people - and she said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you believe in the fairies or not, they are there anyway’ – and that’s good enough for me.”

Kathleen MacInnes and amiina appear at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 19.