Christena Catherine Campbell was born on March 7th, 1915, the daughter of Dan J. Campbell and Mary Ann MacDonald, 25/3rd of Kenyon. She was the only daughter in a family of three older boys – John Martin, Donald Ranald and Hugh Joseph – and grew up on the farm to the sounds of her father singing Gaelic songs and her mother playing the pump organ.
Christena was naturally taken with the music and with the help of a self-instruction book began playing her mother’s pump organ. Eventually she was drawn to the piano and lessons followed. After school at SS #10 Kenyon, Christena would walk to Mrs. Duncan John Ban’s home (by Loch Garry) for weekly instruction. She excelled very quickly and before long her teacher, recognizing Christena’s depth of talent and ability, urged her to start taking lessons from the well-known Professor Mulhearn of Alexandria and Montreal. Over the years her father would take her in his 1928 Star auto to Professor Mulhearn for weekly tuition. After dedicated and intensive preparation Christena took the examination, through Montreal’s renowned Dominion College of Music for the Associate’s Degree, which she was awarded (with Distinction) on 23 June 1933.
Having attained full accreditation, Christena now embarked on a fifty-year career teaching young students from across the county eager to learn the piano and to play Scottish music.
Christena married J. Daniel MacDonald in October 1940 and moved to Hillcrest Farm, 16/4th of Kenyon where she raised her family – Donald Ian and Allan Joseph. The family farm is now occupied by one of her sons, who took bagpipe lessons from Connie Blaney and played with the Glengarry Pipe Band and the Grade 1 Erskine pipe band of Hamilton. (Always a strong supporter of the county’s highland culture, Christena accompanied the Glengarry pipe band on its highly successful 1969 tour of Scotland.) In the early 1940s Christena contracted tuberculosis and spent 18 months in the St. Lawrence Sanitorium before returning to her young family.
As an accompanist, Christena played with many noted fiddlers at house parties, church socials, community dances and concerts across the county. House parties at Hillcrest Farm included such performers as Fr. John D. MacPhail, Cliff Britton, Cyril Angus Allan Ban MacDonell, Alex Smith and Neil Austin R. MacDonald, to name a few. These were evenings filled with the magical sounds of “The Iron Man” strathspey and “Big John MacNeil” reel.
Christena would later recall playing in the 1950s at the annual St. Andrew’s Concert at Alexandria’s Alexander Hall where Bishop W. J. Smith and his brother Alex, Howard Morris and the Sandfield Macdonalds would take the audience through the 13 verses of “In My Bonnie Native Glen,” to great acclaim.
As a member of St. Finnan’s parish, Alexandria, Christena was asked in the late 1970s to become church organist and play the church’s magnificent Cassavant organ. She occupied this position for at least ten years. She also played at weddings and funerals—not only at Alexandria but also at Maxville, Greenfield and Apple Hill.
In the late 1950s, with her family grown up, Christena resumed her teaching career, offering lessons at home to students from Maxville, Lochiel, Alexandria and Glen Sandfield, to name a few. She continued to teach well into the 1980s. Kent MacSweyn, principal of the Laggan Public School, and the local Home and School Association were determined to promote and further Scottish music in the community, and in 1970 asked Christena to develop and run the school’s music program. She started the program from scratch and taught individual lessons to students four and a half days a week. Drawing on her voluminous collection of Scottish music, she would take students through the stirring sounds of “The Dark Island” and “The Green Hills of Tyrol” on the piano, autoharp, organ and bells. She organized a student orchestra which was the highlight of concerts throughout the school year and which performed at gatherings in the community. Christena is fondly remembered by her many students across the county as a kind, patient and thorough teacher.
Still active in her 97th year, Christena continues to play her beloved piano and will readily take listeners through a brisk rendition of “The Road to the Isles.”
As a performer, a teacher and an accompanist, Christena MacDonald was a staunch and tireless builder of Glengarry’s Celtic music tradition for over fifty years.