Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Kist Goes Stateside

At Kist o Riches, we've always been keen to spread the word about our online archive as far and as wide as possible. So when I spent some time in the USA last month, I took the opportunity to do just that by delivering two public lectures on the project, each followed by a concert of Scots songs drawn from our archives. The first lecture was held at the world-famous New York Public Library, in just about the swankiest auditorium I've ever seen. The Folk Music Society of New York very kindly organised a follow up house concert in Manhattan, which turned into a very cosy and enjoyable affair. A week later, I gave another lecture and concert at a wonderful centre for Irish traditional arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota named The Celtic Junction, with the event jointly hosted by the Traditional Singers Club of the Twin Cities.  

Kist o Riches @ New York Public Library
In the lectures, I described the background to our project by looking first at the genesis of the School of Scottish Studies in 1951, and the work of early collectors such as Hamish Henderson and Calum MacLean. After a linguistic overview of Scotland, I carried out a live demonstration of the websiteI was keen to provide the audience with as much context as possible while eliciting some of the broad themes on the recordings, but I also wanted to highlight some of the less well-known aspects of Scotland's traditions, and of its song cultures in particular. Yet how could I choose a handful of examples from literally tens of thousands available, and to present them in some kind of logical fashion? Well, I decided to take the audience on an audio-visual tour of Scotland using recordings from our archives, and breaking the journey into legs of roughly equal distance. We would stop off at various points along the way to take in a song, a piece of instrumental music, or a spoken word recording from one of the many thousands of contributors.

Kist o Riches audio tour of Scotland
(click for bigger map)
We set out from Edinburgh, the home of the School of Scottish Studies, from whose archive most of the recordings are drawn. We then worked our way up the east coast, calling in at my home town of Dundee to hear Mary Brooksbank describe her working life and her songwriting, before carrying on a little further north into Perthshire for a Traveller song from Willie MacPhee. Willie was sojourning at the berryfields of Blairgowrie, which had yielded such a rich harvest of traditional songs that Hamish Henderson described collecting there as like "holding a tin can under Niagara Falls". The Traveller song tradition carried us up Strathmore and into Aberdeenshire, where the celebrated singer Jeannie Robertson greeted us with a rendition of her heart-breaking tragic ballad 'My Son David' We then passed through Buchan and onto Portsoy, where the bothy tradition of the North-East was well represented by Jimmy MacBeath's 'Guise o Tough'.

At this point we ventured into the Eastern Highlands and stopped off at Glenlivet to hear from a remarkable woman named Annie Grant. Known locally as 'Grannie Bochel', she had been born in 1854 and was aged 102 when Hamish called to record her. Grannie Bochel recited a verse she had composed in 1874 when she first came to Glenlivet, and the audience learned about a 27-verse ballad that she later recited for Hamish - the most complete version ever recorded. Leaving the Highlands behind, we headed far up north to Caithness, to hear Donald Grant of Thurso recall the local customs for protecting a newborn baby from the fairies, who would sometimes try to kidnap a child and replace it with a changeling.

Leaving the mainland for a time, we journeyed to the Northern Isles, where John MacKay of Stronsay in Orkney delivered some fine fiddling with the pipe march The Lochaber Gathering. Celebrated fiddler and collector Tom Anderson of Shetland then demonstrated for us the Scandinavian influence on local musical traditions, with the haunting lament 'Auld Swaara' evoking the Norwegian fiddling tradition. The Scandinavian heritage of Shetland was likewise echoed in the Norn refrain of the classic ballad 'King Orfeo', a truly wonderful mix of Scots, Celtic and Norse traditions, ultimately deriving its happy ending for the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice from early Antiquity.
Crossing over to the Western Isles and the heart of the Gàidhealtachd, we were met with a spirited rendition of the waulking song 'Tha Fadachd Orm Fhìn a Rìgh', led by Christine Shaw of Ardhasaig on Harris. Moving south along the archipelago, we came to Sollas on North Uist, where Rev. William Matheson sang for us the first Gaelic song composed in America, 'Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach a Chuilein Mo Rùin'. The song was composed by a Kintyre emigrant named John MacRae ('The Bard of Kintail'), who in the song lulls his baby daughter to sleep in their new home of North Carolina. A short hop over to Skye took us to the Free Presbyterian Church in Portree, where the congregation demonstrated the magical Gaelic Psalm Singing that stands as a rare Western example of surviving heterophonic music. There was a connection here with North Carolina again, in the possible direct influence of the Gaelic Psalm Singing tradition on the spiritual music of black congregations in the southern USA.

Working our way down the west coast, we arrived at Tobermory on Mull, where Pipe Major William MacLean gave a wonderful demonstration of the complex vocable system known as canntaireachd, used as an oral method of teaching the classical bagpipe music called pìobaireachd. In a marvellous performance, PM MacLean set out the elements in canntaireachd for the thrilling pìobaireachd called 'The Desperate Battle of the Birds', and then played the piece on the pipes, showing how well canntaireachd emulates the notes, intervals and ornaments of the pipes.

Heading south to the Kintyre peninsula, we met a family of singers and song collectors called the the Mitchells of Campbeltown, who shared with us one of the local songs they had so diligently collected: 'Callieburn' is a song of emigration in which the singer is leaving his native Kintyre for America, which has 'beguiled' him. The song itself beguiles the listener, as it did Willie Scott of Canonbie, who was so taken with the song when he met the MItchells in 1968, that it became one of his favourite and most often sung pieces. Willie's byname was 'The Border Shepherd', and shepherding was his lifelong profession. We joined Willie at Canonbie in the Borders for a wonderful performance of his song 'The Irthing Water Hounds', which praises the hunting dogs of the River Irthing, just over the border into England.

The Stewarts of Blair
The last leg of our journey brought us full circle, back to Edinburgh, where Sheila Stewart of the famous Travelling family from Blairgowrie took to the stage during a concert to sing the wonderful convivial song 'Jock Stewart'. The song is dear to many Travellers and became one of the most recognisable anthems of the Scottish folk revival through their pre-eminent role as source singers. Sheila is one of Scotland's national treasures, and along with her family has made an enormous contribution to the Kist o Riches archives and to Scottish culture. You can learn more about Sheila and the culture of the Scots Travellers by visiting the Kist o Riches website, and by reading Sheila's own memoirs. There's also a fascinating documentary about Sheila and the Travellers of Perthshire named 'Last in the Line' (2006), available to view in its entirety online.

There are a great many other fine Kist o Riches tracks that I wish I'd had time to include in the tour, such as the haunting rendition of 'The Cruel Mither' by Gordeanna McCulloch of Glasgow, or one of the many songs in the repertoire of John MacDonald of Speyside, another fantastic tradition bearer.

Well - there'll be plenty of time to make up for that in future posts...

Acknowledgements and thanks:

I'd like to thank New York Public Library, The Folk Music Society of New York, The Traditional Singers Club of the Twin Cities and The Celtic Junction for hosting these recent events.

Special thanks to my colleague in Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, renowned Gaelic singer Maighread Stiùbhart, for her assistance in selecting the Gaelic tracks for the lectures.

Image and Photo Credits:
All images public domain, except for the photo of Kist o Riches at New York Public Library (copyright of Chris Wright) and the p
hotos of women waulking cloth and of the Stewarts of Blair (copyright of School of Scottish Studies / Kist o Riches)


  1. Absolutely amazing, what you have done, and are doing. The contribution you have made is culturally vital and adds significant purpose to the process and purpose of being alive. I am grateful and hugly impressed.

  2. Thank you, Nadim! Although this work was completed in 2013, I'm continuing to work with more schoolchildren and adults to help them engage with our audio heritage. Have a look at my new company, 'Local Voices' to keep up with the latest developments: twitter: @localvoicescic facebook: facebook/localvoices