In Kirkcudbright’s Main Street there sits Broughton House, a beautifully preserved town house with a picturesque, Japanese inspired garden. It’s the former home of Scottish painter, A E Hornel, and it is filled with many of his paintings. Within this very interesting house, there is a library, filled with all kinds of antique books and collections, including the unpublished songs and manuscripts of song collector, William Macmath.
William Macmath was a song collector from Kircudbrightshire (1848-1922). A remarkable chap from a very musical family; he collected songs from all around Galloway and was an informant to Francis James Child. He was a meticulous researcher, and spent over 30 years collecting songs in and around Galloway.
Ali Burns, a community music leader based in Dumfries & Galloway, was inspired by these relatively unknown manuscripts, and wanted to find out more. With help from Geordie MacIntyre and Alison McMorland, she researched the song manuscripts and unpublished collections, uncovering an incredible range of traditional songs. They discovered traditional songs they had never seen before, unique versions of ballads, and ones had not been included in Child’s monumental collection, ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’.
Ali wanted to see Macmath’s songs brought back to life, to be made accessible to the public and performed once. I was thrilled to be asked to be part of the project Macmath: The Silent Page, alongside many of Scotland’s leading folk musicians: Aaron Jones, Emily Smith, Jamie McClelland, Wendy Stewart and Claire Mann. All of the musicians involved are from, or currently live in, Dumfries & Galloway.
Geordie and Alison helped us to narrow down the manuscripts by highlighting songs they felt were particularly unique or complete. We divided up the songs between us and began transcribing the words of Macmath – some songs easier than others, due in part to his ornate calligraphy, which became almost illegible by the end of his life.
We then started to make decisions about who would sing which songs. Already, Emily, Aaron and me we were drawn to certain songs, stories and tunes within the collection, and were eager to begin singing them and arranging them with the other musicians. The songs I took lead vocals on are:
- Lord Ronald, a traditional ballad I have sung many times before, however this unique version from Galloway was totally new to me
- Queen Jeannie – the tragic and true tale of the Queen who lost her life giving birth to her son. Many believe that the songs is about Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII
- The humorous story of John Blunt, and a domestic dispute with his wife Janet, which takes an interesting turn. This ballad is often called ‘The Barrin’ of the Door’
- A lively, chirpy song called Linkum, which known in some American versions as ‘Mr Frog Would Go And Ride’. I head a version of this song from the singing of Cathal McConnell, and the traditional tune he uses was the basis of this song’s melody
- The very local ballad of the ‘Lochmaben Harper’, of which there are many versions, notable Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Emily Smith and Kate Rusby. It is the story of a harper who, with his wife’s help, steals the horse of King Henry.
Macmath notated many of the melodies and included them in the collection, for example ‘Lord Ronald’ and ‘The Lochmaden Harper’. Many of the songs were without a melody, but often, Macmath would write about the quality or characteristics of the song’s melody, and we tried as much as possible to keep that in mind when settling on a new tune.
I really enjoyed hearing how all the other songs were coming together too, and to see how Emily and Aaron’s songs would be interpreted and developed. I don’t think any of us could have predicted just what a range of different moods and styles would emerge from the collection. From laugh-out-loud stories to heart-breaking true stories, lively rhythmic sing-a-long choruses, sea songs, tragic dark ballads and supernatural tales, there was such a variety of songs. To hear the songs arranged with harp, bouzouki, guitar, concertina, flute, whistle, fiddle was fantastic; it really brought out the story and feeling of the songs, and added so much energy.
We had a great run of concerts across the region, as part of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival, in May of this year. We travelled to Stranraer, then to Langholm and finally to Dumfries’ Easterbrook Hall for the final concert of the tour. During the concerts, Macmath’s life and the stories of each song were told with narration from David Summer and from Tom Pow. It was great to see his work as a collector appreciated in this way. A life’s work, that until recently, had gone largely unnoticed. Now, 100 years on, inspiring audiences across the region.
A picture taken at our first concert in Stranraer – with Aaron Jones and the Feral Choir, led by Alison Burns
We have just finished recording an album of the songs; it was recorded by Steve Butler and Jamie McClennan at Ferndale and White Fall Studios, mixed by Jamie McClennan and mastered by Paul McGeechan at Waterside Productions.
I can’t wait for the album to be fully finished so everyone can hear it, and for the album launch in 2016.
You can hear us all performing Macmath: The Silent Page at:
- Wigtown Book Festival, Friday the 2nd of October at 7pm
- Kirkcudbright’s Broughton House, Sunday the 4th of October at 2pm
See here for more details:
Find out more about the project on the Macmath website which features latest information and blogs from all the musicians