Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre’s Blog

2013-05-15 11.54.16We are very familiar with MSS material, from our own personal and shared researches, and were delighted to be asked to act as consultants to this worthy project. Alison’s family roots and associations with the Dumfries and Galloway area gives her an added interest in this venture.

2013-06-05 11.57.55             The Macmath collection includes printed material from chapbooks and broadsides but is predominantly in MSS form. The first general point to make is that songs, be they in print or MSS, are essentially in shackles and can only be set free when sung! In 1810 Margaret Laidlaw, mother of James Hogg reproached Sir Walter Scott who had printed some of her songs in his published Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.                                                                                                                             ‘ There were nane o’ my songs prentit til ye prentit them yourself and ye hae spoilt them a’ thegither. They were made for singin’ and no for readin’ but ye hae broken the charm noo and they will never be sang mair’. Fortunately Margaret’s gloomy prediction was proved wrong.                                                                                                                                                                                     On a similar theme, Edwin Muir in his ‘Complaint of the Dying Peasantry’ ( Collected Poems, Oxford 1965) and we quote from the last verse                                                                                                                                                                                     ‘The singing and harping fled                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Into the silent library                                                                                                                                            But we are with Helen dead                                                                                                                                                                                                              And with Sir Patrick lost at sea.’

2013-05-15 11.54.43   There has been a fruitful inter-action between the oral and printed tradition. However we believe that the oral nature within the Macmath Collection is its artistic strength and dynamic. This is indeed a quality collection which ranges from classic ballads such as Hynd Horn and Sir Patrick Spens to the light hearted The Wedding of the Frogge and the Mouse and children’s songs. The Queen of the Fairies is an excellent and distinctive version of Tam Lin, and Queen Jeannie was in Labour are just some of the many items awaiting liberation. In most cases there are no tunes given and one of our tasks was in marrying airs from our own repertoire or knowledge and in suggesting possibilities for performance. It was interesting to build up a picture of the area where Macmath had collected songs and from whom. His four sisters featured and especially his mother’s sister Jane Webster.                                                                                                                                                                                                                         The process we undertook in reading the handwritten texts of this professional copyist, giving our comments and melodies for items throughout, was recorded and filmed for immediate and future reference. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by Francis James Child (5 vols Dover New York 2003) and the Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads edited by Bertrand Bronson (4vol s reprint 2009 Loomis Press) proved to be both fitting and invaluable.

fd2w7LxKcOAGktXHzFRaFtj1kD4Q1HY7Sp1qaM9J7FMAlison Burns has assembled a talented group of singers and musicians to bring the songs back to the living oral tradition via public performance and compact disc where they belong. We are sure William Macmath would have approved!

May 2015 A McM and G McI


The Carrying Stream – Blog by Tom Pow

In her work with the Feral Choir, Ali Burns has frequently used the spoken word as counterpoint to song. In Macmath – The Silent Page, she uses the spoken word again, but this time to carry the narrative of William Macmath’s work as a recorder of the oral tradition. The story David Sumner will tell in the Ryan Centre in Stranraer (26 May) and that I will tell in Langholm (Buccleuch Centre, 27 May) and in Dumfries (Easterbrook Hall, 31 May) is the story of how a seemingly unlikely man from the Stewartry, who worked most of his life as a legal clerk in Edinburgh, collaborated with the foremost song collector of his time – the Harvard Professor, Frances Child. What is remarkable about the songs that are given voice (from The Silent Page to the Singing Page) in this concert-ceilidh is that all of them were sung to Macmath by people living in the Glenkens.


Some years ago, Tom Leonard, working as writer in residence in Renfrew libraries began to unearth a mass of poems from a popular working class tradition. He published them in a book called ‘Radical Renfrew’ – a book that carried the social and political voices of the time. It was a remarkable book, but it also suggested that the work that Leonard did reflected a small part of what must lie in libraries and archives across Scotland, waiting to be discovered. The fact that all these ‘Macmath’ songs have such a local provenance shows the richness of the oral tradition in these parts, while suggesting, as does ‘Radical Renfrew’, that there are further riches still submerged in many other areas of Scotland.


That is the local dimension. But there is the other – the aspect of the transference of oral culture elsewhere. It is, I think, a particular thrill to hear the ‘Ballad of Lord Ronald’ and to recognise the unmistakable structure of Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. This is but one example of the echoes and resonances the songs and tunes carry that I picked up; those with greater depth of knowledge will hear far more.

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It is very moving to hear songs that have never been sung together before – sung and played by outstanding musicians from this region. The story is indeed one that is worth hearing, but of course the music is the thing. These songs – which will also be recorded and released – now have the chance to become part of the repertoire of the musicians who deliver them and others who will hear them: in other words they will become part once more of what Hamish Henderson called ‘the carrying stream’ of a living, oral culture. In a recent talk on Radio 3, titled ‘About Song and Laughter’, John Berger said, ‘Songs have a dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song, whilst filling the present, hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward further and further. Without the persistence of this hope, I believe, songs would not exist. Songs lean forward.’


Come and hear Macmath’s story – it is a story of uncompromising commitment – but it is a small part of the evening. The greater reason by far is to come and hear what was lost given life. These are beautiful, lively and powerful songs, delivered with terrific skill and passion. This is a project of which D & G Arts Festival, Creative Scotland, The National Trust for Scotland and The William Grant Foundation can be very proud of supporting.

Tom Pow

Song Mending


jamie, emily aaron jan 15In mid January the group of musicians all met up at Aaron and Clare’s place in the little village of Beattock near Moffat. It was the first time we were getting together to go through all our musical ideas. After the last meeting it was decided that we’d all have 2 or 3 three songs to take away and work on, so this day was spent going through all the songs and listening to the ideas people had come up with.

wendy and harp jan 15


clare jan 15One of the things we’d been anxious about at the first meeting was that there might be too many ‘gloomy’ songs to fit into a performance. However once we’d gone through our whole list we were glad to discover that nearly all the songs have a driving beat or a great upbeat tune or something about them that rescues them from being too dark. Of course its lovely to have one or two slow songs to wallow in – but no more than 2 in a 45 minute set is the rule we all agreed on! It was great to hear the songs tentatively coming to life with everyone’s ideas.



Our other issue is that some of the songs are ‘broken’. In other words, they have either lines missing that the singer or person who gave them to Macmath couldn’t remember, or in some cases they are illegible. Some songs were written down in handwriting that is very hard to read.

2013-05-08 11.17.23Here’s an example of a broken song: you can see where Macmath has put a line of stars where the missing line should be. There were also several words none of us could agree on!  What struck me when Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre came to look at the collection was how quick they were at reading the old-fashioned handwriting. They’re both of the generation above me and probably just grew up knowing how to read and write that style of writing. I constantly found myself struggling to read the beginning of a line while Alison was way ahead of me reading fluently.

Sometimes you can mend a song easily by going to another version of it and finding the complete line. And sometimes you just have to guess the missing word or make the line up. People who have an interest in balladry and folk song often have a keen ear for the language used in songs from this genre. I recently heard a storyteller talking about traditional stories and describing the language as ‘licked bare’. That’s exactly it, I thought, the same with ballads – the words are unfussy everyday day words but that simplicity is what gives the songs their power to reach across the centuries and touch people three, four, five hundred years later.

“Where hae ye been a day Lord Ronald my son? Where hae ye been a day my handsome young one? I’ve been in the wood hunting Mother, make my bed soon; for I’m weary, weary hunting and fain would lie down.”

robyn and computer jan 15Later in the day we divided up the song between our lead vocalists Emily, Robyn and Aaron so they can get on with word learning. It takes a while to really embed a song – to memorise it and sing it like you’ve known it all your life. It’s one of those skills that definitely gets easier with practice but the longer you have to work on a song the better. Professional singers make it sound so easy  even when they’re singing something for the first time!

The Story So Far


I first came across the Macmath collection of songs and letters back in 2004. I think I’d heard or read mention of it somewhere and was curious as to who he was and what was there. It was a wet rainy afternoon in March and I’d spent the day with primary school kids on an explorative songwriting trip to a local river. I was finished by 2.30 so decided as I was nearby to go and have a look at Macmath. If you’ve never been to Broughton House it can take your breath away the first time. It’s a beautiful example of a Georgian townhouse in the stunning little town of Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth in S.W. Scotland.



The house was formerly the home of the Scottish Painter E A Hornel – one of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ – a dynamic group of painters who had all studied together at Glasgow School of Art. The house is packed with paintings by him and his contemporaries as well as his vast library. Hornel often bought collections of papers and books at auctions and it was in this way that he acquired papers and books belonging to William Macmath.

Macmath 1844 – 1922 was brought up in Galloway. As a child he learnt many ballads and songs from his Aunt Jane Webster. He obviously developed a fascination for them, for when an advert appeared in Notes and Queries in 1873 stating Wanted, Old Ballads he immediately presented himself to offer his services as a researcher. This led to a long correspondence and working relationship between himself and Francis Child who had placed that advert.

UnknownFrancis James Child 1825 -1896 was an English professor at Harvard with a special interest in ballads. He eventually published his large collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in 6 volumes between 1882 and 1898 and Macmath contributed hugely to that work. A large part of the Macmath collection at Broughton House is the correspondence between Child and Macmath.

Over the years I made several vista to the collection and sketched out some possible ideas for ways to use the songs. Finally, in 2012 the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival heard about my plans and offered to do the huge leg work of funding applications. They’ve commissioned the performances for 2015 and found funding from Creative Scotland, The Barfil Trust and The National Trust for Scotland.

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Geordie and Alison looking at the collection in 2013

My immediate reaction on seeing the song books all those years ago was ‘wouldn’t it be great to bring this page-bound collection back to life’. At that point though I had no idea if any of the songs were ‘valuable’ – were there unpublished or unique versions of any songs? Was it worth putting a lot of effort into finding out? I called on Scot’s song experts and singers Geordie MacIntyre and Alison MacMorland to come and have a look. Over the summer of 2013 we spent several days pouring over the books and with growing excitement I listened to what they had to say – there were some unique songs and song fragments along with many unusual and rare versions of songs. And with their huge knowledge of Scot’s song they were able to come up with tunes or likely tunes for many of the songs. (There are some tunes written down but most songs just have words.)

This blog is the story of bringing these songs back to life. Please join me over the next 6 months as we untangle the songs,  write new tunes, ‘mend’ missing verses, make a recording and put together a performance of this long forgotten collection.

Alison Burns


Broughton House Garden