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Jim Gilchrist reports on the 15th LBPS collogue, which saw the event return to the Border country, and a conference centre out- side Newton St Boswells

THE SOCIETY’S 15th Collogue was held at the Tweed Horizons conference centre, an im- pressively refurbished one-time monastic college and residential school complex, built in the 1930s on a bend of the Tweed outside Newton St Boswells. Delegates were greeted by committee member Stuart Letford reverting to Highland pipes as they arrived amid glori- ously sunlit autumnal surroundings.

Opening the programme, Dr Fred Freeman, musical director of the mammoth Linn Records Burns Songs project, and also of an ongoing series of Border music recordings, said that he regarded the music of the Border country to be, in many respects, “a suppressed tradition, which tended to be overlooked within the broader Scottish musical canon”.



“In essence,” he said, “I think Hugh MacDiarmid, who was, after all, a Borderer, put it well when he said that the perspective most of us have is like someone looking at a patch of hill- side and saying ‘nothing but heather’, as we don’t see the blaeberries, the bog myrtle, the milkwort etc, or the thousands of shades of glorious colour”.

“Scotland small? our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?” retorted MacDiarmid to those who saw “Nothing but heather”, and, said Freeman, “I think he got it right. And in a way, the music of the Borders suffers from the same short-sighted pronouncement and in that sense, I do think that it is a suppressed tradition.”

For those who disagreed, he asked why the music of the accomplished Borders accordi- onist and composer Iain Lowthian was not more widely appreciated, making his point with a persuasively dazzling taped snatch of that player’s music, and went on to punctuate his talk with further clips of Border musicians, including the late Bob Hopkirk, a beautiful fid- dler who played at one of the early LBPS collogues.

Yet outside his own area, Freeman argued, Hopkirk was scarcely known, except by a few aficionados (including Aly Bain and Yehudi Menuhin). He also played Jimmy Nagle, the Jedburgh fiddler and composer of fine tunes

The music of the Borders, he continued, was an ancient and to a great degree idiosyncratic tradition, and he referred to Melrose Abbey, with its ancient carvings of pipers and fiddlers, “and the oldest references to the fiddle in Scotland are those of Thomas of Ercildoun [“Thomas the Rhymer”], who lived not far away from here, a poet and prophet of the 13th




The problem with Borders music was that it had never had a Scott Skinner or a Tom Anderson to introduce it to a wider public, he believed: “It’s very much an informal tradi- tion, it doesn’t take centre stage. Its performance is related to function rather than music for its own sake, for functions like kirns, harvest homes, feeing fairs, barn dances and house parties.”

As Border fiddlers started playing for dances in twos or threes, they developed a thickly textured sound which Freeman likened to Shetland fiddling, with frequent double-stopping giving a bigger sound for dances.

Freeman ranged over Border balladry territory which Davy Robertson would bring to life vividly later in the morning - and the famous collectors such as Scott, Hogg and Leyden, “who were very socially interactive, maybe too socially interactive at times, collecting the material and recycling it in their own way. Perhaps like the Hamish Hendersons of their day.”

Yet in modern times, despite its comparative obscurity, Freeman felt that the Borders had become one of the lynchpins of the folk revival. He played a tantalising extract from a re- cording of a hotel session made in the 1950s, involving the inimitable Willie Scott, the Border shepherd, who was as important in some respects as source singers such as the great Jeannie Robertson, performing his famed version of The Kielder Hunt, with the locals join- ing in; and another man, singing Jamie Raeburn, who said he’d learned it from his granny. “So if this was 1953,” said Freeman, “these characters weren’t striplings, so that would take


us back quite some time.”

He also played a recording of Jimmy Wilson, a singing shepherd from Yarrow, who was apparently once offered a recording contract by EMI, but said he was too busy with his sheep.

Naturally, Freeman got on to the interrupted tradition of Border piping, the burghs with their toun pipers, and the itinerant pipers who travelled bearing news and providing enter- tainment. “Families of pipers, too, like the Allans of Kirk Yetholm, with their slip jigs and their hornpipes and those upward and downward runs of notes.”

He felt more research could be carried out op the extent to which some of the Border pip- ing traditions had shaped tunes such as Wee Totum Fogg, Robin Sure in Hairst, or Buy Broom Besoms and the like, and this was starting to happen.

“Many of these tunes,” he said, “started life as dance tunes, and Burns converted them into songs, and now they’re going back into dance tunes.” And he played a striking version of John Anderson My Jo he’d recorded from the piper Chris Ormston for his next album in the Border Tradition series, which will deal with piping.

Davie Robertson, a writer of piquant songs as well as a powerful ballad singer and pio- neer in the art of singing while accompanying oneself on smallpipes, opened his talk with a scathing and very funny satirical song, lamenting the dearth of Scots song in traditional mu- sic sessions:

Whae will heed the desperate cry - how long, oh Lord, how long? Whae fickle fashion will defy and sing a guid Scots song.......


Tongue in cheek? Not really, argued the retired headmaster. “You might think I exagger- ate, but you just try going to folk clubs in the Lothians and you’ll find out what the situation is. I really feel very strongly that traditional Scots song is in an extremely perilous position and it’s high time that Scots collectively did something about this, instead of committing gradual cultural suicide for 200 years with thrawn determination, as we have been doing.”

And the process of attrition had indeed been going on for a long time, he continued, read- ing from James Hogg writing about the changes he’d been observing in his lifetime: “On looking back,” wrote the “Ettrick Shepherd”, “the first great falling off is in song. This to me is not only astonishing but unaccountable. You have ten times more opportunities of learning songs, yet song singing is at an end, or only kept up by a few.

“Many hundreds of times it has made the hairs of my head creep and the tears start into my eyes to hear such as The Flooers o’ the Forest and The Broom of the Cowdenknowes. Where are these melting strains now? Gone, and forever.”

This process, continued Robertson, had been going on for a long time and according to Hogg (who died in 1835), particularly in the Borders - “so I’m particularly grateful to the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society for allowing me to come and ram the gospel of Scots traditional singing down your throats this afternoon.”

Not that it was a painful process - far from it. Davie homed in on the great Border ballads, and in doing so, he explained, he tended to fight shy of the texts in Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border-. “Although he claimed that he did not do any such thing, Scott was an inveterate polisher and guddler about. For example, in the ballad Jamie Telfer, he not only polished it up, but changed the story round so that the Scotts appeared as the heroes of the whole shooting match instead of the Elliotts, who had actually done the brave deeds in question. Scott also added whole chunks to the Battle of Otterburn.”

When choosing his texts, he continued, “I try to avoid intonations or indications of pish- tushery and gadzookery. Anything like that you see in a Border ballad, or anything that smacks of beautiful poetry, is probably there due to the interfering hand of Scott or some other gentleman collector - because ballads tend to be very, very simple.

“So the texts I use are probably, in each case, the texts I first read or first heard many years ago. Since then it will have been added to by hearing someone sing what I thought was a nice wee verse here or a nice couple of lines there ... and many years later, when you compare what you’re singing with the text you originally got it from, you see all sorts of differences have crept in.”

It was the same with the tunes he sang them to, he explained. “I’ll probably use the tune that I first heard, but variations will inevitably creep in. I don’t think the tunes are so important.


I was interested to read the other day that one source singer was an old guy who used the same tune for all his ballads. It’s sort of like the psalms in church: there were half a dozen stock tunes and you could pretty much put any of the psalms to these tunes”.

So far as the accompaniment was concerned, he explained, “We know that 200 years ago people were singing to a smallpipes accompaniment, but we don’t know what that accom- paniment sounded like, simply because, unlike the singing tradition, there was a fairly sub- stantial break in the smallpipes tradition. So the art of smallpipes accompaniment has been lost irretrievably...

“Or has it? We can get clues...” And he played some of a recording of the north-east traveller singer Jane Turriff singing while accompanying herself on harmonium. It was a very distinctive sound, which “still gives me shivers up my back to listen to it”.

Robertson had first heard her singing and playing like that on a School of Scottish Studies album issued in the mid-Seventies, and had found it “absolutely electrifying. She’s got a sort of drone going there and she’s doodling around with some sort of melody.

“When, a few years later, I bought myself a set of small pipes and started singing to them, it was that sound that I had at the back of my mind, rightly or wrongly.”

He described his approach to smallpipes accompaniment as “pretty much what Jane Turriff’s doing. I’m delaying some notes and anticipating some phrases of the song. I’ll maybe do a harmony now and again - no very often because I’m not really a musician - and a wee bit of a grace note here and bit of ornamentation there. It’s kind of like weaving a thread in and out of the words of the song.”

And he stressed that the most important factor in pipe accompaniment to singing was that your smallpipes were indeed small. “Most of the sets of smallpipes being made nowadays are small only in name, and most of them are being deliberately made to make it easier for all you Highland pipers who do the small pipes as a sort of sideline, and if you try to sing to some of these great enormous sets of small pipes, that’s cerebral haemorrhage material - bawling at the top of your voice with your eyes popping out.

“But I have a set of small pipes by the genius [Julian] Goodacre, who makes them just as they ought to be for singing.”

And he launched into an impressively sonorous series of Border ballads starting with what is perhaps the best known of them all, The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow.

Borders-based fiddler Iain Fraser closed the afternoon section of the collogue with a fine selection of tunes, ranging from Border jigs to material by the great 18th- and 19th-century century masters such as Niel and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall and Peter Milne .

Fraser, who as well as being a highly respected performer, is well known for his teaching work with the growing number of young Border fiddlers, as well as for his collaborations with accordionist Ian Lowthian, could be heard earlier in more informal mode, playing



along with Matt Seattle and his Border pipes session group in a cracking version of The New Road to Bowden, Bowden in fact being just a few miles down the road from the venue.

Introducing one set, he observed: “If you ever thought there was something staid about the 18th century, I’m sure that’s not right. I think they had fun, and the fun stopped when Queen Victoria came on the scene.”

You could tell that, he added, by the tune titles, such as She’s Best When She’s Naked. “That wouldn’t have happened in the Victorian era. But I won’t go down that road ... “