Return of The Gillie Mor
Christine Gunn sets the scene for a celebration of folk culture in Caithness
CAITHNESS Horizons in Thurso has added The Gillie Mor to the cultural calendar of the Highlands.
LAST March saw the emergence of a three-day festival of talks, books, film, story-telling, folklore, music and poetry which put the spotlight on the life and work of folk icon, Hamish Henderson. While keeping Hamish Henderson as the festival figurehead, organisers this year are keen to stress that the weekend is not about one man. The 2012 programme of events and song workshops, which includes Dick Gaughan, Margaret Bennett, Essie Stewart, George Gunn, Nancy Nicolson, Kevin Williamson and Dr Fred Freeman, is designed to take forward the grass-roots ambitions of the man who did so much to discover, record and promote a wealth of songs and stories that might otherwise have disappeared from Scotland forever.
Folk phenomenon Dick Gaughan’s presence in this year’s programme may help audiences understand how the festival got its name. The Gillie Mor [The Big Lad’] became Henderson’s nickname after he wrote a song of the same title as a message of friendship and solidarity at the height of the Cold War from the Blacksmith’s Trade Union in Leith to the Blacksmith’s Trade Union in Kiev in the Ukraine. The song is perhaps most familiar to audiences all over the world through its recording by Dick Gaughan.
A professional musician and singer since 1970, Dick Gaughan – like Henderson – was brought up and immersed in the musical traditions of the Gaels. Over four decades he has been at the cutting edge of Scottish music. Guitarist, singer, songwriter, actor, musical director, composer, arranger, producer and engineer, Gaughan’s expressive voice and distinctive guitar technique are unmistakeable, and his orchestral work has been commissioned more than once for Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival.
Explicitly in sympathy with the oppressed and the underdog, Gaughan’s songs, like the songs and poetry of Hamish Henderson, are Scottish in expression but internationalist in spirit, and share a burning passion for humanitarian egalitarianism. As he has often sung in Henderson’s words, ‘You and me, the man, the brither – me an you, the Gillie Mor’.
Margaret Bennett returns to Thurso this year with ‘Highland Exodus’, a talk and slide presentation about Highland emigrants to Canada during the Potato Famine of the 19th century. A writer and academic, Margaret is as well known as a singer and folklorist, and she worked with Hamish Henderson at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh University.
The issue of roadsigns in Gaelic has created heated debate recently in Caithness, which is proud of its Norse heritage. Boldly, Caithness Horizons has invited Margaret to run two workshops during the festival, teaching one or more Gaelic songs, which partipants will sing at an end-of festival ceilidh.
We are not being provocative. Folk culture is global, and I can think of no-one better than Margaret Bennett to demonstrate how folk song pushes right through cultural barriers. We want Gillie Mor to become a festival of the people by the people, and to achieve that takes confidence in our own identity – or identities.
Essie Stewart knows well the bi-lingual nature of Highland folklore. Known throughout the Highlands as a traditional storyteller from Sutherland – one of the last ‘Summer Walkers’ of the travelling families – Essie Stewart is proud to be guardian of the stories of her grandfather, Ailidh Dall Stewart (1882-1968), and tells his stories in both English and Gaelic. Essie hopes her return to Thurso might turn up new contacts with local people who remember the family when they camped with their horses at Glengolly.
Sharing a song and story session with Essie Stewart, Nancy Nicolson is now Edinburgh-based. Still proud of her Caithness croft background, and of being what she calls a ‘Cultural Crofter’, Nancy enjoys involving people in song, music and story. At a recent Festival Fringe she arrived at Edinburgh’s Royal Oak folk venue, melodeon slung over her shoulder, to the announcement, ‘Here she is … the Instant Ceilidh!’
Her songs range from ancient ballads to funny, cheeky, political pieces from her own pen. One reviewer said: “NN writes songs that are cunningly temperate. Her well-honed humour sees Nancy apply the iron fist in the velvet glove.”
Fellow Caithness countrymen George Gunn and Kevin Williamson could not be accused of using stealth to subdue audiences, although they share the ability to charm as well as shock. Both writers are known for their forthright views; both are social and political commentators as well as creative writers of poetry, prose and drama, and it is as poets they are billed together as ‘The Radical Bardachd’.
Kevin Williamson will deliver his one-man hit show from last year’s Edinburgh Festival, ‘Robert Burns: Not in My Name’, which uses film sequences by Alastair Cook to complement and sometimes counterpoint the less familiar poetry of the Ayrshire bard. Highly praised for his delivery of Burns’ language, Williamson supports the vision behind the festival:
‘As someone brought up in Thurso,” he said, “after twenty years organising and participating in arts and literary events all over the world I’m excited about finally doing something in my hometown. It’s appropriate, too – the show begins with a ferocious Burns poem about the people of the Highlands. Caithness has long had a vibrant arts and folk scene and the Gillie Mor festival keeps this and the Hamish Henderson flag flying proudly. I’m looking forward to it.’
George Gunn is the other ‘radical bard’ on the bill. The festival was originally Gunn’s idea.
‘The Gillie Mor Festival in Thurso is now in its second year and is quickly establishing itself as one of the most important cultural events in the Highlands, if not Scotland,” he said. “Hamish Henderson had strong Caithness connections as his father’s people came from Braemore. He always considered himself a proud member of the Clan Gunn. I am proud that in my home town we can add to the stock of the carrying stream of Caithness culture and bring it forward, and at the same time keep alive the work and memory of a vibrant world-spirit.”
Gunn credits his own development as an artist to his friendship with Henderson.
“I was greatly encouraged by Hamish Henderson and without his generosity of spirit and constant support I doubt I would have had the confidence to undertake what I have as a writer.”
Thurso High School Pupils and members of the public will have the opportunity to work with both Dick Gaughan and George Gunn in an innovative attempt to generate new songs, written in the spirit of what Henderson described as the ‘Carrying Stream’ of folk culture. As with Margaret Bennett’s Gaelic songs, the idea is to perform this material at the end-of-festival ceilidh on Saturday 31st March in Thurso’s Pentland Hotel.
Currently Fellow in English at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Fred Freeman has extensive experience of teaching literature, folk music and history. Dr Freeman will deliver a key presentation during the festival, outlining the contribution Hamish Henderson made during his lifetime to Scottish Culture. Shortly after Henderson’s death, Dr Freeman produced A’ the Bairns o’ Adam for Greentrax Records, a highly regarded CD of Hamish Henderson songs, recorded by many artists who were personal friends of Hamish, or greatly admired his work.
The Gillie Mor 2012 aims to set a marker for folk culture in the 21st century. As organiser, I believes there is an appetite for entertainment that is rooted in community activity without being parochial or backward-looking. Communities have always come together to sing, play music, speak poetry or tell stories about shared experience. All we’re really doing is having a three-day ceilidh, and reminding ourselves of the value of that, as well as having fun in the process.
Funding support for the festival has been awarded by Museums Galleries Scotland, Highland Council & Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
Christine Gunn is Education & Community Officer at Caithness Horizons.
© Christine Gunn, 2012