It’s not the kind of thing that would find its way into a Who’s Who entry, but Frieda Morrison has a thing about old watermills.
“They give me the shivers,” declares the Aberdeenshire-based singer and broadcaster. She’s semi-joking, but the aversion to lades and millwheels is, she explains, part of “a complicated synergy” involving herself, her grandfather and the great north-east folk song collector Gavin Greig.
Morrison’s grandfather was a crofter at Cuminestown, in the splendidly named Howe o’ Teuchar, close to where Greig was a schoolmaster and carried out his industrious song-collecting forays with the Reverend James Bruce Duncan.
“My grandfather was a piper, a fiddler, a flute-player and singer, and was immensely influential in my love of traditional song. On walks, he would start singing and tell me little stories about the ballads” – including, it transpires, that classic “muckle sang”, Binnorie, with its fratricidal plot, through which “the bonnie mill dams o’ Binnorie” run dark and deep.
The ballad was just one of some 3,000 that found their way into the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, an astonishing achievement of Victorian-Edwardian song collecting which, ten years ago, at last completed its publication in eight volumes by Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies. To mark the anniversary, Morrison has just taken up a newly-created post as singer-in-residence at the university’s department of Celtic and Scottish studies, home of the School of Scottish Studies archives, where she will promote Scots language and song, with particular reference to the Greig-Duncan collection.
Selections from this vast song hairst were published in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Edinburgh University’s scholarly volumes emerged between 1981 and 2002 that justice was done to what its first editor, the late Pat Shuldham-Shaw, described as: “Scotland’s biggest and finest manuscript collection of folk-song; biggest in sheer size and finest on account of the integrity, breadth of vision and high scholastic ability of its own two collectors”.
Now Morrison sees her job as being to get these songs more widely-heard and appreciated.
“When I was first appointed, I met Dr Emily Lyle who was the main editor of the eight volumes and an amazing lady, and I said to her, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And she replied: ‘Sing the songs and get them sung’.” Morrison may be best known as a broadcaster on such programmes as Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors and the Potting Shed, and has made award-winning documentaries for radio and television, but she is also an accomplished singer.
This weekend sees her run the second Harvest Folk Festival in Potarch (between Aboyne and Banchory), where she lives, bringing together such traditional performers as the Spiers Family (of former Gauger Tom Spiers), bothy ballad champion Hector Riddell, Aileen Carr, Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre and contemporary balladeer Dougie MacLean. Tomorrow night’s Harvest Supper is sold out, but the weekend also sees the launch of an album, the Harvest Sessions, with Morrison, Carr, Riddell and the Spiers Family performing a largely Greig-Duncan-fuelled repertoire.
Morrison is also making a documentary about Greig and hints at a project to put much of the collection online in time for the centenary of Greig’s death in two years’ time. An enthusiastic champion of the Doric, Morrison is also anxious to promote the use of Scots through the songs, and calls for parity for the Scots tongue with Gaelic, in terms of greater funding.
Despite attempts to hammer it out of her at school, she loves north-east Scots.
“That’s despite spending most of my years broadcasting in English, which is my second language,” she says.
“Although there are those who argue that I still haven’t mastered it.”
• The Harvest Folk Festival runs from tomorrow until 30 September. For details, see www.harvestfolkfestival.com
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