The Magnetic North tell Aidan Smith how a ghostly visitor inspired a tribute to one of Scotland’s most magical places
“I got up – it was 3am – and wrote down everything she’d said,” says Cooper, leader of psych-folkies Erland and the Carnival. An e-mail was despatched to his multi-instrumentalist mate Simon Tong, but Cooper expected only sniggers. “I thought Simon would ask, ‘What were you on last night?’ But his reaction was, ‘When are we going there?’ ”
“There” was Orkney, Cooper’s birthplace. The woman was Betty Corrigall, whose tragic story from the 1770s Cooper remembered being told in childhood. Corrigall didn’t have much of a life, having killed herself amid the shame of being pregnant and unwed. She didn’t have much of an afterlife either, with her grave holding a macabre fascination for bored soldiers. But now she has an album dedicated to her, Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North.
The Magnetic North is also the name of Cooper’s hobby band for this project, comprising Tong – former guitarist with the Verve and Damon Albarn collaborator – and fellow folkie Hannah Peel. Making their first trips to Orkney, they helped him record in his parents’ house and at various windswept locations. He’s delighted that, after leaving the islands with hardly a backwards glance at its history, he’s finally made an artistic statement about the place.
“Like most teenagers growing up in Orkney I was excited about leaving,” says Cooper. “So much so that when the time came for university I wanted my first trip to be all the way to New York. I remember walking up Broadway, nodding to people and saying ‘A’right man?’ like I was still in Stromness. I was so naïve I tried to start up conversations with passengers on the underground and they surely must have thought I was a weirdo with a gun.
“But do you know that George Mackay Brown was a neighbour of ours back home and yet I never stopped to talk to the great man all the time I was there. Sure, I had boyish curiosity about this old guy in our street, a bit of a loner, but it’s one of my big regrets that I never spoke to him.”
What tales the Bard of Orkney could have told, although Cooper had heard the story about Corrigall, whom Brown wrote about, from a Scout master.
Corrigall was 27 when her man left her to join a whaling ship. The guilt and scorn became too much and she first tried to drown herself, only to be rescued, before hanging herself in a byre. Church rules meant that as a suicide she couldn’t be buried in the kirkyard. Two landowners wouldn’t allow her to be interred on their estates and she was eventually laid to rest on unconsecrated ground at the parish border between Hoy and North Walls, one half of the coffin in each.
“I guess when I first heard the story, aged 12 or so, I would have been less fascinated by the child-out-of-wedlock aspect than what happened later,” says Cooper. “Her grave was accidentally dug up and, having been surrounded by peat, her body was perfectly preserved. The noose that had ended her life lay beside her, although according to legend, as soon as it was exposed to the air it turned to dust. Soldiers based at Scapa during the Second World War, who must have got very bored during their remote posting, would dig up the coffin to view her remains. Ghoulishness like that tends to stick in a teenager’s mind.”
Peel, who had become friends with Erland and the Carnival after touring with them, was entranced by Corrigall’s story.
“It’s almost unbearably sad,” she says. “Erland and Simon asked me to help them out with what I thought was going to be a crazy little EP. I turned up with my violin and trombone – the guys didn’t know I played these instruments – and the whole thing just grew and grew.”
She fell in love with Orkney just as quickly. “We couldn’t make an Orkney record without including Orkney and before I knew it we were on a flattie boat with supplies of doughnuts and wine, sailing into this beautiful orangey-pink sunset with seals all around us. It’s an absolutely enchanting place.”
Cooper has always known this, his teenage frustrations a mere blip, and he was proud to show off the islands to his friends, using a 1930s traveller’s guide to tour Warbeth, Rackwick and Yesnaby, all of which would get songs named after them. And when the trio stumbled across the Stromabank Pub Choir, Peel immediately began writing a score for them.
“The choir is made up of half the island of Hoy and they’re these wonderful old boys, each with a great story to tell, so we’re going to make a film about them,” she says.
“Next month we’re performing the whole album in St Magnus Cathedral, which they’re thrilled about, and we’re also going to bring them to London for shows. But they’re all in their seventies, so we mustn’t push them too much.”
Peel was amazed to discover a neolithic site every half-mile, as well as Viking graffiti. “It was in praise of a woman, which translated as something like ‘Lady of the Sun is hot’. That was amazing.” And Cooper recorded some of his vocals in the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, a cave resembling nothing so much as a burial chamber. He says: “There’s an inscription on the walls in Persian by a 19th-century traveller, William Mounsey, ‘I have stayed two nights, learning the virtue of patience’.”
The story of Betty Corrigall has not yet given up all its mysteries. “What happened to the father of her child?” adds Cooper. “Really, I’m wondering about this throughout the album.”
“Oh I think he came back for her,” says Peel. “This is Romeo and Juliet, and when he found out what had happened to her he was so heartbroken he killed himself.”
• Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North is out this week on Full Time Hobby. The band plays St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on 28 June, as part of Magfest, visit www.stmagnusfestival.com for more details
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east