About this time last year, passers-by in the Aberdeenshire coastal town of Portsoy may have been bemused by a group of people gathered round a grave in the parish kirkyard, singing folk songs despite the rain.
It’s a ritual that will be repeated on Saturday, 4 June, hopefully in more clement weather, as Portsoy’s seventh folk festival – The Haal – once again celebrates the memory of the town’s redoubtable son, Jimmy MacBeath, itinerant labourer, man of the road and bearer of a rich store of bothy ballads and other north-east songs and stories.
“Haal” is the Doric term for hauling in salmon nets, and many of the weekend’s workshops and competitions take place in the former net loft of the town’s beautifully restored Salmon Bothy. The programme combines such esteemed traditional singers as Tom Spiers, Arthur Watson, Scott Gardner, Irish traveller Thomas McCarthy and 2014 BBC Scotland Young Traditional musician of the Year Robyn Stapleton, with more contemporary sounds from the award-winning young Irish band The Jeremiahs and the acclaimed English folk and blues singer-guitarist Martin Simpson in trio with accordionist Andy Cutting and singer Nancy Kerr.
Portsoy Folk Club chairman Bob Philips explains that The Haal, while largely based on north-east traditional song, makes a point of mixing it with more contemporary guests such as The Jeremiahs. He points to the Jimmy MacBeath Memorial Concert, in the town hall on the Friday night, which features such familiar name as Spiers, Watson and Stapleton: “This year for the Friday night concert,” he says, “we’ve got Thomas McCarthy, who has his own strong traditions that will fit into the evening. We’ve also got a young singer with local connections, Mabel Duncan, who’s an up-and-coming star.”
The club also organises music for Portsoy’s long-established Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, which sees all manner of craft converge on the town on 25 and 26 June.
At the heart of The Haal, however, remains the rambunctious memory of Jimmy MacBeath, “King o’ the Cornkisters”, who was born in Portsoy in 1894 and died in hospital in Aberdeen in 1972, having spent many years living in a model lodging house. Having led the grindingly hard life of a fee’d farm servant in his younger days, he saw service in Flanders with the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War.
According to Philips, he also spent time working in the logging camps of Canada, but it was his store of “cornkisters” and other songs, and his ability to project them in gravelly Doric, his spectacularly lived-in face radiating from under his bunnet, which brought him from street singing at north-east feein’ markets to appreciative audiences as far apart as Blairgowrie, Loughborough and Cecil Sharp House in London. Songs he made very much his own included Tramps and Hawkers, MacPherson’s Lament and Drumdelgie.
His singing may have brought him fame but not, alas, prosperity. As the late Hamish Henderson wrote of Jimmy, from whom both he and the visiting American musicologist Alan Lomax collected songs during the 1950s, “Money always flowed through Jimmy’s hands like water; he spent quite a lot on booze, and was always ready to ‘stand his hand’ in company, but he was also an impulsively – one might say compulsively – generous person ...”
Philips recalls MacBeath’s larger than life presence when, during his teens, he heard him at Aberdeen Grammar School, when Jimmy’s not-so-covert libations from a half bottle in a paper bag almost got the school folk club closed down by the affronted school authorities.
The headstone erected in 1999 over Jimmy’s previously unmarked grave bears the legend “Bound to be a Row” – not a prediction of whatever ructions the singer may be causing in the hereafter, but the title of one of his best-known songs. And songs will be sung around it once again this coming festival, assures Philips: “Hopefully this time the sun will shine.”
• The seventh Haal runs from 3-5 June in various venues around Portsoy. For details see www.bothyfolk.org