Lovingly collected ballads to be liberated from archives at TradFest

Songs, many of them unique to Galloway, that have been confined in silence within a manuscript collection for the best part of a century, will be 'liberated' in a concert featuring some of the area's best-known folk musicians during Edinburgh's forthcoming TradFest.

Macmath: The Silent Page, at The Caves on 30 April, celebrates the largely forgotten work of Galloway-born ballad collector William Macmath with an impressive line-up of musicians and singers from the Dumfries and Galloway area – Emily Smith, Robyn Stapleton, Aaron Jones, Wendy Stewart, Claire Mann, Alison Burns and Jamie MacLennan, as well as poet Tom Pow as narrator.

Macmath was the Scottish collector for the Harvard-based Professor Francis Child, whose English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published during the latter part of the 19th century, is a touchstone for folk singers and researchers. Macmath, who died in 1922, has faded into obscurity, even though his contributions to Child’s volumes were consistently the best researched.

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The Silent Page is a bid to set the record straight. Commissioned for last year’s Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival, it is the brainchild of the Castle Douglas-based composer, songwriter and community choir leader Alison Burns, who was shown Macmath’s two volumes of handwritten manuscripts in the archives of Broughton House in Kirkcudbright. Now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland, the handsome Georgian house was the home of the painter Edward Atkinson Hornel, the Kirkcudbright-born “Glasgow Boy”, who was an industrious collector of local literature, poetry and folklore.

Macmath grew up at Airds of Kells, by Loch Kens, before becoming a legal clerk and, after a brief spell in Castle Douglas, spent most of his life in Edinburgh, where Hornel acquired his manuscripts at auction.

Macmath, Burns agrees, seems to have been a “ballad obsessive”.

“Both his mother and aunt were exceptional singers and carriers of songs, so they handed songs down to him, as did a lot of people who came through the house.”

So Macmath was already steeped in balladry when he saw an advertisement which Child had placed in the scholarly journal Notes and Queries, asking people in Britain to send him any ballads they knew. Macmath responded and essentially collected for Child for the next 30 years. While credited for his labours, the feeling today is that the sheer volume of meticulous research he carried out was never properly acknowledged, and his reputation allowed to fade. “Even when I started talking to well-known musicians about joining this project, none of them had heard of him.”

Burns and company decided to home in on material he had gleaned from his own area. “Some of these songs are just stunning,” says Burns. They include a unique local version of the Tam Lin ballad called The Queen of the Fairies and what Burns describes as “an amazing version of The Twa Corbies”.

Collected in the Victorian manner, usually with only the words being recorded, the project is at last freeing them from that mute page. As renowned Scots singers and researchers Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre, recruited as consultants to the project, have pointed out: “Songs, be they in print or MSS, are essentially in shackles and can only be set free when sung.”

The Silent Page concert will see the launch of a similarly titled album, while Macmath’s work will also be the subject of one of a “Treasure Troves of Scottish Tradition” series of talks at the National library of Scotland on 4 May.

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There is, of course, much more to this year’s TradFest, Edinburgh’s annual showcase of traditional arts and culture. Its numerous venues will host such notable performers as Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Griogair Labhruidh’s Ghettocroft, Gerda Stevenson, Moishe’s Bagel, Dàimh, Nuala Kennedy, Mairi Campbell’s Pulse show and much more, with ceilidhs, lectures, walks and sessions including children’s events.

Songs will take flight, silent pages left far behind.

• TradFest is at various venues in Edinburgh from 17 April until 8 May. For full listings and tickets details, visit www.tracscotland.org/festivals/tradfest