The Scotsman Sessions #36: Iona Fyfe

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Iona Fyfe sings The Fair o Balnafannon, first printed in 1831 and thought to have been inspired by the Paisley bard Robert Tannahill’s Braes o Balquhidder

At just 22, Iona Fyfe has established herself as an assured interpreter of North-East folk song, hailing from that ubiquitous locale of Aberdeenshire balladry, Huntly, and recognised as a doughty champion of Doric culture. Her debut album, Away From My Window, was widely praised and not only did the end of 2018 see her voted Scots Singer of the Year, but a formal motion in the Scottish Parliament saluted “her efforts to showcase Doric and Scots music.”

Her interests, however, extend well beyond the ballad-rich ferm touns of the North-East. Last year her EP Dark Turn of Mind looked across the Atlantic to Appalachia. “We tend to forget that there have always been connections, with songs that have been passed to and fro,” says Fyfe, speaking from Glasgow (where she graduated last year from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). “Jean Ritchie [the widely influential American folk singer] taught Jeannie Robertson a few ballads and that ended up with Jeannie using words like ‘ain’t’ in a register you’d never expect.”

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Another North-East tradition-bearer who inspired Fyfe, Jane Turriff, recorded an album of country and western covers. “So why should I be pigeonholed just into where I came from? I love these songs. I still go to all the bothy ballad competitions, but I think I can stay part of that tradition with music that’s a bit more widely accessible and contemporary.”

Fyfe’s next album may explore wider repertoire, but everything is on hold under the shadow of Covid-19, which has seen her cancel tours in Denmark and Australia. In the meantime, for her Scotsman Session, she has returned to her roots with The Fair o Balnafannon. First printed in 1831, the song may have been inspired by the Paisley bard Robert Tannahill’s Braes o Balquhidder. Fyfe chose it for its melody, which she describes as more Irish than Scots: “People will recognise the second verse as being from the familiar Wild Mountain Thyme.”