50 years of Marymass Folk Festival

The Whistlebinkies - with Mick Broderick looking like the dapper gentleman

The festival whose 50th anniversary we are now marking traces its roots back to the Eglinton Arms, which was the early home to both the Eglinton Folk Club and Marymass Festival.  The folk club and festival have effectively been under the same organisational umbrella to this day, and although Stan Robertson is rightly credited as the real driving force, it has been his ‘recruits to the cause’, most notedly Joyce Hodge (Joyce Piper) and Anne Clarke, who have taken the organisation forward over the years.

The late sixties and seventies was a particularly good time for folk music in Ayrshire and the festival built on existing activity and an Irvine Folk Club met in various venues. There were various ambitions to start a festival and the seed had been planted in 1967 by Duncan Lunan, but it took the arrival in the town of Joe Caldwell to pull things together with the necessary backing. Joe had spotted an opportunity and although his eye was firmly on the Eglinton Arms bank balance, critically he was what we would call today, a good networker, and someone who wasn’t afraid to take a risk.  To have someone as vibrant of Liberace to open the refurbished Eglinton, or bring a young Helen Shapiro to Irvine to win a £1 bet, is a story for another time, but Joe’s arrival in Irvine was opportune.

Joe had moved into Irvine from Ballantrae to take over the Eglinton Arms and was keen to open the Eglinton’s doors to music.  A local folk enthusiast, Jimmy McCleary, was the real motivating force which persuaded Joe to advertise in the local papers for ‘folk enthusiasts’ to gather for a meeting in The Snug at the Eglinton. The late Wilson Muir, Provost of the time, chaired the meeting and The Eglinton Folk Club, Irvine, was born, headed by Provost Wilson Muir, Burgh Treasurer Sam Gaw, and with the inimitable Jimmy and ‘Buff Wilson’ as founder committee members of the new club.  At Jimmy’s insistence, a completely unknown duo called The Humblebums, together with the late great Matt McGinn, opened the folk club on the Wednesday between Christmas and the New Year 1967.

As a direct result of the instant success of the new Club, the Town Council asked them to organise a Folk Festival at Marymass, and offered to underwrite the festival to a maximum of £200.  Following a series of panic attacks, nobody but nobody had the foggiest about running a folk festival, said Joe, Arthur Argo, folk specialist from the BBC reluctantly agreed to help. Great performers like Jean Redpath, the then teenage Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, The Humblebums and many others made certain that the first Marymass Folk Festival got off to a flying start and made sure it was not the last.  And it was all done for less than the £200 offered, because of the unfailing trust artists all had in the unpaid Arthur Argo. There were full houses every night at every venue! Eglinton Folk Club and Marymass Festival Folk Festival organisers owe a lot to Arthur Argo.

The Traditional Singing Competition, which had been introduced in 1971 and won in that first year by Dick Gaughan, became the main event on the first Saturday afternoon.  Note ‘the first Saturday’, because spanning two weekends and a whole week in between, the length of the event was unprecedented for any folk festival in Scotland.

In the years since 1972 to the present day, so much has happened that it would take a book to even scratch the surface.  And indeed, a book is where this exhibition is heading towards.  There will be opportunities over the coming months to contribute your own memories and memorabilia and help us piece together the stories.  We also look forward to the ongoing legacy of the festival which will live on through the musical traditions and songs of Scotland which are once again embedded in a new generation.

The story of the reinvigoration of folk music in Scotland in the fifties, sixties and seventies is a complex one.  Irvine played its part in that revival of interest.  We have lived through special times, met some extraordinary people, and deserve to mark this anniversary with a degree of pride and satisfaction of a job well done.