The Marymass Traditional Singing Competition was introduced in 1971 and report in the Marymass newsletter, Daily Excess, noted that that first year was “distinguished for enthusiasm rather than quality”, although the winner that year was none other than Dick Gaughan, one of the professional guest artists at the festival in 1971. We are fairly sure that the impetus for the competition would have come from Arthur Argo, who’s role in opening people’s eyes to the richness of Scotland’s song tradition can’t be overstated.
Just one year later the competition had taken off, which with hindsight isn’t too surprising because at that time many younger singers were discovering that tradition and have gone on to make their own notable contribution over the last few decades. Again to quote from the Daily Excess:
“But what a reversal within a year. Yesterday’s competition proved an adjudicators nightmare – at least ten potential winners from an entry of twenty. An astonishingly large – and quiet – audience could not have asked for more. They heard latent, budding, and fully flowered talents of a standard that would enrich any event and certainly set a standard that would enrich any event and certainly set a standard that will be a yardstick for festivals the country over to emulate in years to come. Danny Kyle and Arthur Argo had the unenviable task of making decisions and, as the admitted themselves, the hardest part was cutting the original entry to a short leet of seven. How do you eliminate people like Zetta, (Isla St Clair’s mother), who chose a magnificent song and sang it with such intensity or Jack Foley whose technique showed how well he has worked, or Brian Miller who sang with great control? Sadly it had to be done and the finalists were: Alan Morris, Heather Heywood, Mary Stewart, Arthur Johnstone, Tich Frier, Norman Stewart and Lesley Hale.”
“Every one of them on known performances, could have taken the trophy. As it was, Mary Stewart’s memorable version of ‘My Son David’ won her the Arthur Argo Trophy.”
Moving on to 1973 and the event continued to flower. “Last year’s Traditional Singing Contest was first class … yesterday’s was quite unbelievable. Arthur Argo and Jean Redpath had the task of deciding on the winners but in their final analysis, there must be few who would disagree with their decision. Allan Morris as winner with Norman Stewart as runner up. Equal third place went to Heather Heywood and Bobby Robb – a very creditable performance by two comparative newcomers.”
From the names on the trophy, the competition ran for thirteen years, a period which coincided with the peak of popularity of similar competitions at other festivals throughout the country, including Kinross and Newcastleton. The winners listed are: 1971 – Dick Gaughan, 1972 – Mary Stewart, 1973 – Allan Morris, 1974 – Jack Foley, 1975 – Sylvia Barnes, 1976 – Mary Stewart, 1977 – Heather Heywood, 1978 – Peter Fairbairn, 1979 – Pat Darlington, 1980 – Cathy McKinnin / Brian Golbey, 1981 – Peter Fairbairn, 1982 – Clare Robertson / Laurence Montague, 1983 – Joan McLachlan.