THE EARLY DAYS – Folk Music in Irvine and Ayrshire

The High Level Ranters - One of the earliest groups at to play the folk clubs.

The early days of organised folk music in Ayrshire from the mid-sixties is reasonably well documented and much of the initiative for the first folk clubs in Irvine came from Duncan Lunan.  But there is surprising evidence of folk music in Ayrshire over a hundred years before, observed by the French novelist, poet, and playwright Jules Verne.  Jules Verne lived between 1828 and 1905 and at some point in his life he toured the coast of Scotland in his private yacht. Did Jules Verne provide the catalyst for Marymass Folk Festival?  Given the growing interest in folk music in Irvine, perhaps a festival was inevitable, but after his trip to Scotland, Jules Verne had written an obscure novel called ‘Black Diamonds’ and in that novel Verne described Marymass at that time.  He wrote that the principal feature of the Marymass Festival was a great competition for traditional fiddlers, pipers, harpists, singers and dancers on a scale which put late 1960s Blairgowrie Festival in the shade. Duncan Lunan is himself a science fiction writer and reading Black Diamonds planted the seed of an idea.

Duncan, and co-organiser Charlie Muir from Brisbane, formed the idea of an Irvine Marymass mini-festival featuring their more popular ‘big name’ guests, and approached the Irvine Council for funding and the Traditional Music & Song Association, formed at Blairgowrie in 1966, for backing. Both turned them down, one because the proposal was too traditional and the other because it wasn’t traditional enough. There were mixed feelings when they learned in 1968 that there was to be a Marymass Folk Festival after all, but under the auspices of the much larger Eglinton Folk Song Club. Nevertheless they took part, adding their own guest artists to the Festival bill on the Tuesday nights in 1968 and 1969, to join the big names making the circuit of the participating venues.   That was the reason why the High Level Ranters joined with Jean Redpath, Barbara Dickson, and the Humblebums (then Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey, before they were joined by Gerry Rafferty) for an amazing night in 1968 in the tiny room which was the upstairs lounge in the Sun Inn. Duncan only learned recently that Billy and Tam had to gain entry by climbing a ladder from the street, into the side room.  We have the evidence on tape and the fuller story will be published as our research continues.

From our early research, we can tell you that The Irvine Folk Song Club held its first meeting at the Grange Hotel on May 19th, 1966.   It was part of ‘Folk Song Clyde Valley’, a chain of clubs run from the Glasgow Folk Centre on Montrose Street, by Drew and Pearl Moyes, following a series of concerts called ‘Folk Song Today’ featuring major figures from the UK and abroad including Isla Cameron, Ravi Shankar (before the Beatles connected with him), Doc Watson, Champion Jack Dupree, who subsequently settled in the UK, Bill Clifton, Hedy West and more.   The new emphasis was to be on building a chain of venues so that artists could be brought on tour, rather than trying to cover their costs in single large concerts.  The first Ayrshire attempt had been at the Parkstone Hotel in Prestwick the previous year, with Duncan Lunan as compère, and had run successfully over the summer before a long decline over the winter.   Drew decided to make the next attempt in Irvine, in hopes that its larger population would generate a local membership large enough to keep it going through the leaner months of the year.

The guest artist on the first night was Trevor Lucas from Australia, and that brought in a friend of his, Charles Muir from Brisbane.   Charlie was working his way round the world before taking up a post as Director of the family’s fibreglass company, and had come to Irvine to visit his cousin Mel Adam, of the Adam Shops.   They both became strong members of the Club and a local membership began to build up.  By that time Mel Adam and Charlie Muir were the Club’s strongest local supporters.  A non-performing regular was Joe Bleakley, whose much-repeated line, “He’s an awful good singer, that boy!” fully applied to an ever-growing group of local singers, among them Bill Baines, Gordon Hennessey, John Hunter, Mary Lunan, Janis Mark, Betty Cairns and Buff Wilson from Meadowhead Farm, between Troon and Irvine, who emerged as a talented singer/songwriter.   The late Angus Russell, a World War 2 Highland Division officer then lecturing in English at Ayr College, became a fixture, commemorated by Buff in a song based on John Watt’s ‘Fife’s Got Everything’:

“Come to the Folk Club, hear Duncan Lunan singing
Ballads from the bothies, and shanties frae the sea;
Australian poetry, maist vulgar in the country
Was Angus Russell born wi’ a banjo on his knee?”

Many of Buff’s songs featured traditional ways on the farm, which had not been modernised because it was scheduled to become an industrial estate in the New Town development.   These included ‘The Sheep-Dip Song’, ‘Alexander’s Threshing Mill’, ‘Song For Old Neillie’ and ‘The Slype’.   But he also covered contemporary subjects including the joys (or otherwise) of going to Ayr or Kilmarnock for entertainment (‘The Bobby Jones Ballroom’, ‘The Greens’ and ‘Nine in a Caur’), and tackled issues such as football-related violence and the return of the Glasgow gangs.

Irvine was also the place where a young Aly Bain had his first professional booking. In 1966 Duncan had attended the first Scottish folk festival in Blairgowrie, and in 1967 he deliberately left the following Tuesday free to see whom he might be able to persuade to come. That guest spot was filled by a 19-year-old from Shetland, the young Aly Bain on his first paid gig, so nervous that he didn’t want to take the £5 they had agreed on.  There were only 12 people there, because Eddie Gillett (who had started occasional free folk nights at the Harbour Arts Centre the previous year) was putting on Hamish Imlach and Matt McGinn down the road.   But as he left, Mel Adam said to Duncan, “This is your night – that guy is brilliant.”  The full story is told in Aly’s biography by Alastair Clark, ‘Fiddler on the Loose’ (Mainstream, 1993).

At Blairgowrie Duncan also booked the Mona Stewart Ceilidh Band for Prestwick and the Stewarts of Blair for Irvine, though in general the Prestwick audience were more interested in singing techniques, while the Irvine one particularly liked instrumentalists – to the extent that Mel Adam started holding instrumental workshops in the other upstairs room of the Sun Inn, the night before the Club. The Uillean Piper Pat McNulty, six times winner of the All-Ireland and Oireachtas Competitions but resident in Glasgow, got a polite response in Prestwick but invariably went down a storm in Irvine. At the Mona Stewart gig, one of the fiddlers had introduced himself as a solicitor about to move to Troon.   This was the late John Mason, who became a junior partner in Waddell & Mackintosh, and swiftly rose to Assistant Procurator-Fiscal in Ayr.  One of Duncan’s claims is that his solicitor was one of the finest fiddlers in Scotland!  John’s party pieces included ‘The Hen’s March to the Midden’, with audience participation.  His variations had been much copied by other performers, so he kept others such as ‘The Four-Poster Bed’ under wraps when other fiddlers were present. He organised and conducted the Fiddlers’ Rally for the first Lowland Mod, in Ayr, got a hit record out of it, and took the event on tour for many years thereafter.