William MacMath

Amongst the collection of papers and books bought by the artist Edward Hornel in the early 1900s – his time of living and building up a library at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland – are two exquisitely beautiful handwritten books containing 56 songs. The songs in these books were written down by William Macmath 1844-1922, who grew up in Galloway. All the songs on this cd are part of that collection and nearly all of them were sung or recited to William Macmath by people who lived, visited or worked close by the Macmath family home at Airds of Kells on loch Ken in the heart of Galloway.

Macmath’s life’s work was in collecting and researching Scotland’s traditional ballads for Francis Child, Professor of English at Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA who was compiling songs for his great work: English and Scottish Popular Ballads. This work was eventually published in 6 volumes between 1882-1898. The letters between Child and Macmath, discussing fine detail of the songs and their provenance, are also held at Broughton House.

Over the summer of 2012 I began to think about ways to sing this paper-based collection back to life. Firstly I invited Scots ballad experts Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre to assess the cultural value of the collection. When I saw how excited they were by the songs, some of which they’d never seen or heard before, I decided to bring together some of the world-class traditional musicians living in the region in order to make a uniquely Galloway showcase: today’s musicians singing and playing the songs of the people who lived here 170 years ago.

As a group we decided early on that our goal was to make a collection of singable songs with great arrangements. For that reason we’ve sometimes tweaked Macmath’s versions by losing or adding verses or slightly changing the scan of a line. For some songs we’ve written new tunes as none existed, for others we’ve taken local traditional tunes of the time and reworked them to fit the text.

Mostly we’ve chosen songs that were unusual, rare or unique to the collection and, while there may be songs that you’ve heard before or know versions of, the reason that you know them may well be down to the work of William Macmath in recording and sending them to Child for publication. This in turn has fed the songs back into the repertoire of folk singers all over the world.

I can’t stress enough what a unique and precious piece of local heritage we’re working with and how exciting it is to be singing these songs back to life. We hope you enjoy this cd as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together.

Alison Burns