Nancy Nicolson – singer, songwriter, melodeon player, speaker, teacher, trainer or, if you wish, ‘Cultural Crofter’ – was brought up on a croft in Caithness. From behind the curtain in the box bed when she should have been sleeping, she used to hear her “Granda and his cronies yarning about poaching and illicit stills.” She remembers there was water from the well, peats for fuel, and a pair of Clydesdales as the only horse-power on the croft, but that did not stop her being an Elvis fan and a rock-n-roller when she went to the dances in Wick.
Nancy studied at Edinburgh University and at Moray House Teacher Training College, and became a primary school teacher. She was a scriptwriter for BBC Scotland Schools Radio, worked with the New Makars Trust, writing songs with bairns in Fife, and was Education Officer with Celtic Connections. Nancy came late to singing, believing, like so many others, that she could not sing. Aged 33, she began to sing at Edinburgh Folk Club, and soon after started to write songs and to play melodeon. While resident musician at the Royal Oak Folk Bar in Edinburgh, she was described by one regular as ‘an instant ceilidh’. As writer, singer, storyteller, and animateur, Nancy Nicolson communicates the life and culture of Scotland with rare warmth and energy, and her own brand of wit and wisdom.
Introduction Nancy Nicolson: The Cultural Crofter from Caithness by Eberhard Bort
It was the Sunday Express on 13 October 2013 that tried to open our eyes about the dangerous subversion perpetrated by a heap of Scottish songwriters. Education Scotland, it revealed, was promoting ‘a number of modern, politically-biased songs’ for primary and secondary school pupils under the heading ‘Freedom and Scots People’. Among these singled out in the article were the late Hamish Henderson’s ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye’, Dick Gaughan’s ’Both Sides the Tweed’ (a co-write with James Hogg, but we’ll let that pass), that ‘modern’ rebel rouser Robert Burns’s ‘Scots Wha Hae’, John Mack, Morris Blythman and Jim McLean’s ‘Ding Dong Dollar’, Billy Connolly’s ‘The Welly Boot Song’, and – oor Nancy, with ‘Who Pays the Piper?’, her, as the paper had it, ‘attack’ on ‘the “immensely rich companies” involved in the North Sea Oil industry.’ A unionist politician was cited, calling the whole project ‘an outrageous example of taxpayer funded political propaganda.’ So be warned, the Daily Express might not approve of this publication either. Nancy Nicolson’s reaction was typical – ‘Oh to be in such company, that would be some pairty!’
I first met Nancy when I came to Edinburgh in 1995 to work at Edinburgh University. Where? In the Royal Oak, of course. Or was it at Edinburgh Folk Club? No matter, more than twenty years ago, Nancy was already part and parcel of the Edinburgh folk scene. And she was umbilically linked to both. At Edinburgh Folk Club she had the distinction of being the only songwriter to be barred from partaking in the annual songwriting contest – after having won it three times in rapid succession. She has since repeatedly served as a judge in that competition. Nancy continues to be a regular floor singer at the Club, and has, from its inception in 2002, been involved in the Carrying Stream Festival, Edinburgh Folk Club’s annual celebration of the life and legacy of Hamish Henderson, one of her mentors.
In the Oak, she had her own session, has been singing at the Wee Folk Club and Festival Folk at the Oak, and presented her own shows, working with the likes of Bobby Eaglesham, Billy Craib, Tony Mitchell, Alastair McDonald and Murray Macleod. Three Weeks, in a four-star review, wrote this about her ‘Air Alba’ Festival show:
Nancy Nicolson … enchants her audience in the Royal Oak’s intimate venue with tales of childhood, Scottish folklore and, of course, Robert Burns. As she invites volunteers to share a dram you think of family and fireside story-sharing; this is an experience unlike any other, and one is left feeling oddly changed as the show ends and the spell breaks. Nancy’s talk is informative, her songs [are] delightful. […] you’ll never feel more at home at the Fringe.
One of the shows, ‘Nancy’s Whisky’, recently acquired a new lease of life when Nancy was invited by the Pulteneytown People’s Project to Wick to perform her songs, yarns and music of whisky, next door to, and sponsored by, Old Pulteney.
While a resident musician at the Royal Oak, Nancy was described by one regular as ‘an instant ceilidh’. This, she assures me, still holds true. Impromptu ceilidhs have emerged around her at EIS conferences (frequently along with Robin Harper MSP), on commuter trains with Irish Rugby Fans and the connivance of the ticket collector, at numerous stage doors (inside with the staff, not outside busking) and at the drop of a hat in the Royal Oak, day or night.
In her own account and in George Gunn’s contribution, it is evident how big a role both Edinburgh Folk Club and the Royal Oak played in creating the Nancy Nicolson whose songs are collected and published for the first time in this volume. What also becomes abundantly clear is the love of a committed teacher to her bairns, the work for the New Makars Trust in Fife, and for Celtic Connection in Glasgow – pioneering work she cherished.
Like few others, Nancy Nicolson has the gift – as writer, singer and storyteller – to communicate the life and culture of Scotland, with rare warmth and energy and her very own brand of wit and wisdom. As can be seen in this volume, she covers (nearly) every subject under the sun – from bootleg whisky to the Miners’ Strike, from bairns’ play to the grim and cruel games of war, and from ‘hauf-hangit’ Maggie to ‘Maggie’s Pit Ponies’.
Nancy’s lyrics, Karen Forbes observed, ‘have a distinctive quality of fairness: giving a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.’
Many of Nancy’s songs speak out for the ‘underdogs’ in society; those who cannot be heard above the din of the ruling classes or wealthy management. By imagining the feelings of the workers rather than just accepting the historical narrative, usually written by and for the cultural elite, Nancy politicises and vocalises the story of those who were written out of history…
In her own words – her sleeve notes for the McCalman’s version of ‘Who Pays the Piper? – her angry lament expressed loss and grief for the 167 oil men who died in the Piper alpha oil rig disaster in 1988:
The money-wells in the North Sea are owned by immensely rich companies and fed by workers’ lives. The men off-shore have to watch their tongues or lose their jobs. We can be their voices.
And she is a sair fechter for the Scots language – particularly as spoken in her home county of Caithness. As Tom Knox remarked, ‘it is … reassuring to know that we have people of the talent and tenacity of Nancy Nicolson fighting to keep the Scots language on the cultural and political agenda.’
Some of her songs have nearly become ‘traditional’ by now, being taken up by other singers – among them Nancy’s greatest hits: ‘’Listen tae the Teacher’, ‘The Moon in the Morning’, ‘The Brickie’s Ballad’ and ‘They Sent a Wumman’. Among others, Gerda Stevenson, The McCalmans and Ed Miller have recorded her songs. For this publication, an enhanced version of her 1990 tape, recorded and issued by Ewan McVicar, is included, with a handful of songs recently recorded by David O’Leary at Edinburgh Folk Club.
Nancy Nicolson, Cultural Crofter was the title of the dissertation by Karen Forbes. That is a very apt description for Nancy who is more than a folk singer or a tradition bearer, more than a songwriter or a storyteller or a melodeon player, as you are about to see when you enter these pages: the autobiographical piece by Nancy herself, George Gunn’s contribution, based on a conversation with Nancy, Gerda Stevenson’s reminiscences of collaborating with Nancy on her radio show, and Ewan McVicar’s recollection of recording Nancy’s songs form the backdrop – but the focus is firmly on the songs, in all their glorious diversity.
It was an immense pleasure to help putting this volume together. It involved a few sessions in Nancy’s hospitable kitchen; and working again with the inspirational Gonzalo Mazzei of Grace Note Publications. A heartfelt thanks to all who contributed to the volume. It was, I hope you will agree, high time that Nancy Nicolson’s songs were collected and published. That it now happens to mark her seventy-fifth birthday is as good a reason for a party as you’ll get this year.
As Karen Forbes noted in her Dissertation, Nancy’s introduction to the children at her workshops is ‘I’ll sing you a story and tell you a song’. That’ll do nicely as a motto for this book. Even at the risk of the Sunday Express taking offence, again.
THE BOOK CONTENT
List of Illustrations
Introduction Nancy Nicolson: The Cultural Crofter from Caithness by Eberhard Bort
A Canna Sing! by Nancy Nicolson
Flittin in a Hen Hoose: The Songs of Nancy Nicolson by George Gunn
Collaborating with Nancy by Gerda Stevenson
What Did You Say? by Nancy Nicolson
1 Granda Said 66
2 The Stushie 68
3 Listen tae the Teacher 70
4 Teacher Loves Me 74
5 Bairn Broon, Maw Broon 77
6 A Wish for the World 80
7 Dear Cummie 82
II History & Places
8 Castle of Spite 86
9 Weeck an Poltney 88
10 Hard-Boiled Eggs 92
11 The Midnight Cove 96
12 The Heilan Horse 98
13 The Berryin at Blair 102
14 Maggie’s Pit Ponies 104
15 Who Pays the Piper? 108
16 Don’t Call Maggie a Cat 110
III Love, Life, and Loss
17 The Fairmer 114
18 The Mistress 118
19 The Moon in the Morning 120
20 Don’t Waste Ma Time 122
21 New Boots 126
22 They Sent a Wumman 128
23 The Camel and the Rich Man 132
24 The Brickie’s Ballad 134
25 The Keepingsakes 138
26 If I Die 140
27 Clan Beag 144
28 Who Could Endure 148
29 Wan More Cowg 150
30 James Traill, I Ca’d Ye Ma Son 152
31 Cold Comfort 154
32 Good Intentions 156
V War and Peace
33 The Eagle and the Bear 160
34 Woe Is Me 164
35 Nuclear Love Song 166
36 E Man At Muffed Id 168
37 Gulf Stream 172
38 Do Nothing 176
39 The Craws Ca’d Collateral 178
40 Boys and Toys 182
41 Tony B-Liar 186
42 A Free Flag 188
43 Ev’ry Little Sparrow 192
44 Cuddle 194
45 Last Carol 197
Poems and a Story
46 Garden Opened One Eye 200
47 Inverness Aunties 201
48 Faa’s Caat’s Aat? 202
49 Hauf-Hinget Maggie 204
50 The Lesson – A Story 207
Titles and First Lines 214
RHYME AND REASON
Getting Some of Nancy’s Songs Down on Tape, Ewan McVicar 220
and Reason Plus/Further Book Resources 224