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Shona Donaldson traces Huntly's musical routes

Written by Marisa Duffy, The Herald

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

article | The Herald

The singer takes a bus trip around the sites that inspired her new album of bothy ballads.

It is a truly dreich morning in the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly as the Bothy Ballad Bus pulls up in the town's neat central square. Its arrival prompts clusters of cagouled music fans to spill out from the nearby shop doorways where they have been taking shelter. The bus windows turn opaque with mist as the high-spirited audience takes its seats inside. For the ballad bus is not simply a mode of transport, but the venue for a live performance by traditional singer Shona Donaldson.

Donaldson, a native of Huntly who now lives in nearby Tarland with her husband, the esteemed fiddler Paul Anderson, last year became the town's official musician-in-residence. Bilingual in English and Doric, the 25-year-old has spent the months since researching the bothy ballad tradition in the North East of Scotland - with a particular focus on a contemporary adaptation of the Greig-Duncan ballad collection - as part of an initiative funded by the Deveron Arts Project. This bus tour marks the official end of her year.

Joining the couple is Donaldson's father Matt, a mean piper himself although today his role is MC and chief storyteller during the journey which will take in Rhynie, Kennethmont and Forgue. After brief introductions, Donaldson begins to sing, and chatter instantly gives way to her voice, a voice which saw her named Scots Singer of the Year at the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards in 2009.

The ballad bus is a joint venture between the Deveron Arts Project, established in Huntly a decade ago, and the annual Doric Festival. Resplendent in his tweeds, Sandy Stronach, director of the Doric Festival, is pleased at the turnout. "We've been running the ballad buses for several years but never before in Huntly, and yet of all the towns Huntly is the one with the richest tradition of balladry."

The first stop is a few miles away at Inshtammack, outside a cottage which was the scene of a murder. Entitled Willie Cumming, the ballad tells of Willie, who murdered his wife Helen, and whose children witnessed the act and ran to Huntly to tell the police. Donaldson admits that this ballad was one which she found particularly memorable.

"Ian Russell at the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University was the first person I heard sing it and I thought, 'I must go and find out a bit more about it.' I knew from the song that it had happened on December 20, 1901, so I went to the Huntly Express offices and looked it up, and the whole trail was there. It was amazing actually looking through the original papers and finding all this stuff out. I felt like Inspector Morse. I thought I should have my own theme tune."

While some in the group have travelled from Glasgow and Shetland, many are local and familiar with the ballads, joining in at the chorus. Likewise, the commentary is very much a group effort, with passengers adding bits of local knowledge, pointing out a house where they were born or a cemetery where their ancestors lie. For a celebration of folk ballads, the communal narrative seems particularly fitting.

With the rain clouds dissipating, the party ventures out to sample the air at Drumdelgie, which was at one time the biggest farm in Britain. Several express regret at the way the once great farmland is now partially covered in trees. Donaldson sings Drumdelgie, written by a farm worker during the farm's glory days, followed by Broadlands, an old ballad for which she wrote a new melody.

All aboard again and the bus climbs the infamous Cabrach Road - always first closed during bad weather. A stop alongside the Fiddich river - which feeds the nearby Glenfiddich whisky distillery in Dufftown - provides a clear view of Auchindoun Castle. As the group takes in the vast landscape, Donaldson sings The Burning Of Auchindoun which tells of the destruction of the castle by Clan MacKintosh in 1592.

Interspersed between the songs and stories, Anderson, who was the first musician-in-residence, entertains with fiddle-playing. Donaldson admits that he has been a support in several ways during the year - not least in looking after their two young sons, three-year-old Hector and baby Roderick who made his appearance halfway through her residency. "A lot of people maybe look at it and think, 'Och, it's just folk music,'" she says, "but Paul really does understand what it means to me because it is a massive part of your life."

A garden centre lunch stop initially seems an incongruous setting for a sing-song of ballads, but Deveron Arts is about making ordinary places the backdrop to the arts, with the motto "the town is the venue". Moira Webster, a local, gets to her feet to give a rendition of Aul Meal Mill, much to the delight of fellow diners. The colourful Keith Cockburn then sings his version of Dumfermline Fair Market, adapted for Huntly.

Donaldson created modern tunes to the songs without melodies and integrated modern lines into the fragmented songs, juxtaposing old source material with new music and text. As well as taking lessons in the town's primary and secondary schools, she has given live performances and recorded a CD entitled Bonnie Bogie's Belle, to be launched later this week at the Sound music festival.

For a contemporary arts project, Donaldson, a traditional singer, may seem like an unusual choice, so how did she approach the task? "One of the terms of the residency was that it had to be quite contemporary. I had to be careful because I'm quite a traditionalist and I didn't want to get away from the tradition too much. The way I went about it was to make it a traditional tune but make the accompaniment more contemporary. You can sing it unaccompanied and it would still be traditional, but once you put the piano with it, it would sound more modern."

She admits she found it intimidating to write songs or words for ballads which have been around for centuries, and when not teaching or performing, much of the work was solitary. "I felt like I didn't want any kind of outside influence. I just felt like it had to be my vision of what I wanted, although I did speak to folk and did quite a bit of research. I did a lot of concerts in Huntly in my time, so I was singing these things, trying them out on folk, and it seemed to get quite a good reaction, so I thought I must be doing something right."

A glorious autumn sun appears as the bus reaches its final stop on the tour: Huntly Castle, an imposing building of such opulence that it apparently made Mary Queen of Scots green with envy when she stayed here. Now semi-ruined, it is apparently home to the ghostly White Lady.

Anderson can hardly bear to look at the place after he found himself locked in one long night after he'd slipped in without paying to get some inspiration for a piece. "All the windows had bars and the only one I could jump from had a 50 foot drop. Four hours later, I saw a woman walking past with her dog and flagged her down and was rescued."

Here, with a heartfelt rendition of Adieu Tae Bogieside, Donaldson bids farewell to the bus passengers and to her year in residence. As she sings "my heart will be in Huntly town and sweet old Bogieside", there is no faking the sentiment.

Shona Donaldson will perform songs from Bogie’s Bonnie Belle at the OAP Hall, Huntly, on Friday as part of the Sound festival. The album will be released on December 4, priced £11 and is available from and Deveron Arts, Brander Building, The Square, Huntly AB54 8BR

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

relevant events
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
29Fri 7.30 pmHuntlyShona Donaldson Bogie's Bonnie Belle