Saturday, January 31, 2009

If I ever robbed a bank...

...and got away with about £30,000, this is what I'd buy - the full four-finish range of Gibson F4 mandolins, made between 1914 and 1920.




Images from this website.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hillbilly Murder Ballads

Old-time songs aren't all about home, faith and mother. The subject matter of the hillbilly murder ballad is usually a jilted lover who lures their unsuspecting, unfaithful, beloved to a remote location and finishes him or her (usually her) off in cold blood. Pleasant stuff. The strange thing is that these are often very sweet and melodic - lulling the listener into a false sense of security before going WHACK on the back of the head with a lump of wood and being dumped into the local river.

For example - Banks of the Ohio, performed here by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe:

(the hymn "His Hands were Pierced" is often sung to this tune)

Or the blood-curdling Knoxville Girl, performed here by the Wilburn Brothers:

Little Mathie Grove by Ralph Stanley is about a man (Arnold) who finds his wife with another man (Grove) - Arnold challenges Grove to a sword duel, kills him, and then beheads the unfaithful wife. Down in the Willow Garden is another account of a man murdering his fiancée, as is Poor Ellen Smith, who was "shot through the heart lying cold on the ground":

And just when you thought than one or two murders in a song was plenty, The Murder of the Lawson Family takes the genre to a whole new depth - a true story of the 37 year old Charlie Lawson who killed his wife and six children on Christmas Day in 1929 - and a song which entered the US Top 5 the following year. All of these songs and more can be found on this cd boxset.

The genre has been seen as an example of a "culture of honour" in the southern states of the US - a culture which has been identified with (you guessed it) the Scotch-Irish.

It all makes gangsta rap sound kinda tame. Guns don't kill people, hillbillies do.


Footnote: I should also have included Steve Earle's brilliant Carrie Brown, from his album The Mountain. He famously said when the album was released "...The main thing wrong with country music today is there's not enough songs about killing people...". In Carrie Brown, the lyric says "I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee...". Visit Bristol and you'll find out how this geographical feat would be possible!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Robert Burns - Orangeman and Freemason?!

A few folk have contacted me today following the BBC interview last evening, with my brief reference to Robert Burns having celebrated the centenary of the 1688 landing of William of Orange.

This excerpt is from Willie Drennan's most recent book, Big Lang Danner:

"On November 5th, 1788 in Dunscore, he (Burns) attended a church centennial commemoration of the landing of William at Torbay. Afterwards, in a letter, he spoke of the Stuarts and addressed “the folly of their attempts in 1715 and 1745” and followed with “that they failed I bless my God most fervently but cannot join in the ridicule against them.” Ay, Burns was firm in his political beliefs and yet liberal and hence his enthusiastic support for the American Revolution.

In the same letter he said, “I dare say, the American Congress, in 1766, will be allowed to have been as able and as enlightened, and a whole empire will say, as honest as the English Convention in 1688; and that on the 4th of July will be as sacred as their posterity as the 5th of November is to us."

[a fuller explanation of this is available here]. The connection between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776 has recently been explored by American political commentator Michael Barone in his 2007 book Our First Revolution - the Remarkable British upheaval that inspired America's Founding Fathers.

So whether Williamite or Jacobite, of a Presbyterian family, possibly of Covenanter descent, and of course a dedicated Freemason (see the famous images below) - Burns was an enigma, and not just the lefty/radical/proto-Nationalist that he is often packaged as these days.

PG 946.jpg

Bloggin fae the Burn(s)

I was on the BBC Radio Ulster special Burns Night programme last night (click here to listen to the 2 hour show on BBC iPlayer). However, this year's Homecoming Scotland campaign is attracting its fair share of criticism:

...There are five million Scots-born people in England, as many as the entire population of Scotland. But they, along with the Unionist Scots-Irish of Northern Ireland, have also been neglected...

Read the rest of the article here - "Nationalist undercurrent to Alex Salmond’s jamboree".

Saturday, January 24, 2009

There are many to see them

IT WAS the 22nd July 1680. He rose early, and washed his hands. "This is their last washing. I have need to make them clean, for there are many to see them." The woman of the house where he had been lodging began to cry at the finality of his message. He offered her kind words of comfort - "Weep not for me".

His men had spent the night camped on the moor, and he joined them for some refreshment and rest. But their peace was shattered around 4 o'clock in the afternoon with the news that a detachment of heavily armed royal troops on horseback had tracked them down and was now not far away. His men urged him to flee, to leave them to the fight, but he steadfastly refused to leave. Taking up the best positions they could find on the soft marsh of Airds Moss, they stood their ground and prepared for the attack, with simple blacksmith-made handswords at their sides.

One hour later it was over. He, his younger brother Michael, and seven more of their number - friends, colleagues, comrades and brethren - lay dead on the moss. They lost nine, but in the hour of hand-to-hand combat, 28 of the King's troops were dead too.

In an act of vicious barbarity so typical of the time, the troops cut off the heads and hands of the dead Covenanters and put them into a sack. They were carried as bloody trophies to Edinburgh, the city where their parents and grandparents had first declared their commitment to the Covenant, but which had for the past 20 years been a scene of relentless public martyrdom. As the troops entered the city on 24 July, his head was held aloft on the point of a sword.

His aged father, Allan, had lain in a cold prison cell in the city for two years - he had been arrested in August 1678 for holding illegal preaching meetings in his house. The precious contents of the sack were dumped on the stone floor before the old man, and the prison guards mockingly asked him if he recognised them. He took them in his hands, kissed them, and with tear-filled eyes said:

"I know them, I know them", he replied. "They are my son's, my dear son's".

Without pausing, he carried on:

"It is the Lord. Good is the will of the Lord, who cannot wrong me nor mine, but has made goodness and mercy to follow us all our days".

His son's head and hands were then taken away and on 31 July were displayed on the Netherbow Port of the city, with the fingers pointing upwards, for the 60,000 people of Edinburgh to view as they went about their daily business.

"This is their last washing. I have need to make them clean, for there are many to see them."

At just 32 years old, Richard Cameron's prediction had been fulfilled.


Friday, January 23, 2009

This is not a wind-up

Barack Obama paper dolls. Unbelieeeeeeevable. Maybe you get two in each pack, just in case you make a mistake with the first one you'll be able to do it all over again...


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Scots isnae bad English, it's a braw language in its ain richt"

Don't take it from me, but from the weans of Greenmill Primary School in Cumnock, east Ayrshire. (Alexander Peden is buried in Cumnock, just across the road from the school).

Burns Night is this weekend, but let's face it, Robert Burns (genius that he was) is the acceptable face of the Scots language. Sophisticated types feel that it's okay to associate with Burns. After all, a fancy meal, an exotic dish like haggis and a wee dram ticks one's aspirational lifestyle boxes. And a volume of his works on the shelf at home doesn't hurt anyone.

A big plus with Burns is that he's dead. This is a major advantage - he can't embarrass today's intellectuals by saying something unbecoming on tv, radio or in the press. Burns is history.

There is of course an unacceptable underbelly to Scots and Ulster-Scots - it's the ordinary folk of Portavogie, Ballymoney, Cumnock and Fraserburgh (to name but four places) who have the audacity to say "hinnae" instead of "haven't", "cannae" instead of "unable to", and "ocht ava" instead of "anything at all". These people must be humiliated, marginalised, trivialised and forced from view. And be sure to hide their centuries-long tradition of local vernacular literature away from them - they might get restless if they knew it existed.

So as the poor wee haggis is once again cut open this Sunday - dichted by the knife of rustic labour - at the behest of Burns lovers, literary afficionados, the culturally curious, and those who are just out for a night's crack, what's really being knifed every day of the week is the remnant of folk on baith sides o the Sheugh who love and use Scots and Ulster-Scots every day.

Knifed time and again by a scornful media, a cultural entertainment industry, and a largely ignorant and disinterested public.

Rabbie's deid. It'll no be lang afore the ither yins are aa deid forbye.


(Here's a link to the BRILLIANT new BBC website devoted to Burns and his works. Listen to Brian Cox reading A Prayer in the Prospect of Death)

BBC4 - Folk America

Coming up on Friday night at 9pm on BBC4 is the first part of a series of documentaries called Folk America - the Golden Age of American Folk Music. Check out the BBC4 home page for a short video clip .

The series summary is here:

Three-part documentary series on American folk music, tracing its history from the recording boom of the 1920s to the folk revival of the 1960s. The opening part looks at how, in the 1920s, record companies scoured the American south for talent to sell. This was a golden age of American music, as the likes of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Poole, Dock Boggs and Mississippi John Hurt burst onto record, eager to have a share in the new industry and the money it made, only to lapse into obscurity when the depression hit at the start of the 30s. Contributors include Judy Collins, Steve Earle, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger, surviving relations of 1920s greats such as Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon, plus three actual survivors of the era - guitarist Slim Bryant, banjoist Wade Mainer and Delta bluesman 'Honeyboy' Edwards.

The first in the series will probably be the best - showing how the Scotch-Irish music of the mountains became recorded and then commercialised. It'll be interesting to see if the programme uses the cultural term "Scotch-Irish" at all, or whether they'll just blur it into the geographical term "British Isles" as is often the case with studies of early American music.

Set your DVD recorders or Sky+ boxes!

Hugh Montgomery III and Iron Man


Hugh Montgomery III (1625 - 1663) was the grandson of the first Hugh Montgomery, the Viscount of the Great Ardes (one of the two Founding Fathers of the Ulster-Scots). Hugh III had a very strange health condition.

His heart was "...plainly discernable..." - he had a bad fall as a child which left him with an injury and abcess on his left side. It never healed properly, and by the time he was 19 there was "...a very large open cavity in his side, through which the lungs, as it was believed, could both be seen and touched..." When King Charles I heard about this, he demanded to see it, and Montgomery was brought to the royal court as something of an oddity. Montgomery wore a protective plate over the wound, and when Dr William Harvey (one of the greatest physicians of the time, and the man who discovered blood circulation) inspected it, he said:

"...I found a large open space in the chest, into which I could readily introduce three of my fingers and my thumb; which done I straightway perceived a certain protuberant fleshy part, affected with an alternating extrusive and intrusive movement; this part I touched gently. Amazed with the novelty of such a state, I examined everything again and again, and when I had satisfied myself, I saw that it was a case of old and extensive ulcer, beyond the reach of art, but brought by a miracle to a kind of cure, the interior being invested by a membrane, and the edges protected by a tough skin.

But the fleshy part (which I, at first sight, took for a mass of granulations, and others had always regarded as a portion of the lung,) from its pulsating motions, and the rhythm they observed with the pulse—when the fingers of one of my hands were applied to it, those of the other to the artery at the wrist—as well as from their discordance with the respiratory movements, I saw was no portion of the lung I was handling, but the apex of the heart! covered over with a layer of fungous flesh by way of external defence, as commonly happens in old foul ulcers. The servant of this young man was in the habit daily of cleansing the cavity from its accumulated sordes by means of injections of tepid water; after which the plate was applied, and with this in its place, the young man felt adequate to any exercise or expedition, and, in short, he led a pleasant life in perfect safety.

Instead of a verbal answer, therefore, I carried the young man himself to the king, that his majesty might, with his own eyes, behold this wonderful case; that, in a man alive and well, he might, without detriment to the individual, observe the movement of the heart, and with his proper hand even touch the ventricles, as they contracted And his most excellent majesty, as well as myself, acknowledged that the heart was without the sense of touch; for the youth never knew when we touched his heart, except by the sight or the sensation he had through the external integument. We also particularly observed the movements of the heart, viz., that in the diastole it was retracted and withdrawn; whilst in the systole it emerged protruded; and the systole of the heart took place at the moment the piastole or pulse in the wrist was perceived; to conclude, the heart struck the walls of the chest, and became prominent at the time it bounded upwards and underwent contraction on itself..."

(Quoted from The Montgomery Manuscripts)

For those of you who haven't seen it, the movie Iron Man is an adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero, who has a tiny nuclear reactor implanted inside his chest to keep him alive. It's a good job Montgomery III didn't have access to Iron Man's technology otherwise the Ulster Presbyterians of the 1600s would have been in real trouble... Adair's Narrative tells his devious story. Here's the Iron Man trailer, which is now out on DVD - just £5.98 on Amazon!

Come one, come all to the Welcome Hall - and come in your working clothes!

This was the slogan used by the world-famous Amy Carmichael, the great woman evangelist who was born jut up the road from me in Millisle, then moved to Belfast and worked among the millworker girls, and ended up in India where she founded an orphanage and a mission in a place called Dohnavur.


The Welcome Hall still exists, on Cambrai Street in the Shankill, and was refurbished recently. Their website has a page about Amy.

With a name like Carmichael you'll not be surprised to learn that she and her parents were Ulster-Scots Presbyterians! She died in 1951, and her name is still legendary among the older folks in the Millisle district today, and the Dohnavur Fellowship in India is still going strong!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

37 today

Another year on the clock; no big celebrations as I'm fortunate enough to be flat-out busy with enough work to keep me going well into the summer. So to help today glide by, I ordered two new Jayhawks-related cds from Amazon, which came in the post this morning.

The Jayhawks were one of my favourite bands in my late teens and early twenties. They're from Minnesota, and I can remember one night driving to Dublin to see them play in a dingy wee club, and then drove through the night to get back home (back in Belfast by about 5am). The two founder members were Mark Olson and Gary Louris, who sing some of the most beautiful, delicate harmonies you'll ever hear.

Their new album is called Ready for the Flood, and Gary Louris' most recent solo album is called Acoustic Vagabonds. Both are superb and highly recommended. Below are a few YouTube clips of them, very "brother duet" in style.

A great way to put in a windy and wet Saturday while Hilary and the weans are oot and aboot...

Gary Louris: She Only Calls me on Sundays:

Gary Louris and Mark Olson: Blue (from the 1996 Jayhawks album "Tomorrow the Green Grass"):

Gary Louris, Mark Olson & Maria McKee [on Later with Jools Holland]: Precious Time (from her 1993 album "You Gotta Sin to Get Saved"):

Everything's gonna be alright

Forget about Gaza, Israel, Iran, economic downturn, collapse of the banking system and all that stuff. What really matters is that Hey, America Feels Kinda Cool Again. This is the name of one of the Obama Inauguration celebrations being held in Washington DC, headlined by the Beastie Boys.

Somehow I think it'll take more than rock concerts, saying the word "change" all the time, and feeling "kinda cool" to address the world's problems. I just don't get the Obamania thing. Guess that must mean I'm a racist.

Also, prepare yourself for the impending death of satire. All of the comedians and satirists who've spent the past 8 years attacking George Bush, and the past 12 months eulogising Barack Obama, will have no hate figure any more. Happily, the excellent Onion has come up trumps!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Martyrs of Scotland - Covenanter poem

Found this online a few days ago, by the great Scottish hymnwriter Horatius Bonar (1808 - 1899):

There was gladness in Zion, her standard was flying,
Free o'er her battlements glorious and gay;
All fair as the morning shone forth her adorning.
And fearful to foes was her godly array.

There is mourning in Zion, her standard was lying
Defiled in the dust, to the spoiler a prey;
And now there is wailing, and sorrows prevailing,
For the best of her children are weeded away.

The good have been taken, their place is foresaken-
The man and the maiden, the green and the gray;
The voice of the weepers wails over the sleepers-
The martyrs of Scotland that not are away.

The hues of her waters is crimsoned with slaughters,
And the blood of the martyrs has reddened the clay;
And dark desolation broods over the nation,
For the faithful are perished, the good are away.

On the mountains of heather they slumber together,
On the wastes of the moorland their bodies decay;
How sound is their sleeping, how safe is their keeping,
Though from from their kindred they moulder away.

Their blessing shall hover, their children to cover,
Like the cloud of the desert, by night and by day;
On, never to perish, their names let us cherish,
The martyrs of Scotland that now are away.

This great hymn is also by Horatius Bonar.


Johnny Cash - American VI

2009 should see the long-awaited release of the sixth (and final) album from Johnny Cash's remarkable "American Recordings" sessions which he recorded in the final years of his life, right up to just a week before he died in September 03. The first five albums are rightly regarded as materpieces, as is the subsequent 5 cd box set "Unearthed", which is a collection of other tracks recorded during the same sessions. The rumoured track listing for American VI is:

• San Antonio
• Redemption Day
• Here Comes a Boy
• That's Enough
• 1st Corinthians 5:55
• I Can't Help But Wonder
• Nine-Pound Hammer (the old Monroe Brothers song)
• North to Alaska
• His Eye is on the Sparrow (great old hymn)
• If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again (another great old hymn)
• The Eye of an Eagle
• Don't Take Everybody for Your Friend
• Belshazzar
• Loading Coal
• A Half a Mile a Day
• Flesh and Blood
• I Am a Pilgrim (another great old hymn)
• Beautiful Dreamer
• Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down (another great old hymn)
• Family Bible (another great old hymn)

The album's been talked about for a good few years, so hopefully it will indeed come out during 09. Meanwhile for all you Cash fans out there, this book might keep you going till the CD come out: Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation - click here for more information.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Let's lighten the mood a little

It's been heavy going on here for the past while. Here's a lighter moment.

Some of you will know that I haven't shaved in 2 weeks - I put it down to Christmas laziness and relaxation - and as a result I am now sporting a full beard. Not just the wee goatee thing I've had for the past 15 years or so, the real McCoy - linking sideburn to sideburn, running right down to my thrapple (that's Adam's Apple for you English-only speakers), and overwhelming the goatee into something that looks a bit like this:


Well that's a bit of an exaggeration, (and that's not me in the photo left) but it's the closest thing to a proper beard I've ever had the patience to grow. The question now is whether to shave it off or not. It's looking a bit lumberjack-esque, which isn't a good thing. Looks fine with a checked shirt. Looks baaaaaaad with a shirt and tie (like an old BBC2 Open University tv presenter). No doubt Hilary will decide on its future, and probably sometime this week. If I still have it by next Monday that will be something of a breakthrough!

This website provides an easier option for potential beard-wearers, male and female. Check it out!

This all started just before Christmas. Our Charlie was born on Christmas Day 2002, and we have his birthday party in early December just to make a bit of space between it and the Christmas festivities. This year it was fancy dress - so everyone who was invited had to come wearing their own home-made Santa beard. So we had about a dozen wee boys raking about the house with big white cotton wool beards. The thing is, some of these beards were very fresh indeed, and we found big lumps of PVA-covered cotton wool in various parts of the house afterwards. I'll post a pic or two later on.

Iver an oot for noo!


Monday, January 05, 2009

What exactly is Ulster-Scots?

This is one of those things that crops up every now and again. At risk of boring you all, I'll hazard a post in the hope of stimulating a wee bit of thought and maybe debate...

For me, the term has always been primarily about people, the people who left the Lowlands of Scotland in large numbers from 1606 onwards and came across the narrow sea to live in Ulster. The first written usage of the term was in 1640 by Sir George Radcliffe, and described them as people who had a general inclination to the Covenant. Those people brought culture, heritage, industry, language, music, sport, religion and a myriad of traditions with them. And many of these have become mainstream, not narrow cultural markers but broad themes in our society. None of these things were fossilised, frozen in a 1600s timewarp. The traditions have developed, changed and grown over time (and now even have Highland aspects to them, to the horror of many. Even Lowland Scotland today shows many examples of how what was once just Highland culture has effectively become Scottish culture, but we've been there before...). The people and traditions have also been spread to other parts of the world in the 400+ years ever since, as shown in this recent post which touched on Psalm singing in America.

But weren't they just Scots in Ulster? And as someone patronisingly said to me over Christmas, aren't Ulster-Scots just wannabe Jocks? At what point did they cease to be Scots in a different land, and became something else? That's harder to pin down, some would say that by the 1650s when the first generation were becoming adults there were clear signs of them being different than mainland Scots. Certainly when some of the Ulster-based Presbyterian ministers went back to Scotland in the late 1630s, the Scottish ministers were not impressed by some of their practices and in 1640 the General Assembly criticised many of these practices as "Irish innovations" - so even by 1640, they were becoming different.

Over recent years, particularly in the past post-Belfast Agreement decade when Ulster-Scots has become popularised - some might justifiably say "contrived", or the cynics and opponents will say "invented" - the term is sometimes (in my view) mis-used in a much broader context, to describe anything which connects the two places of Scotland and Ulster. Surely a more appropriate and distinctive term for this geographical connection could be Ulster-Scottish?

But what about pre-1606? The Bruces were in Ulster in the 1300s, the Gallowglasses flitted between Ulster and Scotland for about 300 years before the 1600s. Even before these two examples there were famous, ancient, migrations back and forth. Can these be described as Ulster-Scots? But wait a minute, if the term wasn't in use until 1640 is it wise to apply it retrospectively to events and people before the 1600s? In fact, before King Robert the Bruce, some would say that Scotland didn't exist as a single nation and certainly not as a single people - so can the term "Scots" even be used?

Maybe it's okay to use the term "Ulster-Scots" more broadly than the fairly pure definition in the first paragraph of this post. But perhaps in making it too elastic, it will lose its meaning. Email me with your thoughts.


On another note, I had a conversation over Christmas with a friend who is very much a Calvinist. He dismisses modern evangelicalism as "Tesco Christianity" by which he means God is presented as being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just come on in whenever you want. He usually has a wee dig or two at me and implies that I'm one of these "Tesco Christians" because of my non-Calvinistic upbringing.

But he got me thinking - when I was a wee boy the old-time Brethren men would often pray that the Holy Spirit would bring people to recognise their need of salvation, and for conviction of sin. They would also often close a Sunday evening gospel meeting with a hymn from the "Warning and Entreaty" section of Redemption Songs, and would plead with any one in the hall who might be under conviction to get right with God while they had the opportunity, for tonight might be the last time He calls - all of which are ideas not too far removed from Calvinism itself... but I see that Colin Maxwell has beat me to this one! The old-timers also regularly scorned what they called "easy-believism" (there was no Tesco in Northern Ireland back in those days!)

[ You can find out more about the Calvin 500 events in France and Switzerland this summer on this website.]

Sunday, January 04, 2009

God's Peoples by Donald Harman Akenson

Israel is in the news again - Ashkelon and Ashdod are among the Israeli cities which have been hit by long range rockets. Do a search on for Ashkelon and you get eight interesting Old Testament references, from Samson going there and killing thirty men who had co-operated with Samson's first wife in a scheme to deceive him, to this verse in the book of Amos - and this verse from Zechariah reads like a press release on tomorrow's breakfast news.

I've been picking through this book again today (which I've blogged about before) - there's some great stuff in it. It compares the cultures of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, the Presbyterians and Ulster-Scots of Ulster, and the Jews/Zionists of Israel.

"...the major component of the Ulster-Scots mindset has been the conceptual grid that the Presbyterians of Ulster assimilated from the Hebrew scriptures... for the Ulster-Scots, the Hebrew scriptures served as an entire cultural cupboard..."

from the chapter The Covenantal Culture of the Ulster-Scots, page 103

Friday, January 02, 2009

Ulster 1912 - Part Two

The two great hymns of 1912 were also linked with the Titanic and the Ulster Covenant. It is said that as the Titanic sank into the icy waves, the string quartet (who had been playing up-tempo, jazzy dance tunes throughout the voyage) played the hymn Nearer My God to Thee. It was written in 1841 - some more information about the hymn is available here. There has been much debate about this over the years, some of it summarised here. It is usually sung to the tune "Bethany" - here's a clip from YouTube of a simple fiddle version:

The other hymn is O God Our Help in Ages Past, which was sung at many of the Ulster Covenant rallies and demonstrations in 1912, and became something of an anthem for the pro-Union cause. It's a paraphrase of Psalm 90 and was written by Isaac Watts and first published in 1719. Watts was a committed Non-Conformist, and the list of 696 hymns he wrote is astounding - not only the quantity of them, but that 250 years later many of these are still being sung - When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Not All the Blood of Beasts, We're Marching to Zion and I'm Not Ashamed to Own My Lord to name but a few. The clip below is also from YouTube, however it seems to have been taken from a tv programme and has an editing blip at the start: