Willie Mathieson of Ellon was one of Hamish Henderson's earliest and most prolific contributors, with a store of many hundreds of songs and ballads, as well as other local lore.
Willie grew up in an earth-floored house at Dudwick, several miles north-east of Ellon in Aberdeenshire, where his family was embedded in the local farming community. As a youngster, Willie witnessed the thatched roof of the house being blown off by the wind one day, and recalled how the neighbours rallied around to build the family a new roof [track 4444].
This kind of close community would also go on to play an important role in feeding Willie's unusually keen curiosity about local songs and traditions, which began at an early age. His initial encounters with songs however - as is usually the case - began in the family, as he recalls about the song called 'The Cuddy':
It was my father that sang it when I was a boy, lying in the cradle… I wisna able tae write it [down]. I wrote it [down] in 1886, but I'm nae tellin ye whit like writin it wis […] I'd hae been aboot 7, I suppose [track 15828].
The 'writing down' mentioned here refers to Willie's lifelong project of documenting the songs he heard and/or learned in large ledger books - something that points to his particular diligence and dedication as a song collector. He was interested in songs regardless of where they came from; in the case of 'The Cuddy', his father had purchased it as a broadside ballad [song sheet] - a common source of songs at the time.
Willie was deeply affected by the loss of one of his early ledgers to a fellow farm labourer in 1902, and he never again loaned his song books to anyone [track 15839]. The book contained songs he never managed to collect or recall subsequently, although on one occasion in later life, when some of his song notes were lost in a fire, he managed to write them down again from memory.
At the age of eleven, Willie left school and took an arduous job digging drainage ditches for a local farmer, which he blamed for rheumatism in later life [track 15745]. Notwithstanding a short stint as an apprentice joiner, this was the start of a long working life as a farm servant, during which Willie would work all over the north-east of Scotland, as a cattleman and horseman, often residing in farm outbuildings [track 17528]. While this was often a difficult job, the itinerant lifestyle brought him into contact with many singers and tradition bearers, nourishing Willie's lifelong, acute interest in local lore and songs. He continued compiling his ledger books until he had many hundreds of ballads, jokes, rhymes, as well as weather lore, sayings, proverbs and much besides, learning not only from casual acquaintances and print-sources, but indeed from each of his two consecutive wives and their families [track 15027].
The North-East of Scotland was at the time - and indeed still remains - one of the most culturally-rich parts of the country, especially with regard to the local dialect of Scots, known locally as 'Doric', and the great variety and number of folk songs to be found among the population. Willie himself was acquainted with Gavin Greig (1856-1914), co-compiler of an epic collection of folk songs of the region [track 10025], and was one of the informants sought out by the eccentric folklorist James Madison Carpenter (1888-1983) during the latter's collecting trip to Scotland in 1930. Carpenter recorded more than 150 songs from Willie, one third of them being of the classic ballad variety known as 'Child ballads'. Twenty years later, a locally-based English music master named Harold George (1890-1980) made transcriptions of some of Willie's songs.
However, the most significant collaboration Willie undertook with another collector came towards the end of his life when Hamish Henderson (1919-2002) made contact with him during the latter's initial forays into the North-East on reconnaissance in 1951. The pair rapidly made many reel-to-reel tape recordings, with Willie systematically going through his ledger books and singing each song as far as he was able, and supplying supplemental information. He also gave autobiographical detail to help contextualise his own life and collecting.
A good example of the way in which Willie's songs and singing were embedded in the local community can be seen in the bothy ballad 'Wester Badenteer', which describes the working day at Wester Badentyre farm, Turriff, in the late 1890s [track 18143]. The song features several of Willie's own acquaintances as characters, such as George 'Lordie' Hay, whom he introduced to Hamish in 1953 [track 18454].
Hamish would take the celebrated American folk song collector Alan Lomax (1915-2002) to visit Willie in Ellon in 1951, where they likewise recorded material for Lomax's projects. Hamish later recalled rebuking Lomax for his pressuring the ailing Willie to record more and more despite obvious tiredness, causing a lasting rift between the two folklorists.
Of the 650-plus songs that Willie had amassed in his lifetime, he and Hamish documented around 450 on reel-to-reel tape - a remarkable feat. Recognising the significance of Willie as a song-collector in his own right, and the rarity of having a large collection of songs written down, Hamish arranged for Willie to come to the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh in 1952 in order to have his ledger books copied on the new photostat machine. This was a hugely significant trip for Willie, as he had never left the North-East in his entire life. By all accounts, Willie had the time of his life, and later fondly recalled meeting the famous American singer and actor, Burl Ives, at a party [track 10030]. During his trip to Edinburgh, Willie also met the eminent linguist, Professor Angus McIntosh (1914-2005), shortly thereafter providing him with a notebook of North-East weather-lore, proverbs, aphorisms and much besides to aid the then recently-initiated Linguistic Survey of Scotland.
Willie suffered from poor health for much of the latter part of his life, and was to pass away in 1958 in Banff, where he had been living in recent years. This in part explains why Willie was not better known during the wider folk-revival, which began in earnest only when Willie was of advanced age. However, one important factor was also what Dr Thomas McKean of the Elphinstone Institute has noted as Willie's:
'[...] intensely private side, both as a singer and collector (and he played many other roles in life, as well, husband, father, etc.), generally not allowing his "tradition bearer" side to be shared even with close family and neighbours. Though he was clearly happy to perform for collectors, as witnessed by the amount of time he spent in the company of Carpenter and Henderson in his middle and latter years, it seems that he never needed such performance and interaction to develop a concept of himself as a singer, collector, or "tradition bearer".' ('Willie Mathieson and the Primary Audience for Traditional Song')
Dr McKean has maintained contact with some of Willie's descendants, a number of whom only discovered that Willie had been a singer and tradition bearer thanks to the attention paid to him by folklorists in recent years. Willie's ledger books found their way into the possession of one of his grandsons, and Tobar an Dualchais staff were able to arrange for them to be digitised with modern methods, replacing the now worn photostats with fresh images for posterity.
Willie Mathieson stands out as one of the most important singers, collectors and fieldwork collaborators to have contributed to this archive, and scholars and the public alike will continue to enjoy his tape recordings for years to come.
References and Further Reading
Bruford, Alan, 'Song Manuscripts and the Acquisition of Song Repertoires in Orkney and Shetland', in Singer, Song and Scholar, ed. Ian Russell (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1986), pp. 95-115 (p. 98).
Fenton, Alexander, 'Willie Mathieson's Notebooks' in Buchan Words and Ways (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2004), pp. 123-132.
Henderson, Hamish, 'The Ballads', in A Companion to Scottish Culture, ed. David Daiches (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1981), pp. 25-28 (p. 27).
—. 'The Underground of Song', Alias MacAlias, ed. Alec Finlay (2nd ed., Edinburgh: Polygon, 2004), pp. 31-36 (p. 32), originally pub. in Scots Magazine, Feb. 1963.
—. 'Willie Mathieson's Younger Days', Tocher 43 (1991), pp. 22-39.
—. And Francis Collinson, 'New Child Ballad Variants from Oral Tradition', Scottish Studies Vol. 9 Part 1, ed. B. R. S. Megaw (Edinburgh: School of Scottish Studies, 1965), pp. 1-33 (pp. 14-17).
Macafee, Caroline, Scots Folk Singers and their Sources: A Study of Two Major Scottish Song Collections (Leiden: Brill, 2021), pp. 5, 17, 56, 63, 87, 93, 104.
—, Simon Burnett and Dorothy Williams, 'Applying a Knowledge Conversion Model to Cultural History: Folk Song From Oral Tradition to Digital Transformation', in The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, Volume 15 Issue 2 (Academic Conferences International Limited, 2017), pp. 61-71 (.
McKean, Thomas A., 'The Stewarts of Fetterangus and Literate Oral Tradition', in The Singer and the Scribe: European Ballad Traditions and European Ballad Cultures, eds. Philip E. Bennett and Richard Firth Green (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2004).
McKean, Thomas A., 'Willie Mathieson and the Primary Audience for Traditional Song', Sakytinė Ir Rašto Kultūros Sampynos, 55:1 (2018), pp. 36-59.
Olson, Ian A., 'Scottish Song in the James Madison Carpenter Collection', in Folk Music Journal Vol. 7 No. 4, (EFDSS, 1998), pp. 421-433 (pp. 423, 428, 433).