Rutherglen Academy Ballads Club
Ian Young offers his personal memories of the Ballads Club of the 1950s and 1960s at the Academy and recalls some of the characters involved.
When I was 15 I started to go regularly to the Ballads Club at the Academy in Rutherglen and this extra-curricular activity was to give me a life-long passion for singing, song-writing and making music even though my own career was in the sciences.
Rutherglen Academy in the late 1950s had an amazing English Department packed with charismatic teachers such as George Paton, Bill Jackson and Norman Buchan. All of them went on to have stellar careers and a generation of young people in Rutherglen were inspired by them. Norman Buchan was known to most of the pupils by the nick-name Charlie, after Charles Buchan’s football monthly magazine popular at that time. He started a folk song club, known as the Ballads Club, in 1957 at Rutherglen.
The title, the Ballads Club, reflected Norman’s passion for the big ballads sung without accompaniment by singers, like Jeannie Robertson, but he was open to young people playing guitar or banjo too as he also loved American folk music, including the blues.
Norman’s book, 101 Scottish Songs, (known as the wee red book) was the first book of the folk song revival in Scotland. It was so popular that a new edition was produced by the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland (TMSA) to celebrate fifty years of the organisation. Norman was very generous with his own extensive record collection and I remember borrowing a diverse range of recordings from him such as those by Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis' Harlem Street Singer, and Ewan MacColl’s The Jacobite Rebellions.
Left, Norman Buchan's 101 Scottish Songs (the Wee Red Book)
In 1962 when I was in fourth year at the school, a young teacher called Ian Davison came to the school, attracted by Norman’s work, and started to help him with the club. He was a good guitarist who could fingerpick with his right hand and was happy to teach several of us in his lunch-breaks a couple of times a week. This was gold dust for young people like me, because there were no books teaching that method - no cassette tapes, no YouTube videos, just Bert Weedon’s books on playing electric guitar using a flat-pick or plectrum.
At the Ballads Club there were several fine singers who were in my year group such as Ian Barr, Anne Clingan and the incomparable Gordeanna McCulloch who was a very special talent.
Incredibly, Anne Neilson who was two years older, was also a fantastic singer sharing Gordeanna’s combination of sweetness and power in the voice.
Right, Norman Buchan (front) with The Ian Davison Folk Group, 1967. The group from left to right was Ian Davison, Anne Neilson, Ian Young, Karine Davison and John Craig.
Picture courtesy of Ian Young.
Both of these women went on to make fine recordings and in their later years they were teachers and mentors to many young singers through their work on traditional singing at The Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow.
Sadly, Gordeanna and Anne died in 2019. They are greatly missed, great characters and wonderful, unique voices, and they were a testament to what Norman Buchan started in Rutherglen. Such was Norman’s standing in the folk music world that he knew all the professional singers such as Josh Macrae and Ray and Archie Fisher who came to sing at the school in 1963. As young singers, we were very impressed by their performances.
When Pete Seeger gave a solo concert at the old Glasgow Concert Hall in 1963 (after the St. Andrew’s Halls were destroyed by fire in October 1962), Norman arranged for Gordeanna and myself to be put in a taxi and taken to Matt McGinn’s house in Fernhill, where we met the great man after his concert. We were all asked to sing one song but I was completely overawed and declined. I recall that Pete was exhausted after giving his concert – he may have been jet lagged from just arriving from USA, or it might have been the end of a long European tour. I’m not sure, however I was old enough at 17 to realise how lucky I was to be in such company.
There were also other inspiring singers and fine instrumentalists in the Ballads Club group, two or three years older than me. John Craig was the first person I had seen play the banjo close up and he had a fine technique based on Pete Seeger’s method. Alan Knox and his younger brother David were excellent guitarists and singers and Alan’s version of The Bleacher Lassie of Kelvinhaugh inspired me to learn that from Norman Buchan’s book. Singers such as Pat Leitch and Sheila Hay were also prominent in the club and I remember that the senior girls in the club used to help Norman with the administration and organisation and tidy up his chaotic desk for him.
Norman left Rutherglen to become the Labour MP for West Renfrewshire in October 1964 and Ian Barr, Anne Clingan, Gordeanna and I were in the last Higher English Class that Norman took through to the exam stage in 1963-64. There was even a question about the traditional ballads in the Higher paper that year!
In 1964 before I left school, my guitar mentor at school, Ian Davison invited me to join a folk group he was setting up and I jumped at the chance. The line-up was Ian, his wife Karine, and former pupils of the school Anne Neilson and John Craig who were a couple of years older than me.
Left, Gordeanna McCulloch. Image credit: Herald Online
All were fine singers and with two guitar players and John's banjo playing we had a big sound, influenced strongly by Pete Seeger's legendary group, The Weavers. Our fee in those days ranged from £15 to £25 and as a five piece, it was never going to make us rich, but that wasn’t important to us. We had great fun and we shared concerts with some fine professional musicians such as Jesse Fuller (San Francisco Blues), Robin Hall and Jimmy MacGregor, The Dutch Swing College Band and American legend Tom Paxton on two occasions.
Adam McNaughtan, one of Scotland’s finest songwriters, kindly gave us permission to make the first recording of The Jeely Piece Song, on Scotia records, which is available on YouTube. This sold well, especially in Castlemilk, but we had naively signed up for a set fee and we didn’t see any of the royalties!
When we sang with the aforementioned American singer-songwriter, Tom Paxton, Ian Davison managed to persuade Tom to come out to Rutherglen Academy to sing at the ballads club. Brian Miller recalls presenting Tom with a sweater to mark the occasion. Ian, who had led the club with distinction after Norman Buchan, left in 1966. However, Adam McNaughtan had come to teach English at Rutherglen in January 1965, and took on the role of leading the Ballads Club in a new phase.
The school continued to produce fine singers and instrumentalists such as the Mairs brothers, Fraser and Ian Bruce and the aforementioned Brian Miller who was Dux of the school and became an outstanding guitarist with a lifelong involvement in the folk club movement, running the Penicuik club for many years. Brian actually played backup guitar for Tom Paxton on two of his Scottish tours many years later.
Other stalwarts of the Ballads Club, in the years following my school days, included Irene Hudson, Ruth Gillettie, David Abercrombie, Bobby Lowe, Marilyn Smillie and Mary Stewart and my apologies to others who may have followed them and whom I may have omitted.
Two years after I left school, I was secretary of the Academy Former Pupils Folk club which met once a month in the Guide Hall in Clincarthill Road in Rutherglen.
Right, Brian Miller. Picture courtesy of Ian Young
The Davison group were the resident band and we had occasional guests from outside the school community.
I booked Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey (the Humblebums) in 1966. I had got to know them from appearing with the Davison group at the same gigs in the west of Scotland. They were later joined by Gerry Rafferty and Tam eventually dropped out.
Billy and Tam were paid the princely sum that night of £4 each, which was the pre-arranged fee.
Left, Fraser Bruce. Image credit: Roger Shearer Photography.
I walked them back to the Glasgow Corporation number 2 bus stop in Mill Street as that was on my way home to Bankhead, and they were quite happy with their fee. This was because the audience was very small and sometimes when that happened you didn’t get your agreed fee in some clubs. These were different days.
In my final year at Rutherglen, I realised the Ballads Club had been so important for me and in retrospect I recognised it had given me the confidence to speak and sing in public. The quotation attached to my name in the school magazine of 1964 was ‘’gaily the troubadour touched his guitar’’ which was the first line of an old ballad. I was proud to be seen by my contemporaries as worthy of a mention as a troubadour… although of course it’s not in our culture to make a fuss of such things. The phrase ‘’I kent his faither‘’ comes to mind.
Right, Adam McNaughtan. Image credit: Rutherglen Reformer
Talking of fathers, Brian Miller’s daughter Siobhan has a stellar career as a traditional singer winning the BBC’s award for young traditional singers, and our own son Kenny is a BAFTA award-winning composer of music and is an audio designer who was exposed to folk music, jazz and classical music from an early age. I remember The Times sports journalist Mathew Syed, who was a British Olympic table-tennis player, describing how his small village in England had produced the whole British table-tennis team at one time, because of the commitment of a small number of skilled people coaching children in the village.
The Ballads Club was such a centre of excellence, thanks to the passion, dedication and vision of Norman Buchan, Ian Davison and Adam McNaughtan. Good teachers do make a difference. Perhaps we should take time to celebrate that more in our culture. They inspired me to become a teacher. I worked in education for half my career, and in turn I taught others guitar and singing in all my workplaces, it just seemed the natural thing to do after the joy of the Ballads Club.
Ian Young, February 2021
A-Z of Rutherglen Then and Now - Rutherglen Academy