The School of Scottish Studies Archive (SSSA) brings together a range of material on Scottish life, particularly during the twentieth century. One of the beautiful aspects of the SSSA holdings is their sound recording archives which include folklore, interviews, and songs. These were mainly collected during the 1950s and followed similar collecting principles as the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) which had done similar. The main difference is that while the IFC has a lot of transcribed interviews, the SSSA has digitised much of its sound archive which are accessible through the Tobar an Dualchais website. Using the two archives, particularly the digitised collections, in tandem, a researcher can begin to build up pictures of how knowledge about each nation – Scotland and Ireland – were transmitted and the ways that migrants between the two were imagined.
When Willie Mathieson first heard ‘An Irish Gentleman’/’Patsy Fagan’ sung in a music hall in Aberdeenshire and Moray in 1909, he followed up the concert by writing to Mr Gillies, a postman in Cabrach, for the words. The song tells the tale of Patsy Fagan who travelled from Sligo to Glasgow to work in brickworks there. He’s on the look out for a wife. Mathieson was interviewed by Hamish Henderson in 1952, and thanks to the Tobar an Dualchais website, the recording is available for us to listen to here. Willie Mathieson provided a number of sound recordings for the Archive, many of which relate to Irish migrant labourers in Scotland. According to the interview relating to ‘The Scavenger Brigade’ – about an Irishman who moves to Glasgow and struggles to make a living though his family believe he is in the British Army – Mathieson notes that he learned the song from an itinerant Irish singer – “I think he would have been a Paddy” – when he was a child.
William Mathieson, dubbed by Henderson as a “ploughman folklorist” (McMorland & McIntyre: 138) was born in 1879 in Ellon and spent his working life as a farmworker in North-East Scotland. Thomas A. McKean has written a useful biographical article on Mathieson, bringing together these sound recordings with notebooks and interviews. McKean notes that ‘when schoolmaster Gavin Greig set out to collect folk songs in the North-East [of Scotland] in 1904, he found that around one third of the repertoire of “local” songs was, in fact, Irish in origin’ (McKean: 42). As Geraldine Vaughan notes ‘Far from being a terra incognita, Scotland had been a familiar destination for Irish migrants since early modern times’ (Vaughan: 2). There was growing Irish migration to Scotland from the 1840s and 1850s due to the Irish Famine and increased industrialisation, some of it long-term but much of it was seasonal. By 1851, 18 percent of Glasgow’s population was Irish and in areas like Coatbridge, this proportion increased to half of the population (MacRaild; Black).
In addition to folk songs such as the ones recollected by Mathieson, the hard lives of Irish immigrants in Scotland was made famous in the early twentieth century by Patrick MacGill. The so-called ‘Navvy Poet’ moved from Glenties, County Donegal to Scotland when a teenager and made his living working on the railways (before becoming a lauded poet, journalist, and author). His first novel, Children of the Dead End, was published in 1914 to great acclaim. In it, Dermod and Norah make their way from Strabane on the ‘Derry boat’ to Scotland:
“Have ye seen Scotland yet, Dermod?” she asked.
“That’s it, I think,” I said, as I pointed at the shoreline visible many miles away.
“Isn’t it like Ireland.” Norah nestled closer to me as she spoke. “I would like to be goin’ back again,” she said after a long silence.
“I’m going to make a great fortune in Scotland, Norah,” I said. “And I’m going to make you a great lady.”
“Why are ye goin’ to do that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I confessed, and the two of us laughed together.
MacGill used his platform to highlight the harsh lives of those living in Scotland’s slums. His books worked in tandem with songs and folklore which wove through communities, spread by farm labourers like Willie Mathieson and travelling singers who entertained in the music halls and street corners. Together they worked to shape ideas of Scotland and Ireland, and the people of those nations, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Digitisation brings some of these stories to the fore. The next post will delve into the ideas of Scotland which made their way to Ireland in similar ways.