THE GIRVAN FESTIVAL – An incomplete history
The festival started at an interesting time and was a period which many would describe as a golden age musically. This was not necessarily because of they were young themselves, although that might have played a part in it. It was a time when Scottish folk music was emerging. Irish music was more dominant than it is now but the groups and gatherings that were to lead to the emergence of seminal bands such as Battlefield Band, Ossian and the Boys of the Lough were coming together.
The festival didn’t come out of nowhere, there was experience to build on. Its roots were in a common group of friends and a shared experience of folk clubs. At that time in Ayrshire you could go to a folk club every night of the week. Most of the audiences stayed relatively static, but singers and musicians moved around broadening their experiences. There were also other festivals which served as role models including Kinross, Newcastleton and The Inverness Folk Festival.
One particularly key moment in the conception of the festival was an informal weekend in Sandhead. That happened as a consequence of Pete and Heather Heywood having a May holiday in Portpatrick, near Stranraer, where they had fallen in with some local musicians. During the course of that week, one of the musicians married the daughter of the owner of the Tigh Na Mara pub in Sandhead and during the evening celebrations, plans were hatched to return for an informal weekend. That weekend could best be described as a ‘festival fringe’ without a festival. The sun shone that weekend and enthusiasm ran high. Pete and Heather subsequently started a folk club in Kilmarnock – assisted by others, but that is part of a different story. The Kilmarnock Traditional Folk Club (KTFC) started in May 1974 and planning for the first Girvan Traditional Folk Festival started around the same time, leading up to the birth of the festival on the May Bank Holiday weekend, 1975.
Bobby Robb, Ben Robb and Harry Aitken, by that time the established line up of the folk group The Lave, were the musical backbone of the festival committee, but as the saying says – behind very successful man is a woman. In Girvan’s case the respective wives, Nancy Robb, Marianne Robb and Iola Aitken were fully involved. Iola was the first Treasurer, Marianne, with Ben, contributed hugely over the years coordinating the stewards over the festival weekends. Nancy Robb was the mother figure. The Robb house in Girvan has provided hospitality for many a travelling folkie and daughter Beverley, who years later was to become a key member of the committee, recounts the many times when the children wondered who they might find sleeping downstairs when they woke up in the morning.
Girvan establishes its identity
The festival consciously called itself the Girvan Traditional Folk Festival. It wasn’t a pretentious claim, the organisers knew the score, but it did help define where the festival’s roots lay and a definition that became a self fulfilling prophecy. Some festivals get a particular reputation, in Girvan’s case it was known as a ‘singers festival’. That didn’t mean that it wasn’t strong instrumentally, because it developed a fearsome reputation for its musical sessions, rather it reflected the centrality of song in the Scottish folk revival. Looking back at how these various festival personalities developed, it is fairly clear that self definition, allied to a particular artistic booking policy, attracted audiences with reasonably common expectations.
The festival had a written constitution although it wasn’t ever published. It spoke about a core focus on traditional music with a commitment to local content, national content and to including musicians from beyond Scotland’s borders.
Close relationship with the folk clubs
There was a close relationship between the festival and the folk clubs. The festival was seen as an opportunity to do something extra, aiming for a higher status of guests at times, but perhaps the most important function was its ability to bring combinations of people together in one place. Travel was less easy in those days and festivals were meeting places bringing people from all parts of the country together.
Girvan wasn’t necessarily unique, but it was perhaps unusual in that its style of organisation was relaxed yet efficient. You can’t write the history of the early years of the festival from the minutes of meetings, because there weren’t any. People contributed where they could and there was a general consensus behind the direction the festival was heading. The festival was blessed with a number of competent and committed people and there was as little demarcation as possible between guests, organisers and participants. The line ups of the first two or three festivals cemented Girvan’s identity and laid foundations for a period when Girvan achieved a status far above its relatively modest size.
The first changes
The first major change in the festival came about six years in. Ben was a miner and when the local coal mine closed, Ben and Marianne moved to central Scotland. At the same time Harry and Iola moved to Cornwall leaving a large gap in the committee. Given the close relationship with the Kilmarnock Folk Club, it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Pete Heywood was asked to join the organising team.
Living around thirty miles from Girvan, Pete foresaw difficulties in being fully involved with the essential local fundraising activities for the festival and decided to approach the Scottish Tourist Board (STB) as a potential sponsor. At the time he was unaware that the STB was starting to develop an Arts Tourism strategy, the approach was timely. The Edinburgh Folk Festival was founded at that time with the help of the STB who were keen to encourage an event that would spread over two weekends. The Edinburgh Folk Festival announced itself as Scotland’s longest festival, a ten day event, although it was in effect more a double weekend festival linked with some midweek events. The STB saw the potential of the Girvan Festival and recognised that it needed an element of professional promotion. They offered advice and a one off £1,000 grant for marketing, resulting in a kickstart that had an impact for years to come. The total budget for the festival at that time was probably of the order of about £2,000 and a promotional spend of that magnitude, which included 10,000 brochures with distribution throughout the STB network, seemed disproportionate. The festival committee decided to raise their sights and added The Boys of the Lough to an already impressive line up of guests.
STB’s advice was to package festival tickets with accommodation so making it easy for people to attend. What it gave the festival was an audience who were committed to festival tickets in advance and advanced ticket sales meant that the committee could plan ahead with confidence. Suddenly the festival was firing on all cylinders heralding the era when the festival extended to the whole of the long Bank Holiday weekend. The Sunday evening concert became one of the highlights of the weekend and the Monday became an informal wind down. This was a period when Girvan gained recognition and was regarded by many as the best festival in Scotland at the time.
A fuller history of Girvan Festival remains a work in progress and so a lot is summarised here in a few sentences. There was the period when The Kings Arms became the hub of the festival with the legendary singing sessions under The Dome. Many fondly remember the Morton’s era when the owner had come to conclusion that the best thing for him to do was to go to bed and leave us to it. The Late Night Extra’s at the Catholic Hall; Sessions in The Queens, The Royal, The Westcliffe, The Southfield and The Ailsa; The world premiere of The Singing Kettle; Walt Michael & Co who played on the first Singing Kettle LP as The Caper Caillie Band; Grants Centenary and the William Grants All Star Ceilidh Band; Tennants centenary which allowed us to bring The Wellpark Suite to Girvan; Regular coverage from BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk, Radio Ulster’s Folk Club and even BBC Radio 2’s main production unit recognising that something special was happening.
New voices / New Projects.
Many performances at Girvan can be looked at as ‘debut’ performances. It was a creative time and Girvan reflected what was going on. The ‘premiere’ of The Singing Kettle stage show was at Girvan, Girvan was the only folk festival performance of The Wellpark Suite. Altan, Dervish, Croabh Rua, Arcady, Liam O’Flynn, The Voice Squad, Mary Black and many other Irish performers spread their wings and made connections through Girvan. Girvan gave a platform to new songwriting in the tradition. Again that story deserves further attention but suffice to say at this point that many significant songs were aired at Girvan.
Altan have had a special relationship with Girvan over the years and it is fitting that they return to be with us for the 40th festival. First booked as Frankie and Mairead, they have appeared in various line ups over the years. They were clearly attracting attention from festivals worldwide when Frankie was diagnosed with a life threatening illness. When we were first aware that Frankie was ill, Pete spoke with Mairead at an Altan concert in Kilmarnock and said “Any time you want to come back to Girvan just say the word”. That word came back sooner than he expected and Dervish had already been booked for the coming year. The result was two of the premier Irish bands appearing that year – Altan and Dervish. It may not have been planned, but it certainly worked. We have some very special memories from that time and, thankfully, some recordings to help keep those memories alive.
Girvan didn’t invent the folk festival concept, it built on what was happening at the time. It is difficult to pin down what impact it had on other festivals which followed, but events in Girvan had some impact on Dumfries, Arran and Shetland and others and by setting high standards coupled with informality, paved the way for festivals like Celtic Connections.
21 year anniversary and transition
After 21 years there was a change in committee, resulting partly from changes in local government, and looking back, perhaps some tiredness among those who took it to that point. The transition wasn’t without its pains and misunderstandings, but a new leadership emerged which to its credit has sustained the festival to its 40 year milestone and beyond.
The festival has a distinctive booking policy
Although there were many regular faces at Girvan, each year’s guest list tended to be quite distinctive. Many of the guests only made one official appearance, a few were booked a handful of times over the years, others appeared at various times in different groups or combinations, some became part of the backbone organization, helping to make the Festival tick. There was a small committee doing necessary planning work throughout the year, but come the Festival weekend, a visitor would be hard pushed to determine exactly who the organizers were and the demarcations between organiser, booked artist and paying visitors were very blurred.
This blurring of boundaries was a deliberate policy of the organisers. One of the areas where this worked particularly well was in the sessions, late night extras, invitation concerts and the legendary front hall gatherings under ‘the dome’ at The King’s Arms. The booked guests were briefed to encourage sessions to start, and also briefed to step back once they were going to give the floor to the visitor. Informality was the aim, but in order to achieve this, invisible structures were created. The Queens was the original hub of the Festival and The Royal became a place for singers’ sessions. At some point The Ailsa became the place where the Irish contingent would flock to and The Westcliffe, Southfield, The Harbour Bar and others, each establishing their own identity. As the Festival grew The King’s Arms became the hub and a special relationship developed with the Morton family who owned the hotel at that time. The Westcliffe was another hub at the same time and in later years became the organizational heart of the Festival. The Festival was firing on all cylinders and any space which welcomed participants was used. Relaxed sessions even extended to the Monday, with quite a few people stopping off at The Tam O’Shanter in Kirkoswald. It was hardly a mid-point of the homeward journey for anyone, being just a few miles outside of Girvan, but it was a step in the right direction.
40 Years and The future.
We refer to Girvan as a family festival and over 40 years that family has grown; children have become fully fledged musicians and we have witnessed a full range of hatches, matches and sadly some despatches.
Reaching a milestone gives you the excuse to look back and also the opportunity to look forward. The two, past and future, are not disconnected. Girvan Festival didn’t happen by accident and the hard work, mostly behind the scenes will probably never be fully appreciated. Many faces will change before we reach the 50th milestone. The older ones among us will be concerned with legacy, the younger ones will take things forward, possibly in different ways, but hopefully with similar values.
Some of Girvan’s strengths. It was a family festival. Its constitution and defined focus. Although it had a core committee, it was ‘owned’ by a larger group of people. It sought out new performers. It booked ‘special people’ – not necessarily stars, but people with an X factor. Its links with Ireland and England. It wasn’t a ‘manufactured’ festival, it grew largely from established folk clubs and was organised by enthusiasts. It remained small and acoustic. It was on a Bank Holiday and ran for a full weekend.
Guests over the years
Adam McNaughtan, Aileen Carr, Alistair Hulett, Alistair MacDonald, Alistair Ogilvy, Allan Taylor, Aly Bain, Amy Lord, Arthur Johnstone, Barbara Dymock, Berit Sondergaard, Billy Jackson, Bob Blair, Bob Fox, Bobby Robb, Breda McKinney, Brian Peters, Cathal McConnell, Chris Foster, Chris Miles, Colin McAllister, Colin Ross, Colum Sands, Danny Kyle, Dave Burland, Dave Goulder, Davy Steele, Di Henderson, Dick Gaughan, Donal Maguire, Eddie Walker, Elizabeth Stewart, Ewan MacLennan, Ewan McVicar, Finbar Magee, Gabriel McCardle, Geordie Murison, Gill Bowman, Gilly Hewitt, Gordeanna McCulloch, Gordon Bok, Gus Langlands, Heather Heywood, Iain MacKintosh, Ian Bruce, Ian Hardie, Isabel Sutherland, Jack Beck, Jack Foley, Janet Weatherston, Janice Clark, Jim Bainbridge, Jim McFarland, Jimmy Hutchison, John Foreman, John Hunter, John James, John Kirkpatrick, John McCormick, John McCreadie, John Mouldon, John Watt, Johnny Coppin, June Tabor, Kathy Hobkirk, Katie Harrigan, Keith Hancock, Kevin Mitchell, Kieran Halpin, Kristina Olsen, Liam O’Flynn ,Lionel McClelland, Lizzie Higgins, Lucy Pringle, Maggie McInnes, Marilyn Middleton Pollock, Martin Carthy, Martin Hall, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Mary Black, Maureen Jelks, Mick Elliot, Mick Peat, Nancy Nicholson, Niamh Parsons, Norman Kennedy, Norman Stewart, Paddy Tunny, Pat McNulty, Pat Ryan, Pete Coe, Peter Bellamy, Phyllis Martin, Ray Fisher, Robin Laing, Roisin White, Sara Grey, Scott Gardner, Sean Cannon, Sean Donnelly, Sheena Wellington, Sid Kipper, Siobhan Miller, Steve Turner, Tim Lyons, Tommy McCarthy, Tony Capstick, Tony Hall, Tony MacMahon, Tony McManus, Tony Sullivan, Tufty Swift, Vin Garbutt, Willie Scott ….
Aileen Carr & Maureen Jelks, Alison McMorland & Geordie McIntyre, Alistair Hulett & Roy Bailey, Anne Dodson & Matt Szostak, Bob Blair & Finlay Allison, Bob Bray & John Scaife, Bob Fox & Bennie Graham, Bob Fox & Stu Luckley, Brian McNeill & Alan Reid, Brian Miller & Charlie Soane, Brian Peters & Gordon Tyrrell, Carol Anderson & Martin MacDonald, Carolina Shout, Chris Miles & Gordeanna McCulloch, Cilla Fisher & Artie Tresize, Claire Mann & Dave Wood, Derek & Dorothy Elliot, Dick Gaughan & Brian McNeill, Duncan Chisholm & Ivan Drever, Ellen & Kevin Mitchell, Findask (Willie Lindsay & Stuart Campbell), Gavin & Claire Livingston, Geof & Pennie Harris, Gerry O’Connor & Francie McPhail, Hilary James & Simon Mayor, Huw & Tony Williams, Ivan Drever & Duncan Chisholm, Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley, Jim & Sylvia Barnes, John Leonard & John Squires, John Watt & Davie Stewart, Ken Campbell & Chris Miller, Len Graham & Garry O’Briain, Len Graham & Jack Lynch, Len Graham & John Campbell, Maire Ni Chathasaigh & Chris Newman, Mairead ni Mhaonaigh & Frankie Kennedy, Malcolm Bushby & Rosie Lindsay, Mark Roberts & Sandal Astrausky, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, Mike Smith & Eamonn Costello, Nick Caffrey & Ed McGurk, Partners in Crime, Pauline Cato & Tom McConville, Polisses and Candymen, Rick & Lorraine Lee, Sara Grey & Ellie Ellis, Sara Grey & Keiron Means, Sheila Stewart & Ian Mcgregor, Sileas, Sylvia Barnes & Sandy Stanage, Tam Spiers & Arthur Watson, The Kipper Family, The Stewarts of Blair, The Wrigley Sisters, Tom & Barbara Brown, Tom McConville & Dave Newey
Adam McCulloch Trio, Altan, Annie Grace & Disgraceful Company, Any Old Time, Appalacian Strings, Ar Log, Arcady, Arthur Johnstone & The Stars Band, Ayr & Prestwick Reel & Strathspey Society, Back of the Moon, Barbara Dymock Band, Barluath, Battlefield Band, Beginish, Beolach, Billy Ross, John Martin & Norman Chalmers, Blackeyed Biddy, Blazing Fiddles Boys of the Lough Burach Calasaig Canned Haggis Cathal McConnell, John Coakley & Christie O’Leary, Ceolbeg, Chorda, Coope, Boyes & Simpson, Crannachan, Croabh Rua, Daimh, Danu, Deaf Shepherd, Deanta, Dervish, Drumlin, Dumfries Folk Club, Eclipse First, Emily Smith Band, Fon A Bhord, Fuaim, Fusky Pig, Girvan Folk Club, Grada, Harem Scarem, Heritage, Highland Connection, Itchy Fingers, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, John Wright Band, Jolly Jack, Killultagh and friends, Krag Folk, Lunasa, Lurach, Lyra Celtica, Makvirag, Malin Head, Malinky Michael, McCreesh & Co, Mick West Band, Mirk, Nomos, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy, Not the One O’Clock Gang, Oige, Old Hickory, Ossian, Quadrille, R Cajun, Radical Road, Rallion, Roaring Jelly, Rosie Stewart, Barry Gleeson, Luke Cheevers, Runt of the Litter, Sangsters, Scottish Step Dance Company, Session A9, Setanta, Shepheard, Spiers & Watson, Smalltalk Smeddum, Smeltstigel, Stramash, Stravaig, Tam Cat’s Band, The Boroughloch Trio, The Bourtree Hillbilies, The Busking Sharks The Clutha The Davy Steele Band The Easy Club The Fisher Family The Gaugers, The Govan Spoonful, The High Level Ranters, The Ideal Band, The Mick West Band, The Paul McKenna Band, The Rub, The Sanna, The Shee, The Spiers Family, The Voice Squad, The Watersons, The Wellpark Suite, True North, Up in the Air, Urban Riot (Davy Steele, Eilidh Shaw, Gary West), Walt Michael & Company, Yorkshire Relish.
All Set Dancers with Mary Fox, Ceilidh Folk, Celtic Caboodle (Thornhill Ceilidh Band), Clan na Gael, Colin McKechnie Band, Colin McKechnie Ceilidh Band, Freeland Barbour & Sandy Coghill, Kilmarnock Womens Morris, Roger Dobson’s Band, The Belfast Set Dancers, The Cheviot Ranters, The Coalpit Allstars, The Donal Dubh Ceilidh Band, The Four Provinces Ceili Band, The Gallivanters, The Girvan Pipe Band, The Monrovians, The Newcastle Electric Ceildh Band, The Oatcakes, The Oatcakes Ceilidh Commandos, The Occasionals, The Tattiehowkers Ceilidh Band, The Wallochmor Ceildh Band, The William Grants All Star Ceilidh Band
Barbara McDermitt, Cath Little, Claire McNicol, Claire Mulholland, Estonian Storytellers, Frances Logan, Heather Yule, Jack Lynch, John Campbell, Judith Alexander, Kati Valk, Marie Chiffmine, Marion Kenny, Pauline Cordiner, Taffy Thomas, Walter McCorrisken, Wendy Welch …
Crooked Jack, Gila’s New Stage Theatre Company, Hatrick the Clown, Major Mustard’s Travelling Show, Mike Hancock, Peter Lawless White, Suitcase Circus, Ric Taylor, – children’s entertainer Sam Thomas The Chipolatas The Craig Players The Musical Mystery Tour, The Singing Kettle, Tosspot Theatre