This fiddle is on display at the Clan MacPherson Museum, Newtonmore. It is said to have belonged to James MacPherson, 'the Outlaw', whose mother was an 'Egyptian' or Scottish Traveller, his father a laird in Invernesshire. Macpherson was arrested and hung in 1700, and it is said that he played this instrument just before his execution. When he offered the fiddle to his surviving band members who had come to watch him die, none of them would take it so the condemned man broke it on the gallows and flung it away. As part of new display at Clan MacPherson, a member of the Scottish Traveller community has created some new interpretation for this evocative object. We're looking forward to exploring more stories and collections like this in the near future!
Thanks to Rhona Ramsey - watch Rhona's talk entitled Nacken chaetrie: finding the material culture of Gypsy/Travellers in Scottish museums
Jonny Hannah is the lead artist on Museums Northumberland's Northumberland Folk project.
I was commissioned by Museums Northumberland in July 2019 to create four exhibitions inspired by folklore in the fair county of Northumberland. I’d made many artworks in the past inspired by folk heroes, folk devils, folk songs & ballads. It’s an area I’ve loved for a long time. In our google-saturated world of the 21st century, Folk has always been an antidote to this. So many of the stories & tales are unanswered, inconclusive. Does Nessie exist? Of course she does, but the delicious uncertainty is every bit as exciting as the question.
One of the key parts of Northumberland Folk, as it quickly became known, was community participation. I didn’t really want a hundred of versions of the Bamburgh worm tale, great story that it is. So I began working out how to gather tales that for me, come under the category of ‘Urban Folklore’. Folk, is often perceived as something that happened a long time ago, in a deep, dark wood, as the peasants milled around, clueless. But I knew even growing up in Fife in Scotland, how folk was ever changing, growing & being added to. Mike Wilkie, known as Moog, lived a few streets away from me, then one day, he was gone. As far as I know he’s never turned up. What happened to him? This, I firmly believe is folk. The scary big house, just near our secondary school had all sorts of tales attached to it. There was talk of orgies. But we’d go there to play the collection of broken pianos housed in one of its outbuildings. And Dunfermline was a prominent place for folk music, with a legendary club called the Howf, where a young Billy Connolly & Gerry Rafferty would perform. But then when punk cam along, our town gave birth to the Skids, which I would happily also call Folk; the music of the people, played by them.
So I began trying to get the ‘urban folk’ stories from the good folks of Northumberland. I devised story cards for them to fill out, went busking in the streets with my special, customised guitar & started to hand them out. And the tales I got back were great. From stolen & resold milk bottles to make a few pence on the side, to a recipe for a cocktail celebrating a (fairly) local football hero (the slice of lime pulled all the other ingredients, like cheap cider & old whisky, together brilliantly). One story told of a certain public phone box (remember them?) in Bamburgh, where a call from a failing marriage gave birth to another successful one. So, romance, intrigue, the odd ghost, and a man called ‘Sticky’, & much more besides.
These stories are not in the books, until I make the book, or in my case… newspaper. So, as well as having many of these stories in my exhibitions, alongside more obvious tales such as the brave hero Lizzie Storey, & the amazing muscles of Jimmy Strength, a new newspaper (title undecided, possibly The Northumberland Folk Courier), will be published to mark the public start of the project next spring. Who knows, there may have to be two editions of the paper, as the stories keep coming. During the bleakness of lockdown, a true folk hero, Jack Charlton passed away. I know almost nothing about football, but I know Big Jack is well worth featuring. There will also be a separate publication celebrating the women from the area. As can often happen, the history books cut the women out. So, I’m going to do the opposite. From historical characters like the strong Josephine Butler, to women I’ve met along the way. I sat down with Marjorie Mountain, at the The Old School gallery in Alnmouth, one afternoon, at a time when I was having doubts about the project, & the way I was gathering information. But that conversation, by the ex-school mistress, sorted me out. Marjorie described the folks of Northumberland, having gone through more than their fair share of industrial upheaval, as ‘stoic & brave’. And then in an equally poetic manner, saw the landscape of this part of England, as ‘handsome, wild & free’. And there I had it, almost a sub-title for my entire project; Northumberland Folk; stoic, brave, handsome wild & free.
And more recently, I’ve gone right back to the start, & been obsessively drawing the dragon & brave knight from the ancient tale of the Bamborough Worm. But it’ll sit well with stories of found WWII Luftwaffe mascots & a giant ringworm… I hope. Even if it is all incongruous, & more akin to a car-boot sale, that’s what Folk can often be. Try as we might to control & curate it, it’s by the people, for them, & I’m delighted to say there’s no telling where that’ll end up. But four museums in Northumberland is a good place to start…