Alison McMorland is one of Scotland’s folksong and ballad singing treasures. Her performances on stage and on record are peerless and her contribution as a song collector, broadcaster, teacher, author, editor, publisher and champion of the traditional arts has been of incalculable value.
Growing up in a family where making music was part of everyday life, singing became as natural as breathing to Alison and singing around the piano is one of her fondest early memories. Her maternal grandfather was a self-taught pianist and cellist who also sang and her mother learned violin as a child, played for Scottish country dancing at school and became a professional musician, including accompanying silent movies in the 1920s. Alison’s father was at one time a church precentor and as well as being involved in choral work, he loved Burns, the ‘auld songs’ and Harry Lauder songs.
Alison own love of folksongs grew from these family singalongs and during the 1960s, while living in Cornwall, with its unbroken folk traditions, she encountered the mighty Padstow ‘Obby Oss’ and became aware of living folk customs. She began collecting children’s songs and games, became a resident singer at the Falmouth Folk Club and started to broaden her repertoire of traditional Scottish songs.
By 1972 Alison was living in York, collecting the songs and games that featured on her enthusiastically received film, Pass it On and attending folk gatherings round the country. She was encouraged, by folklorist Arthur Argo, to enter the Kinross singing competition, which she won, with the judge, Sheila Stewart asserting that Alison had the ‘conyach’ – high praise from a traveller.
Hamish Henderson heard Alison and took her under his wing, introducing her to other singers, his song collections at the School of Scottish Studies and the priceless Johnson’s Musical Museum song anthology at the National Library of Scotland. Learning directly from – and recording songs by – the Border shepherd Willie Scott, Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, Betsy Whyte, and lan Manuel, as well as Henderson himself, Alison’s authority and authenticity as a singer grew.
Through Hamish Henderson’s influence Alison recorded her first album, Belt Wi’ Colours Three for the Tangent label in 1977. She then joined Peta Webb in a partnership that produced one of Melody Maker’s albums of the year, on Topic Records, in 1980 and featured in the film series Pioneers of the Folk Revival. Alison also recorded songs from a woman’s perspective with Frankie Armstrong on My Song is My Own, sang with the Albion Band in Bill Bryden’s Mystery Plays at the National Theatre in London and recorded The Funny Family album and book, her classic collection of children’s songs and singing games.
On returning to live in Glasgow in 1989, Alison shared the position of Scotland’s first Traditional Arts Development Officer with Jo Miller. She co-founded a community arts organisation, which drew her away from performing for some years, before returning as a tutor on the Scottish Music Course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
While continuing to sing and record solo and with her husband, Geordie McIntyre, and daughter, Kirsty Potts, Alison has produced acclaimed books on the songs and life of Willie Scott and, with ballad singer Elizabeth Stewart, the collection of travellers songs, stories and tunes of the Fetterangus Stewarts, Up Yon Wide and Lonely Glen, which won a folklore Special Commendation Award. She remains an inspiration to the young singers she introduces to the Scots tradition and a joy to the audiences who hear her play her part in continuing the carrying stream.