It was a surprise invitation from two youngsters that sparked what would become Betty Verrill’s lifetime interest in folk music. At the time, she was running a youth club in Saltburn-on-Sea, 10 mins away from her home in Guisborough. Two of her attendees invited Betty and her husband Dave to the Redcar folk club. A babysitter was booked, and off they went thinking they’d only attend occasionally. Upon their second visit though, they were confronted with a performance from Aly Bain and Mike Whellans. And as Betty puts it, “that was it!”
By “it” she’s very modestly referring to forty years spent organising, booking, promoting, accommodating and generally looking after folk acts from across the UK, from Scotland in particular. She supported many of the now best-known Scottish folk revival groups, finding them their first breaks on the English folk scene, helping them go on to become the successes we know so well today.
Betty was born in Colinton near Edinburgh in 1932. Her mother, an Ayrshire native, sang Burns songs in the house, and her father was an assistant organist at St Cuthberts Church, Princes Street, who once accompanied the ‘Strathspey King’ James Scott Skinner. It was a musical house. With the Redford Barracks just along the road, she recalls the 1930s and 40s: “There was always music: Bands, pipers, buskers. All playing tunes I’d learn to play on the accordion many years later”.
Leaving home, she met her husband Dave and together they settled in Guisborough in 1967, where she’s been ever since.
In Edinburgh in the early seventies, shortly after the Redcar Folk Club gig, Betty met the Battlefield Band. On the newly emerging folk scene, they had an incredible buzz about them, and she knew she could bring this to an audience in England. She duly invited them down.
They arrived in 1975, and played every show she could get them. At first it was her youth club, and her husband Dave’s folk club: The Top House of Marske. They crashed on the floor of her semi-detached house on the outskirts of the village and over the following weeks, they played everywhere possible: Floor spots, local folk clubs and festivals. It was a huge leg up, and with their foot in the door they quickly became a fixture on the English circuit.
The Batties were just the first of many. Word spread quickly, the folk scene much smaller than today, and soon bands were a regular fixture in Betty and Dave’s lives. Over the years, her floor graced by the likes of: Ossian, Silly Wizard, Hom Bru, The McCalmans and The Tannahill Weavers to name but a few.
At the time, these bands were not the global sensations we know them as now. The task at hand for Betty was to find any and all opportunities for these bands to perform. Not straightforward given that many of them were completely unheard of in England when they first arrived. She had to be creative, finding ways for her “house guests”- as she describes them- to air their music, from floor spots, folk clubs and festivals, to local schools and colleges.
In 1977, when Ossian first appeared at Betty’s house, she decided that instead of finding someone else to put them on, she’d promote a gig herself. At a caravan park of all places. It was intended as a one-off, just so that the band would have a gig. But her hard work saw that the gig at Tocketts Mill gig sold out. The shows became a regular fixture, Ossian followed by Silly Wizard, and many others. Over the years it gave a platform to artists from across Europe and as far afield as the United States.
A born record keeper, her photo archive is a priceless, and hilarious glimpse at these bands on the cusp of success: Phil Cunningham’s 18th birthday with Silly Wizard, Simon Thoumire and Ian Carr still in their teens, The Battlefield Band having a session in her beautifully kept back garden. She and Dave would take them for trips: To Saltburn-On-Sea, Whitby. Sheer enjoyment was what drove her. Now though of the hundreds of people she hosted, the late nights, parties, loads of washing and meals made, she says: “I don’t know how I did it!”
It seems inevitable surrounded by all of this music, that Betty would at some point pick up an instrument herself. It wasn’t until she was in her fifties though, when Dave bought her an accordion to play at his folk club. Soon though, she was playing regularly, including for her daughter’s clog dance team! A decade later, the accordion becoming too heavy, she went out and got herself a fiddle, which soon enough she was playing at folk clubs, sessions and of course for the dance team.
By the time she reached her seventies, she was trying to take a bit of a back seat. But after some cajoling, she and Dave were persuaded to take on another folk club, this time the one in Saltburn, where the process of booking her favourite performers began all over again. Now in her mid 80s, and finally having managed to retire, she uses her daughter’s words to describe how she was able to do so much for so long: “It was fun!”