Joe Aitken is one of the great upholders of Scotland’s bothy ballad tradition and a singer of Scots song who has taken his native tradition to appreciative audiences all over Scotland, in England, Ireland and Germany. The winner of many singing competitions for his authentic narrative style, Joe is literally a champion of champions, having won for a record six times the much-coveted porridge bowl, spoon and Donald Ferguson Memorial Trophy competed for annually by singing competition winners at Elgin Town Hall.
Joe was born into the bothy ballad tradition in 1944 to parents who were both from Aberdeenshire. His father, a farm worker who had risen to the post of grieve, was working on a farm near Meigle, in Perthshire, at the time and Joe’s earliest memories are of that farm and hearing his father singing. His father only sang around the house, and would never have dreamed of setting foot on a stage, but Joe picked up songs from him and the men in the farm bothy, which was attached to the grieve’s house. The first song he learned was Loch Lomond and he remembers being hoisted onto a kist to sing it to the bothy dwellers.
At school Joe would sing at end of term parties and any time the family had visitors or called on relatives, he would be asked to sing his latest party piece. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, however, that Joe began to take singing more seriously. In 1982, the Kinross Folk Festival moved to Kirriemuir, where by this time Joe was working on the family farm, and Joe was encouraged to enter the singing competition. He didn’t win that one but within a few years he had won the first of many cups, at Auchtermuchty, and was mixing with his heroes, including Jock Duncan and Tam Reid.
Jock and Tam were happy to teach Joe any song he showed an interest in and other singers, including Belle Stewart, made tapes of songs for him, making Joe a genuine keeper of the oral tradition. For Joe, who worked on the land for most of his working life, the bothy ballads are a social and political history of farms and farming and the big ballads, or muckle sangs, a treasure trove of stories that he gets great pleasure from sharing. He also enjoys the humour in some of the less reverent traditional songs.
As well as singing in competitions, Joe has sung at festivals including Sidmouth and Whitby and he was honoured to appear in the opening concert at Celtic Connections in 2016, marking the 50th anniversary of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland. The following year Joe was part of a Scottish visitation to Germany’s foremost festival of roots, folk and world music at Rudolstadt in the central region of Thuringia and he was thrilled to sing to an audience of six-to-seven thousand on the Saturday afternoon. He is equally happy to sing to much smaller audiences and enjoys creating a rapport with listeners in intimate venues.
Joe’s singing has been preserved on his own album, Festival Favourites, and on the Old Songs & Bothy Ballads series recorded at Fife Singing Festival and released by Springthyme Records and on Sleepytown Records’ three-volume collection of Bothy Ballads of North-East Scotland. He is widely admired among his contemporaries and hugely respected by the many younger singers he has influenced and he was a very popular and deserving winner of the Scots Singer of the Year title at the MG Scots Trad Music Awards in 2010.