To hundreds of thousands of readers cross the world, Maurice Fleming will be remembered as editor of the widely selling Scots Magazine from 1974 to 1991. In the annals of Scots traditional song-collecting, however, the Blairgowrie journalist, author and playwright can boast a distinguished parallel career, the highlights of which include being the first collector to meet and record the Stewarts of Blair, as well as “discovering” other such important tradition-bearers as Annie Watkins and Mary Brooksbank of Dundee.
Maurice tracked down the Stewart family, who had settled in the town on giving up their traditional travelling lifestyle, in the summer of 1954, less than a week after his first, momentous chance meeting with Hamish Henderson, who had encouraged him to go song collecting on his home ground.
Strangely enough, Maurice had grown up In Blairgowrie just long the road from the young Hamish, and had been taught by the same inspiring teacher at the local school, although the two wouldn’t meet until adulthood. Maurice’s mother, however, could remember Hamish as “the wee boy always in a kilt”. By the time Maurice went to school, Hamish and his mother had moved to Glenshee.
Maurice, who celebrated his 90th birthday this summer, now lives in the same house in which he was born and raised, after many years spent in Dundee. His father had a draper’s business in Blairgowrie and was also a keen book collector and writer, while his mother, he recalls, would suddenly break off from housework to scribble out a poem she had been composing. She was from Braemar, her poems often in praise of the Deeside hills, and he inherited her love of the countryside, becoming a lifelong birdwatcher.
Following his National Service with the Cameronians, he originally planned to train in hotel management but soon left the course, deciding to learn the hard way, starting by working for a year in the kitchens of a Lyon’s Corner House in London and in a West End hotel. Returning to Scotland, he found himself working at the then Dalmunzie House in Glenshee – in the shadow of Ben Gulabin, the hill on which Hamish Henderson’s ashes are now scattered. Like Hamish before him, he became fascinated by the hill’s association with the Diarmid and Grainne legend, writing an early play, The Runaway Lovers, based on it.
The play was performed by Dundee Rep (and attended by Hamish) in 1956, by which time Maurice had switched careers and, following a stint in an Edinburgh bookshop, was a sub-editor on a women’s magazine in D C Thomson’s offices in Dundee. Two years before that, at a dinner in Edinburgh, Maurice had found himself sitting opposite Henderson, who told him about how he and his colleagues were searching for and recording traditional singers. By the time the meal was over, Maurice had become a volunteer scout and collector for the then newly formed School of Scottish Studies.
“It will be berry time in Blairgowrie,” Hamish had said. “”The fields will be full of travellers. Get in amongst them and you’ll soon find singers.” And he gave Maurice the use of a tape recorder from the School.
Within a week he had found his first singers, not in the fields but at the Stewarts’ home in Rattray, which was well known among travellers as a ceilidh house. It was Sheila Stewart who was at home when he first called, and one of the first songs she sang for him was her mother’s composition, The Berryfields of Blair, which would go on to become famous.
He found the family delighted that an “outsider”, a non-traveller, should take an interest in their music and they invited other traveller singers to join in the recording sessions. These were also held at the homes of other settled travellers, and before long Maurice began steering a wobbly course on his bike, complete with hefty tape recorder, seeking out traveller camps, during those last years when itinerant travellers flocked to Perthshire for the fruit-picking.
“In those days,” he recalls, “travellers pitched their tents by the roadside and up disused tracks, in the corners of woods and old quarries. I followed the smell of woodsmoke!”
He was leading an intriguing double life: “By day I was sitting at my desk in the office of a women’s magazine in Dundee. In the evening and at weekends I was cycling from farm to farm with my trusty tape recorder. I always hoped my very prim lady editor would not smell the woodsmoke off me the next morning!”
Following the woodsmoke, however, paid dividends: “The old travellers were great raconteurs,” he says. “Someone said that after conversations with travelling folk, talk with anyone else is like food without the salt.”
He particularly appreciated the help and encouragement he was given by Belle Stewart. Soon, of course, she and her husband Alex and their daughters Sheila and Cathy, billing themselves s “”the Stewarts of Blair”, would become famous, appearing at folk clubs throughout the country and attracting the attention of other collectors, notably Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
The mid-Sixties saw Maurice join D C Thomson’s Scots Magazine, on which he would work for the next 27 years, 17 of these as editor. This prompted him and his wife Nanette to move to Dundee, where, to his delight, he soon started unearthing a wealth of traditional singers, among them Alex Clarke, Charlie Lamb and Annie Watkins, all of whom featured on a recording released in 1985 by Springthyme Records, Coorse and Fine. Maurice and Springthyme’s Pete Shepheard also contributed songs they had collected to Nigel Gatherer’s book Songs and Ballads of Dundee.
What he regards as his greatest Dundee “coup”, however, was to find the once fiery political agitator Mary Brooksbank living quietly on a council estate. As a co-founder of Dundee Folk Club, he says that one of his proudest moments was when he took her along to the club to sing her mill songs before a packed house. He later helped her bring out a book of her poems and songs, Sidlaw Breezes.
Since his retirement (and return to Blairgowrie) Maurice has produced several books, including collected tales and traditions of east Perthshire and a similar work on the lore of the Sidlaws. He also produced a volume of stories from Scottish history for young readers. He is currently (2016) completing a study of small-town life in the 1930s as seen through the eyes of a small boy. It couldn’t be Blairgowrie, could it?