Founded in Thurso in 1970, the Caithness band Mirk established a reputation for strong singing – particularly from Margie Sinclair, regarded as one of the finest voices on the Scottish folk scene – as well as skilled instrumental arrangements. Their repertoire of largely traditional material was augmented by songs composed by Margie’s fiddle-playing husband, Ian, which sounded indistinguishable from the tradition.
Ian’s compositions, notably The King’s Shilling and Tak a Dram Afore Ye Go, have been taken up over the years by many artists, including Jean Redpath, the Battlefield Band, Tommy Makem, James Taylor and Tommy Sands. Margie once found herself judging a competition at a TMSA festival when one competitor sang The King’s Shilling, then was bemused when Margie felt obliged to inform her that not only was the song not traditional, but it had been composed by her husband.
Both Margie and Ian came from backgrounds which had exposed them to a wide range of influences. Growing up in Glasgow, Margie was listening with her family to the radio from an early age – with one set of grandparents Irish and the other from Islay and North-East Scotland, they tuned in to both Radio Scotland and Raidió Teilifís Éireann. “Country music, sean-nós, Robert Wilson and Jimmy Shand were all considered music of equal value,” she recalls. “I was fortunate to have been taken to see all the jazz and blues greats who came to the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow at that time – the likes of Howling Wolf, Ella Fitzgerald, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Amalia, Satchmo, and Mahalia Jackson made a tremendous impression on me.”
She played violin, viola and percussion at school, but it was increasingly singing which absorbed her and she was encouraged by Sir Hugh Roberton, conductor of the famous Orpheus Choir, and mentored by J Norman McConnachie, conductor of the similarly renowned Glasgow Gaelic Choir. She owes the late McConnachie a huge debt of gratitude “for shaping my life”.
She adds: “It was, however, my involvement in researching, making and performing for five programmes of the BBC’s oral history series Odyssey, four of them relating to Caithness, which drew all the threads together and gave me the greatest satisfaction.”
Ian, also in Glasgow (they both attended Woodside Secondary School but didn’t meet until later), was originally coached for a career in classical music, gaining his Associateship of the London College of Violinists with distinctions when he was just 16. As a rebellious teenager, however, he elected to become an engineer instead, bought a guitar and formed a skiffle band who made it to the quarter finals competition on the Six Five Special, BBC TV’s early rock and roll show. His parents, both of whom were from Caithness, played fiddle, and when he and Margie met – initially through playing and singing in the skiffle band, their shared interest prompted them to start collecting and playing traditional music.
They both loved the north, and when Ian’s career took him to work at Dounreay nuclear power station in 1966, the couple moved to Thurso and soon found themselves playing at ceilidhs throughout the north of Scotland with the Milton Scottish Dance Band, run by Ian’s cousin Bobby Coghill. In 1969 they helped establish the Dounreay Folk Club, of which Ian was chairman for ten years, as well as founder and organiser of the Thurso Folk Festival.
Ian also founded Thurso and Dounreay Strathspey and Reel Society, leading it for six years, during which time the society made a record and broadcast on radio, as well as playing as far afield as Germany and holding a highly successful annual fiddle rally.
The Sinclairs formed Mirk with Ray Crompton, a guitar, mandolin and mandola player from Southport, who had been playing blues and jazz since his teens and immersed himself in Scottish traditional, music after arriving in Caithness in 1969. The fourth original member was singer and concertina and whistle player Kevin MacLean, who left after a couple of years to work as a physicist at Winfrith nuclear power station in Dorset.
In a fortuitous combination of first-name initials, the band called themselves Mirk, a Scots word for darkness or gloom, although there was nothing dim about their performances, which quickly saw them in demand for festivals and folk clubs across the country.
They first recorded on a BBC Ballad Folk album along with others including Jean Redpath, Archie Fisher, the Gaugers and Gordeanna McCulloch. Their debut album under their own name, Moddan’s Bower, came out in 1979, featuring the trio of Margie, Ian and Ray and including Ian’s compositions Bowermadden and The King’s Shilling, both of which have since been taken up by numerous singers. Reviewing the album at the time, Dick Gaughan wrote: “Margie must surely be recognised as one of our finest singers, Ian as well as being an excellent musician, has become that very rare set of songwriter who can write in the traditional style and be thoroughly convincing.”
They followed this in 1982 with Tak a Dram Afore Ye Go, the title song of which has also entered the tradition. By this time they’d been joined on cittern, bodhran, mandolin and bass by a young musician called Jim Sutherland, who would go on to establish a reputation in his own right for his work with the Easy Club, his prolific tune writing and a later career producing and writing film scores and musical events.
Back in the Seventies and Eighties, however, Mirk appeared in on BBC’s Ballad Folk and Fiddles and Whistles an A’ TV shows and in Billy Kay’s pioneering Odyssey oral history series for Radio Scotland. The fact that Ian, Margie and Ray all had “day jobs” prevented them taking up offers of touring abroad, but they did tour throughout the UK. They also performed for the late Queen Mother, at the Castle of Mey, Margie later recalling that she was, in fact “quite an aficionado” of traditional Scots song.
Sutherland left the group after a couple of years to become a full-time musician, but Ian and Margie stayed semi-professional, while Ray’s job required him to work abroad for lengthy spells. To augment him when necessary, the Sinclairs brought in reinforcements in the shape of guitarist-mandolinist Brian Miller and multi-instrumentalist Gavin Livingstone, both of whom remain well respected names on the Scottish folk scene.
Brian would go to be part of the final line-up of Mirk, at the same time being guitarist of choice for a wide range of other names over the years, from the Laggan and the occasional to fiddler Charlie Soane, Arthur Johnstone’s Stars Band, and American folk hero Tom Paxton. Gavin Livingstone, also in Mirk’s final line-up, had been involved in folk music since 1963 and in the Seventies he and his brother Pete made two albums with their electronic folk band Tonight at Noon, later joining Brian Miller in Handsel as well as in the Stars Band.
Ian left engineering in 1978 become the string instructor for Caithness and North-West Sutherland schools and, not able to teach Scottish music within that context, formed the Caithness Junior Fiddlers, who went on to perform in Brilon in Germany, Cape Breton, and the TUFAG youth international festival in Turkey. Among his pupils who have made names for themselves on the traditional scene have been Addie Harper Jnr, Gordon Gunn, Karen Stevens and Carol Anne McKay, while others have gone on to success in classical music. In 1990 he was presented with an award by the Caithness Arts Association for his work with the region’s young musicians.
Since the Sixties Ian and Margie’s ethos has been, says Margie, “to break down the many barriers they perceived in media, education and Scottish music circles, be they fiddle and accordion clubs, strathspey and reel societies, An Comunn Gàidhealach, piping societies, folk clubs and the arts council, and lending support to others of the same mind such as Arthur Argo, Billy Kay, Robbie Shepherd, Morag Duncan of the Scottish Examination Board, Robert Innes, founder of the summer school in traditional music at Stirling University.”
While ill-health has meant that the group hasn’t played publicly for some years, Margie simply says “Who knows?” in regard to the future. So far as her approach to singing is concerned, she says: “I have always believed the song and its delivery to be paramount, the voice of secondary importance in the transmission of these precious ballads which have survived by oral transmission down the generations. I regard myself as just one of countless song carriers.”