FED UPON THE BROSE:
George Morris as the Buchan Bobby.
by Charlie Allan
Two North-east heroes are to be remembered by plaques on one of Oldmeldrum’s oldest buildings. Willie Kemp and George Morris, each of whom has been known as the King of Bothy Ballads*, are the subjects and Morris’s Hotel, which George called after himself, is the site.
It is the work of the Meldrum and Bourtie Heritage Society and I am chuffed that they have got round to those entertainers even before honouring such other Meldrum heroes as Air Chief Marshal Sir John Donald and George Duncan, who won the Open Golf Championship in 1920.
The two bronze plaques will read;
Willie Kemp 1888 – 1965
King o’ the Cornkisters
And, George S. Morris 1876 – 1958
The Buchan Chiel Lived Here
The site has been well chosen. It is historic. It dates back to 1673 when it opened as a coffee house, just a year after Oldmeldrum received its charter as a burgh of barony from the laird of Meldrum, Adam Urquhart. It was the birthplace of Sir Thomas Mitchell, Lord Provost of Aberdeen in the war years, who slept there the night before the announcement of his Knighthood. It is said, though not necessarily believed, that some of the hotel’s walls were once part of a medieval castle.
More importantly, as well as carrying Morris’s name to this day, Meldrum’s oldest Howf was once owned by Willie Kemp’s family and known as Kemp’s Hotel. A letter from his daughter Moyra Anderson written in 1987, and in the possession of the Meldrum and Bourtie Heritage Society, shows that Willie Kemp was born there in 1888.
The young Willie loved his little upstairs room where the floor was so sloping that when he played bools, he could play “up hill” and the marbles would run back to him. His father William Kemp collected, on Barra Hill, stone balls(some of them ornate), flints, arrowheads and stone axes, and donated them “to Aberdeen’s Regional Museum and Varsity’s Anthropological Museum”. When his father died Willie Kemp, the balladeer, inherited the hotel with his only sister Agnes.
Now, Agnes was Mrs George Smith Morris, so Meldrum’s two famous entertainers became partners in Kemp’s Hotel and the Morrises moved there around 1919. When Agnes died suddenly in 1948, Willie Kemp dissolved the partnership and a new one was formed between George Morris and his son Bill. Only three years later the name was changed to Morris’s. Ill thochtit North-easters will suspect a falling-out or at least professional jealousy between the two balladeers, but who knows?
Willie Kemp used to say that he got his big break on the stage because a minister in Aberdeen didn’t understand the Doric. He mistook Young Willie’s rendering of the Weddin o McGinnis for obscenity and the audience’s laughter as ribald. He had the young thespian forcibly removed from the stage. An unholy stramash ensued. Seven families left the church and the session made the minister apologise.
But Willie’s name was now known. He joined Willie Jack’s concert party while at Art School and, when in 1923 the BBC opened a studio in Belmont Street, Willie Kemp was soon singing regularly on air. In his first broadcast he sang Jean the Kitchie Deem. Someone from Beltona records heard it and Willie was off to London to start on the more than 100 recordings which can now be found in junk shops and record collections throughout the world.
George Morris was not even a country boy let alone a Buchan Chiel, but there you are. He was born and brought up in Aberdeen where his father had a blacksmith’s and farrier’s business as well as breeding stallions at Keithhall. George served his time as a blacksmith, met Agnes Kemp at a dance in Oldmeldrum and married her in 1912.
He started a dramatic society, as well as his own concert party in Oldmeldrum. That’s when the song writing started and when his photo appeared in the local paper that tipped off Beltona that a small inn in Aberdeenshire had not one, but two singing stars. That’s what they say, though it is hard to believe that Willie Kemp had not put in a word for his brother-in-law.
At any rate, from 1930 to 1938 Morris recorded over 40 bothy ballads with Beltona. That’s 20 recordings a year in the 1930s from Oldmeldrum alone. There is no doubt those two men of Meldrum were hugely popular in their day and have contributed an important legacy. Only a fool would try to compare them or to assess their importance – but here goes.
Willie Kemp sang a lot of traditional ballads like the Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie, Mormond Braes and real farm songs like Drumdelgie. But he also made up a large number of songs which in cold print look pretty average. They are comic songs whose comedy relies on ugly women and elementary slapstick. Things like Tipperty’s Meg and the Conversazione. There are some better songs like Muckle Gawkit Gype and Robbie Shepherd’s party piece, Ye Canna Pit it on tae Sandy, but really, when their author stopped performing them they were largely forgotten.
Willie Kemp’s songs didn’t stand comparison with those of his brother-in-law. George Morris, who sang mostly his own material, also relied heavily on gross women and slapstick, but he was a much cleverer wordsmith. His songs are much easier to sing. The Hash o Bennagoak, Neeps tae Pluck and Muckle Friday Fair have an authentic ring of the fermtouns that Willie didn’t often achieve. The Buchan Bobby and A New Lum Hat are comic party pieces. The Buchan Plooman and Aikey Brae are just very good songs.
But George Morris’ best song is a classic and needs no propaganda. A Pair of Nickytams is beautiful poetry, witty and informative about the old ways, all at once. It has a wonderful tune. And that tune may be the cleverest thing Morris did. I had sung it for 40 years before I realised it was just Drumalochy speeded up and given a jauntyness. So should George Morris have the crown? I’m not sure.
Of lyrics, Morris was the master. But what about the music? Kemp was very musical. He played the penny whistle, trump and ocharina, and he made up tunes that were always good and sometimes great, for all those songs that I don’t much like. And he was a master of presentation.
Betty Bruce, who even the Teuchter has sung with, had her own concert party and played with Kemp from the war years till his death.
“Willie had audiences rolling in the aisles simply by standing there. He didn’t need any dressing up. He just stood there, looking around. His facial expressions were enough. He had a good singing voice too, not just a bothy ballad voice,” according to Betty.
And Willie Kemp claims authorship of the music for three of the best songs ever to come out of Scotland. The words were by George Bruce Thomson of New Deer and they are the pinnacle of Doric. But the excellent tunes of McFarlane o the Sprotts, The Weddin o McGinnis and McGinty’s Meal and Ale are to the credit of Willie Kemp.
I’m glad that Oldmeldrum is proud of those heroes.
These were simply compliments. There is no record of any open competition between Mussel Mou’d Charlie’s win in Aberdeen in 1759 and that won by Tam Reid (singing a Morris composition The Buchan Vet) at the Haughs at Turra in 1977.
Since he retired from farming, CHARLIE ALLAN has been doing as little as possible. He is president of the Ythan Cycle Club, part-time barman, and has been flat out raising £30,000 to build a cricket pitch at Methlick.
This is an article from the February 2005 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.