As the release of my new EP, This Ill Deeds approaches, I thought it'd be nice to tell the stories behind each of the tracks, and explain the title itself.
Some of these tracks go back to the first gig as the Calum McIlroy Trio, and some of them are more recent arrangements worked up with the trio, and by myself.
Track 1 - MISTRESS GREIG
Tl;dr - A straw manny gets clubbed to death by an angry farmer
The opening track on This Ill Deeds is an old Aberdeenshire bothy ballad called Mistress Greig. It also known as Mrs Greig of Sandlaw, and the Battlefield Band recorded it as The Straw Man on their Leaving Friday Harbour album.
I first heard this song when I was doing standard grade music at high school. We had to do a "concepts in music" module, which was basically listening to loads of different concepts of various styles of music. Apart from Mistress Greig, I can only remember listening a rock version of Toccata and Fugue in D minor (no, really) and Angels by Robbie Williams. The Scottish music section had examples of dance music and piping, and of different song types, including the bothy ballad.
The bothy ballad example was this recording from May 1960 of Jimmy Taylor from near Peterhead singing Mistress Greig. This was the first traditional piece of music I'd heard and I'd never heard an Aberdeenshire accent that broad before; it was hilarious. Whenever the recording was played in practice exams for the listening test – total silence, no talking or copying off your neighbour – I found it really difficult to hold in my laughter.
It was only in 2015 when we played Mistress Greig in the last ever Ceol Mor Big Band gig that I realised how funny the story itself is: (from Tobar an Dualchais) A comic bothy song in which the servant girls at a farm play a trick on Mrs Greig, the strict mistress of the house, who always inspects their room at night in case they have a man hidden under the bed. The girls make a straw man for her to find one night, and thinking it to be a real man, Mrs Greig has it taken out and cudgelled by her husband. When the trick is revealed, the girls are reprimanded, while Mrs Greig and her husband are left to clean up the mess.
Peter Hall has identified Isabella Greig, wife of Alexander Greig of South Sandlaw farm in Alvah, as the character in this song (Greig-Duncan vol. 2, p. 573).
The title of my EP, This Ill Deeds comes from the penultimate verse of Mistress Greig;
Noo the weemin they were pitten awa
For this ill deeds that they'd been deein
And Mistress Greig and her auld man
Were left to gaither his body thegether
I found the "ill deeds" of the servant girls and their sleekit ways, capering and tricks really funny, and them being sent away is pictured perfectly by Orla Stevens on the single cover.
Track 2 - IT'S SADDER THAN THAT
Tl;dr - Prison pantomime sparks change in thinking
In 2018, during my time at the Royal Conservatoire, I chose a module which allowed a group of musicians to go into a prison and facilitate the production of a Christmas pantomime.
It was such an unusual and interesting experience - we were required to take personal protective training before we were allowed to go in and we learned lots about the current state of the criminal justice system, both in Scotland and elsewhere.
There were 8 of us musicians and once a week for around three months we spent an afternoon with a group of 10 - 12 people in the prison working on the production, the end goal being a full-length panto for their children. It was a lot of fun and really rewarding to witness the impact that the arts had on the group's personalities and values. However, the emotion that I felt most of was sadness. I started playing around with the chord progression and A part of this tune on our last day in the prison, and I took the title from a line in the pantomime - you'll know the one, where the character says something, the audience awwws, and the character says "Come on, it's sadder than that!"
Taking part in this project was challenging, but in the end it was really rewarding and prompted me to change my opinions towards criminal justice and what I think that should be. The arts are an incredible vehicle for change and should be introduced to prisons more often. Kudos to Dr Rachel Drury and Jess Thorpe from the RCS for running such a great module.
The day I taught Megan and Ruairidh It's Sadder Than That
Track 3 - WHEN FIRST I CAME TO CALEDONIA
Tl;dr - miner falls in love with woman he doesn't know, decides she's out of his league, and gets very upset and drunk
In the first Scots song lesson I had with Fiona Hunter, she asked me to play for her some of the songs that I had previously worked on, and after I played two or three songs she gave me a list of singers to listen to, including Davy Steele, David Francey, and Tony Cuffe.
I hadn't heard of Tony Cuffe at this point, but I was immediately bowled over by his When First I Went to Caledonia album. There isn't a bad track on the album, and he possessed many of the musical qualities I wanted for myself; he was a great guitarist (both in a solo context and when accompanying songs), a brilliant singer, and he had a knack for creating arrangements that were both intricate and vast, and simple and straightforward.
I had a go at arranging the song for myself, and I've been playing it ever since. The story is somewhat unusual - it talks of a man and his brother going to Canada to work at the Caledonia Coalmines at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. One day when he is down at the harbour, the man spots a woman and falls in love with her. The way I see it is that he wants to approach her but doesn't feel good enough to have her, so he goes and drowns his sorrows in brandy and wishes he was at sea, where a woman's love wouldn't bother him.
We've all been there.
Track 4 - PM JIM CHRISTIE OF WICK/MICHAEL MURPHY'S
Tl;dr - Just a march and a reel, really
The second-last track on This Ill Deeds is a straightforward 2/4 march into a reel, and this arrangement was my closing number in the final of the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2020 competition.
The first tune is the classic Addie Harper Snr 2/4 March Pipe Major Jim Christie of Wick, which I found in the first couple of pages of his book My Fiddle and Me. At the time I didn’t have many 2/4s in my repertoire, this one inspired me to learn more. Addie Harper is known for writing other classics like The Barrowburn Reel and Walking on the Moon.
The second tune in the set is a really fun Irish reel called Michael Murphy's, and I learned it from my pal, Tiernan Courell, who is an All-Ireland flute champion from Co. Sligo, and a member of the great band, TRIP, most of whom were at RCS with me.
Track 5 - MEMORIES of ARGYLL
Tl;dr - The new Auld Lang Syne
The closing track of This Ill Deeds is a song I wrote about spending new year in Oban with Anna Garvin, who lends some lovely wurly sounds to the track, and some piano on the rest of the EP.
The song was written during a songwriting class taught by Findlay Napier, and we were practicing songs where the second and fourth lines of each verse were the same. I'm sure this form had a proper name, but it's escaping me.
Prior to meeting Anna, I spent a fair few Hogmanays by myself, usually at my parents' house, and usually so bored that I slept through the bells. The song was written to celebrate having something to celebrate, and having somebody to celebrate it with.
The outro of this track had nothing to do with me, Megan and Ruairidh made it up, and it's lovely.
And there you have it! Make sure you follow my Bandcamp page to hear the full EP when it’s released on the 30th of October.
And there’s still time to check out my Indiegogo page, where you can preorder the EP and claim lots of exciting perks, like a ticket to my online livestream concert on the 25th of October!