The collection of songs on the Kist of Memories CD were composed by my mother, Zetta (Georzetta) Sinclair, who was born in the North East Scottish harbour town of Buckie, in 1920.
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As an adolescent my mother, Zetta, had romantic hankerings to live in Edinburgh. The first time she lived in the city, as a young woman with two small children, was however, far from pleasant, owing to poor accommodation and a hard landlady. In later life, thanks to her many friends associated with the Folk Song Revival, especially Hamish Henderson, it indeed became a city of the happy times celebrated in this song.
While married to George MacDonald from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, visits to his people were clearly happy times to be remembered in song.
This scene would have been witnessed many times by Zetta in her childhood. My grandmother’s anxious vigil as she waits for her husband’s return from the fishing and the homely welcome to greet him. The final verse pertinently questions the future of the fishing industry. After two world wars and the depression of the 1930s, many of the old ways and attitudes were changing. People travelled further afield and did not automatically follow in the family’s work tradition. The last verse acknowledges these shifts in society and aspirations. My grandfather was the last of his line to earn a living as a fisherman.
This moving portrait of a fisherman’s wife is of course based on my grandmother, Isabella Innes Sinclair. She was a hardworking woman who lived through very difficult times. My mother always spoke of her with great respect and love. Sadly, Isabella was only 62 years old when she died in 1943, followed within a year by my grandfather, George. It is through my mother’s stories and songs that I have been able to know something of my grandparent’s life.
Not far from my mother’s home town of Buckie is the charming fishing harbour of Cullen. On rare days out, as a treat, young Zetta was taken there by her mother. In due course Zetta took her own young children to enjoy relaxing on the golden sands when the weather was fine. I too have followed the family tradition by taking my children to Cullen, where on one occasion they were so enthusiastic that they happily rushed, fully clothed, into a very chilly North Sea at Easter!
My mother describes the scene as the emergency siren alerts the fisherfolk to the launch of the lifeboat and of impending disaster. Families would gather at the ‘heid o’ the brae’ (top of the hill) to wait for news of their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands who were often on the same boat. The deep faith of the community was a great comfort to be able to bear these times.
Lest We Forget (Poem)
Situated on the western end of the great pass of Glencoe, Ballachulish is a place of dramatic and beautiful scenery enjoyed by Zetta during a romantic holiday and the inspiration for this song.
The brooding Pass of Glencoe was the scene of a horrific winter massacre in 1692 of the unsuspecting MacDonalds of Glencoe. Men, women and children were slaughtered in the early morning by Government troops who had been quartered upon them. It was a deliberate act of genocide whose infamy echoes down through Scottish history and moved Zetta to compose this song.
A wife abandoned by her spouse in the mid twentieth century, would have had to suffer not only financial deprivation but humiliation, prejudice and malicious gossip. State assistance, meagre as it was, had only just becoming a reality, so her only hope would be charity or help from close family and friends.
While living in the charming coastal village of Findochty, my mother would take my sister and I to paddle in the harbour, weather permitting, to collect buckies (periwinkles) in nearby rock pools. These happy times inspired this lullaby which makes fine use of the diminutive, ie boaties, wavies, gamies and sleepies. The diminutive is commonly used in the Doric language.
Buckie and Scotland’s North East were fertile recruiting territory for The Gordon Highlanders during the twentieth century. The Regimental drums and pipes, dressed in their glittering gear, would be sure to attract young adventurous men and gain local support. Zetta will have witnessed this spectacle many times but none so poignantly as at the start of the second world war in 1939.
Both of my mother’s brothers were killed during the Second World War. Her elder brother, John, a well-loved member of the community with a young family, was accidentally killed by a live bullet while training with his men. Sandy, who had enlisted in 1936, was one of the thousands of soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk.
That extraordinary retreat brought Sandy safely back to British shores. Soon after he volunteered for the Army Commandos and was posted to 3 Commando, the first in action. He survived raids on the Lofoten Islands, Dieppe and Sicily only to be killed on Sword Beach on D Day, 1944.
The idea for the Blind Maid o’ Moray was due to my mother’s increased awareness of those suffering sight-loss, during her time working for a blind charity.
Zetta’s ambition was to develop a folk operetta and did write a story outline and some songs but it was never completed. The two songs "Spinning Wheel" and "The Blind Maid o’ Moray" were intended for that project, which was influenced by the work of author Maurice Walsh.
During our four year stay in the small Cheshire hamlet of Bradfield Green in the 1950s, the local hunt would meet on the village Green, something Zetta had never seen before. Her love of animals and eternal championing of the underdog (in this case the fox!) gave her inspiration to write this protest song.
A few miles south of Aberdeen this beautiful glen winds up the Grampian mountains. It was home, for some time, to Zetta and her third husband, Albert Doran, The place is rightly celebrated in this lovely song.
I became an aunt at the age of twelve to my sister’s daughter, Kerowin. At that time we all shared a small flat on the outskirts of Aberdeen. I was happy to share my room with the new baby of whom I was very fond and viewed more as a sister. Clearly, her grandmother Zetta was also very taken with the bonnie bairnie and wrote this charming lullaby for Kerowin.
This song is an excellent example of my mother’s natural ability to create delightful melodies and words. She was a charming storyteller captivating her audience with emotion and humour combined with a sweet and pure singing voice.
Poet & Lover (Poem)
Perhaps this is Zetta’s signature song. The profound love of her home area with that of her fisherfolk community are enshrined in this moving song set against the extraordinary natural beauty of the Moray Firth.