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NANCY NICOLSON (EDITED: EBERHARD BORT) - They Sent A Wumman: The Collected Songs Of Nancy Nicolson

NANCY NICOLSON (EDITED: EBERHARD BORT) - They Sent A Wumman: The Collected Songs Of Nancy Nicolson
Grace Note Publications ISBN: 9781907676864

is affectionately dubbed “the cultural crofter from Caithness”. She celebrates her 75th birthday in style with the long-awaited first-time publication, in one convenient volume, of her collected songs – 45 of them in total – plus four poems and a story.

This is the lady whose self-deprecating motto was always: “A canna sing” – so we can be forever thankful that her friends and colleagues could see, and encourage, the talents which she steadfastly refused, right into her thirties, to see in herself. But when she finally took the bait, there was no stopping her, even in the face of considerable adversity in recent years. Nancy’s own memoir, which forms the extended foreword to this volume, is an honest, generous-spirited autobiographical essay that pulls no punches, and constitutes obligatory reading before experiencing the songs themselves (there are also useful essays by collaborators George Gunn and Gerda Stevenson and finally “a wee primer on Caithness language” from Nancy herself, the latter naturally proving essential to our appreciation of several of the songs).

The songs are presented in simple handwritten stave notation with lyrics alongside. They’re grouped thematically, incidentally highlighting and drawing on the breadth of Nancy’s inspirations, interests and careers, thus celebrating what Bort terms “their glorious diversity” covering (nearly) every subject under the sun. Together, they depict the life and culture of Scotland, a portrait painted with wit and wisdom, warmth and puckish energy by Nancy, a natural songmaker. “Bairns” includes Granda Said and the catchy Listen Tae The Teacher. “History and places” ranges from delicious Thatcher-era political commentaries like Hard-Boiled Eggs, Don’t Call Maggie A Cat and Maggie’s Pit Ponies to the tale of The Heilan Horse and Who Pays The Piper?, which reflects on the Piper Alpha Disaster of 1988. “Love, Life And Loss” takes in The Mistress (musing on the fascination the sea holds for men), the affectionate Moon In The Morning, the fond remembrance The Keepingsakes, and the song which gives the volume its title (perhaps Nancy’s most celebrated creation). “Flags” overlaps a little by means of Cold Comfort and Who Could Endure?, while “War And Peace” gives us the singalong Cuddle, the childlike simplicity of The Eagle And The Bear, the nuclear seaside ditty Woe Is Me and some more barbed political odes, ending with the chilling Last Carol. As an aside, it’s incredible to recall that as recently as October 2013, the Sunday Express castigated the “dangerous subversion perpetrated by a heap of Scottish songwriters”, citing Nancy’s Who Pays The Piper? alongside Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come-All-Ye, Dick Gaughan’s Both Sides The Tweed and Billy Connolly’s Welly Boot Song… Hmm…

Although artists such as The McCalmans, Gerda Stevenson and Ed Miller have recorded her songs, there’s no substitute for hearing Nancy singing her own compositions, of course, and since such recordings are few and far between, it’s good to learn that available on application to the publisher are 18 digital-download audio files comprising the self-penned tracks from Nancy’s 1990 cassette tape Rhyme And Reason (recorded by Ewan McVicar for his private Gallus label) and six bonus cuts recorded live at Edinburgh Folk Club in September and October 2016. Together that gives us a little under half of the total corpus of songs (and one poem and a story); well it’s a start, but I’d love to hear the rest…

The tremendous value of this treasurable book can be summed up in Nancy’s own words: “the choice was between doing this book or no book at all” – for the eventual appearance of which we can be immensely grateful.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.