I was searching for a table when, before I knew what was happening, a great big pair of hands was lifting my baby boy out of my arms.
“Let me take that bonny lad,” the tall, white-haired man announced. I didn’t immediately recognize his face, but I knew that tell-tale voice: Bobby Watt. This man is my favourite folk singer and had kindly agreed to let me interview him for the Girl Tries Life blog.
It was very much a family occasion, as we settled ourselves in at Fiddlers’, one of a few folk music venues on the Isle of Arran. My Mom took Jack and struck up a conversation with Bobby’s wife and sister, while I nervously prepped myself to ask questions from this great man.
Here’s the background. I’ve been listening to Bobby’s music since my childhood. My Mom had picked up one of Bobby’s albums on one of her many visits to the island, and his album, Homeland, became a regularly played soundtrack in our home. He sang of falling in love, the island he loved so much and the little-known-to-North-Americans history of the Highland Clearances. Bobby now lives in Canada, another connection we share beyond the Isle of Arran. I reached out to see if I could send him some questions via email for an interview, but as luck would have it, we were both going to be on Arran at the same time. Fate was on my side.
Bobby came from a musical family. His father was a piper and played the accordion. His mother was very musical and his uncle was a banjo player. They’d often play at the Brodick Golf Club, and now he plays at Fiddlers when he returns for holidays to the island. It’s an island that fosters creativity. I noticed this both when completed six months of high school on the island, and later when I worked at the local resort. Stores close early. Winter dark creeps up early. But the spirit never goes away and creativity is born. Actors, singers, artists, musicians, you name it, the island has produced high quality talent, Bobby included.
Bobby spoke of the music program at the high school, initiated by Gillian Frame who went on to be the engine behind the Arran Folk Festival. As someone who lived on the island for a couple of years, I can’t imagine it without the folk festival, a popular event bringing the likes of Dougie Maclean to perform. This is an island where if it doesn’t exist, it is created… with passion!
A perfect day on Arran for Bobby? It starts with the ferry journey to Arran. He described the trip itself as a homecoming. You always run into someone you know and you have that whole hour to settle into island time. Again, I could relate on this front, having had several memorable ferry journeys to Arran myself.
It would also include a walk through Glen Rosa, a stunning glen that Bobby has referred to often in his music. “I want my ashes scattered there,” he said, and I quite frankly can’t think of a better, more peaceful place for it.
A stonemason by trade, Bobby has worked on some historical sites and monuments, including the Parliament Buildings in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. He learned this trade on Arran, while working as an apprentice for John Thomson. As a sixteen year-old, one of his first tasks was to spend an entire week unloading a boatload of bricks. Some two hundred and fifty thousand bricks, bucket by bucket up the hold of the boat. His second week? Another boatload of bricks. After that the apprenticeship started in earnest and he learned the skills that made him the master stonemason he is today, but it was quite the test. Bobby was told years later by John Thomson that if he hadn’t made it through those two weeks, if he’d complained terribly, the apprenticeship wouldn’t have continued. Even at sixteen he had quite the work ethic. I think of my generation and I’m not sure that we’re made of quite such tough stuff…
One of the projects that has had the most meaning to Bobby? It would include the Gathering of Stones monument in Ireland. In the mid2000s, Bobby and his company were working on the reconstruction of Battery Park in New York City. Around the same time period, a project was being undertaken to create a monument by Irish people to represent Irish people at home and overseas. People were encouraged to bring stones from wherever they were in the world. Well, Bobby found out about this, and couldn’t imagine a more poignant contribution than the stones that came from the holding docks for immigrants waiting to be processed at Ellis Island, stones that were the site of the first steps many Irish people took in America. Check out the full story and the song that Bobby wrote about it below.
Bobby is a storyteller. Listen closely to the lyrics of his music and you’ll learn about the highland clearances, emigration and love lost and found again. What’s next, musically, for Bobby? He plans to create a ‘best of’ album with some remastered tracks. He still plays with his band Ecosse. They do regular Hogmanay and Burns night performances in Ontario
The proverbial they say that you should never meet your idols, that they’ll disappoint. I’m pleased to say that Bobby was the opposite. The more I spoke to him, the more research I’ve done, I’ve discovered not only does he have a killer voice, but he’s a man of strong work ethic, family values and integrity. It was an honour to meet him, and for him to sing Hush Hush as my son fell asleep in his grandmother’s arms. A highlight of 2016 for sure.
So, as the year comes to a close, it is tradition in a Scots household to listen to Auld Lang Syne. I’ll leave you with Bobby’s cover of it with his band Ecosse – one of my favourites.
Only one of Bobby’s albums can be found on iTunes for now (he’s working on it!), but between iTunes and YouTube, I guarantee you’ll become a fan.
Big thanks to Bobby Watt for granting the interview. Apologies that it didn’t get posted sooner!