Sunday, 16 January 2011

(50) Kilmiddlefern

'You are the music while the music lasts.'

– T. S. Eliot

Our Fukui is Kilmiddlefern, Argyll

Our old recluse called Tosailooking like someone straight out of legend is Annie Briggs

Our quiet spot off the road a piece, modest weather-beaten house, is her house tucked round the back of the shop & post office

Our yugao and hechima, keito and hahakigi are gourds and scallions, marjoram and viper's bugloss

Our Tsuruga harbor is the Oban ferry terminal

Kilmiddlefern’s Annie

The back-story is that I met Annie not knowing who she was, years ago on a trip to Kerrera, my Inland Sea equivalent to Berneray. Pat & Annie had planned out a bunk house and tea garden – yes, a Hebridean Tea Garden – at Ardmore, which, Annie being Annie, is at the very end of the road. I’d found it by chance, following the memory of a childhood day-trip from Oban, when my Gran took Ailie and I for a traipse along the track to Gylen Castle.

On my second or third visit I mentioned my friend Hamish, the folk-singer, and we got talking about songs, and, Annie being Annie, she didn’t say she was Anne Briggs, but I pieced her identity together when I got home.

This spring, planning Basho, I tried to track her down. I’d heard she was living somewhere near Kilmiddlefern, so I wrote to the post office there, but, Annie being Annie, no luck. She was squirreled away. Then my pal Rhodri suggested I ask Barry Esson. Although Barry couldn’t help he suggested Alasdair Roberts. Alasdair texted that he was on a train reading Hamish’s biography, so that was a good sign, and he’d pass the word on to Annie. Contact.

We tried to stop by when we were on our Argyll leg, but Annie fell poorly. Now here we are on the September hosomichi to the Isles, with her singing on the car stereo, turning in 10 yards past Kilmiddlefern post office to her and Pat’s lovely garden hideaway.


The Singer & the Song

I don't know the name Anne Briggs when Eck first mentions it, but back in Edo I happen on two of her CDs in the music library. I play The Time has Come driving in the city, don't know any of the songs, find it charming but slightly fey. A Collection's traditional, mostly unaccompanied songs we play on The Road North and they're a real delight – hearing tell of the swan-maiden ‘Polly Vaughan’ at dusk as a rising full moon silvers North Uist lochans; or of ‘Willie of Winsbury’, which I know in a different version (‘Thomas O’Winesbury’ on Like the Milk by Mr McFall's Chamber, the CD title taken from the song); and ‘The Cuckoo’, whose lines echo Jerry Garcia & David Grisman's 'I'm Troubled', our soundtrack on the road to Loch Eilt. Annie’s version is first;

Meeting is pleasure but parting is grief
And an inconstant lover is worse than a thief
A thief can but rob me and take all I have
But an inconstant lover sends me to the grave.

Courting's a pleasure but parting is grief
And a false-hearted lover is worse than a thief
A thief will just rob you and take what you save
But a false-hearted lover will lead you to the grave.

On our first night I ask Annie about ‘Willie of Winsbury’, and she says Andy Irvine put the tune to the words, the wrong one as it turned out, which is why the McFall version is so different. Then she gives me some lines not in the McFall version and which struck me listening in the car, said by the king when Willie’s brought before him; ‘If I was a woman as I am a man / My bed-fellow you would have been’. Another metamorphosis, like Polly-into-swan.

Annie stopped singing in 1973, still in her twenties; like Rimbaud, her muse chose silence. She became a market trader in Lincolnshire, selling her own herbs and vegetables, and then she and Pat made the move to Kerrera. She still listens to all kinds of music, feels it deeply, thinks deeply about it. Her silence goes on.


Books, Music & Flowers

Home is where the books are, I read somewhere recently, and the house is full of them, several bookcases in each room, plenty reading material by our beds. I read the sections on Dunadd, Dundurn, Dunsinane in AHA Hogg's Hill Forts of Britain (1975), shelved next to Julian Barnes A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

We turn up a book by Rory McEwen, who Annie knew. I recall his botanical painting from an exhibition at Inverleith House about 1990, and how he went on to film Beuys on Rannoch Moor.

50 books & flowers
Alec Finlay, 2010


Morning brings heavy rain the conservatory roof just amplifies. Inside garlic and scallions and gourds dry beside fruiting tomato plants, big red onions on the sitting room's low windowsill; bunched lavender on the wall above the dining-table.

50 tomatoes bowl
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 nectarines bowl
Ken Cockburn, 2010

There's a bowl of tomatoes, and one of nectarines, home-grown from a stone which germinated on the Kerrera compost-heap. Two years ago Annie reckons the tree gave 300 fruits; last year very few; this year enough to eat as you go along.

50 angels wings breakfast
Alec Finlay 2010

And this is our small contribution, angels' wings gathered along the boardwalk to Outlandia, with eggs from her neighbour's chickens.

Annie’s Garden

When the rain clears we step outside. The throng of finches feeding at the nut-cage scatter; after the downpour the burn-in-spate’s rushing over the stepping stones; late-summer leaves and fruit are wet with promise. This is our portrait of Annie in the guise of her garden.

50 hokku-label, Annie's garden
('the frost that stayed / the longest / stole the blossom / from the plum', AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 fork, Annie’s Garden
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 seedsail, Annie’s Garden
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 purples, Annie’s Garden
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 bowl of sticks, Annie’s Garden
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 frames, Annie’s Garden
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 Burn over stepping stones, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Rosehips, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Marjoram, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Neroli kale, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Viper's bugloss, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 meso-label (Weld), Annie’s Garden
('yelloW yiElds butterfLy fielDs', AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 meso-label, Annie’s Garden
('kerNel kErrera's Compost germinaTed espAliered fRuitfully In aNnie's gardEn', KC)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Garden bench, Annie’s Garden
Ken Cockburn, 2010

(AF, KC)

Annie’s Larder

And from the garden Summer’s harvest for Winter’s larder. Annie cooks a kedgeree spicy with conservatory-grown chili-peppers, and filled with garden carrots, courgettes, mangetouts, neroli kale on the side.

50 Annie’s Larder
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Annie’s Larder
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 Meso-label, (scallions), Annie’s Larder
('Skin Comes apArt – Layers unpeeL Into anOther skiN', AF)
Ken Cockburn, 2010

50 meso-label, (cepes), Annie's Larder
('riCh Earth sPonges thE Sun', AF)

Ken Cockburn, 2010

(AF, KC)

Annie’s Silence

Identity, they say, is ‘forged’. We bend our souls in new shapes in the intense heat of emotion, grief, love; subjects of deep song and balladry. Annie’s silence – she has not sung for years – reverberates with the rites Basho witnessed on Gassan, but would not reveal, as with the occasions he wrote no poem. Despite her gift, Annie’s silence is something to accept under governance of the muse.

Her listening is heart/mind open clear, her gardening has profound quietness.

It’s uncanny, this encounter with silence, with identity, encapsulated in the story Annie told, of how on a journey alone through Ireland she was carried away by the music of Willie Clancy.

Clancy’s piping carried her
so deep within herself

when he asked her name
Annie found she was beyond

knowing she even had one
but she knew to say

Willie Clancy, let me sing you
a song and I will find my name.

Alec Finlay 2010

50 Clancy
Alec Finlay, 2010

50 Clancy LP
Alec Finlay, 2010


50 Still life with Jonny & Lucy
Alec Finlay, 2010

Annie plays us some Clancy and an LP of the Northumbrian piper Billy Pigg, whose music she says is the landscape. Next night we watch a DVD of her son’s restoration stonework in Australia's Blue Mountains, and another of the Darbar festival in India, for she admires the mesmeric improvisations of devotional singer Sanjay Subramanyan, the way he gives himself completely to the performance. In return Eck leaves her a recent CD by Newcastle-based singers Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, whose ‘Hares on the Mountain’ is on our oku jukebox.



When the time comes Annie stays in her chair, saying, I'm not very good at goodbyes. We contrived to leave our thermos on the draining board, so we’ll be back.

Sora’s hokku (station 37)

prohibited speech
at Yudono
wetting my sleeve

tales not to be repeated
rain-swelled allt
Sanjay's improvisations

within these walls
rain drums conservatory roof
forgetting oneself

what shan't be said
all-day rain
moves almost to tears



In a rare interview, Anne Briggs talks to Alexis Petridis about her ‘lost classic’ folk album - and why she has hardly sung a note for 34 years

Alasdair Roberts: the Official Alasdair Roberts Kailyard

The Newcastle-based duo Lucy Farrell & Jonny Kearney met while studying folk and traditional music at Newcastle University

Rory McEwen, a memoir by Christian McEwen


  1. Here is a rare 15 minute video of Anne Briggs singing live.