Tuesday, 27 September 2011

We've Left Oor Hame in Aiberdeen

After reflecting on how herring girls might have felt about moving away from home to work, their feelings towards the place they've moved to, home and their fellow herring girls, the participants in the Parallel Lives project with Arts Development in Torry, Aberdeen, have written a song on the melody of Burns's A Man's A Man For A' That - in Scots.

We’ve left oor hame in Aiberdeen
Excited by the venture
The train will tak us up the coast
New places, fit a pleasure
Oh, we’ll miss oor ma and we’ll miss oor da
There’s naething surer aboot that
Sine we’ll hae a laugh and we’ll sing a sang
Wi’ quines and loons and a’ that.

It’s early in the morning
And the sun’s begun tae shine
Oor fingers wrapped in clooties
Tae save them frae the brine
We’ll gie a chap and anither loud chap
On Beldie’s door so she’ll hear us
We’re awa’ tae gut the herring
That’s been soaking in the bree.

Sae young and independent
In search for oor ane life
New faces and new places
Tae become a fisher wife
We now hae oor ane money
Tae help oor ma and da
We ken we’ll get a bittie back
Tae hae some fun for a’ that.

We’ve gutted a’ the herring
Had fun wi’ a’ the loons
Frae up the north in Stronsay
Richt doon tae Yarmouth toon
In bonnie days and stormy days
It’s a’ the same tae us
The season it’s now over
We’ve siller in oor purse.

So now we’re aff back hame again
We feel it is a shame
But a hug fae ma and een fae da
Will seen make up for a’ that
Tae see oor folks, and a’ the bairns
Will bring us great pleasure
To be back hame in oor ane bed
It's something ye canna measure.

(Repeat of the second part of the song:)
For a’ that, an a’ that
We’ve hid a great time an’ a’ that
As for the life, tho’ hard it’s been
We’ll be back next year for a’ that.

Copyright text and song lyrics participants in the Parallel Lives project and Arts Development

Below the surface

Copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums
If anything, last Saturday’s song writing workshop at Aberdeen Maritime Museum revealed that the whaling songs collected as part of the whaling project only scratch the surface. Below the surface there is a sea of possible angles to the theme of whaling. The singing of the traditional Scottish whaling songs, the talk by formal learning officer Lynsey Merrick, and the reading of real-life accounts of the 19th-century whalers triggered some surprising new angles to the theme of whaling.

Douglas Watson, who was unable to attend the workshop but sent me his song lyrics by email, decided that he’d let the whaler speak to his wife.

Oh Mary I’ll miss you in the morning
With your red ribboned hair in the dawn
What will you tell all our children
Where is their daddy gone

He’s gone hunting the whale
He’s gone hunting the whale

Grace Banks found the accounts of the hunting activity in traditional whaling songs quite shallow and uninvolved, and decided to write a much more engaging, close-up narrative of whaling inspired by the Scottish sea anthology Glimmer of Cold Brine and Gavin Sutherland's The Whaling Years Peterhead (1788-1893).

Marka Rifat took an entirely new approach and combined her discoveries of what different parts of the whale were used for with her observations of the sound world onboard the ships.

Chorus: Oh the creak of the ropes
And the creak of the boat
And the creak of the ladies’ stays.

Who gives you the oil to light you to bed
Who gives you the grease to spread on your bread
Who gives you the button hooks for your wee feet
The whaling boys of the whaling fleet.

I myself felt intrigued by the fact that whalers encountered an alien world with animal species they had never encountered before and decided to present this in the form of a letter to loved ones at home.

Dear mother and dear father
Dear Jane and John, hello
I’m writing from the Greenland shores
Midst sea and ice and snow

For days we’ve waited for a whale
No right whale to be seen
But ghostlike whites and unicorn nars
Bottlenose and Greenland sharks.

Interesting about last Saturday’s workshop is that the same songs and readings of real-life accounts gave rise to completely different songs. Most of us managed to write a full song within the time given, some even managed to write two. Diving below the surface we discovered a wealth of creative approaches to writing songs about whales and whaling.
(The photo was taken by Aberdeen Arts Gallery & Museums during The Home of the Whale workshop at Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Saturday 8 October 2011.)

If you want to learn more about the whaling song project, you may want to have a look at the following blogs:
With Scott to the Pole
Writing folk songs
Why folk songs?
The home of the whale
The story of whaling

Copyright text Marka Rifat, Petra Vergunst, Douglas Watson and Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Monday, 26 September 2011


The mundane sometimes becomes extra-ordinary. A few weeks ago I sat down at the edge of the water in one of the local woodlands that I frequent on my local rambles. The light dimmed as the weather came in. I've tried to capture this fleeting moment in a short composition for solo flute. Imagine the sounds of the flute being carried by a lake and disappearing into vast coniferous forest. 

Autumn skies approach between the blue pines. Golden birch leaves rustle in the disappearing sun while silver drops scar the reflecting surface of the water as if this were Sibelius’s Karelian lake. The sound of traffic in the distance makes way for a croaking frog and the chatter of birds just behind me. My eyes drop. The black-and-white reflections of the lakeside pines and birches take me in their midst. As if in a still movie an owl emerges from between the pines. Quiet silver magic.

If you want to listen to another of my compositions, you may be interested in My Ghost of Time.

 Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Thursday, 22 September 2011


About a year ago I read Christopher Small’s book Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, a book that radically changed my understanding of the role of the composer, performer, and listener in music. In asserting that music is an activity in which the composer, performer and listener participate actively, Small turns the traditional understanding of the performer who is a conduit of the music that is written by the inspired composer and received by the passive listener upside down.

Taking Small’s argument a step further, it is not hard to appreciate that the listener can shape his or her own music experience. It is not the composer who determines how a listener should interpret his or her composition, but the listener him or herself. Over time even my own composition My Ghost of Time conjures up different images and associations.

Understanding music appreciation in this way unleashes a range of new ideas. Think, for example, of a performance as an album of stories, poems, images, perhaps sensations that we cannot express in words or images. A performance then is like turning the pages of an album and encountering a whole new imaginary world overleaf. 

Next time you listen to music, why not close your eyes for a moment and let your imagination roam free?

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Thursday, 1 September 2011

With Scott to the Pole

In 1910 Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out for the Antarctic. He never returned. Having reached the South Pole, Scott and his fellow adventurers died on their return journey just 11 miles from the safety of a supply depot. This autumn Aberdeen Maritime Museum will host an exhibition of historic photographs held by the Royal Geographical Society of this ill-fated expedition. Interesting about this exhibition is that it reveals the seeds for two ostensibly contrasting attitudes to wildlife. Scott and his fellow adventurers set out to discover the South Pole and its resources, but as adventurers they were also keen to document it.
The story of Scott has much in common with the story of whaling that started a century earlier. While whale hunters sailed to the Arctic to kill whales, sailors also made detailed documentation of the wildlife encountered. In the end, this led to the conservation of these species. The 19th-century demand for blubber led to the rapid decline of the Greenland whale. Meanwhile the detailed documentation of beast was of great interest to naturalists who eventually promoted the protection of this beast.

Harpoons after a display in Arbuthnott Museum in Peterhead
Folksongs express the experiences and thoughts of the communities they stem from. Whaling songs are no expectation. The whaling songs we sing nowadays celebrate the killing of whales. The exhibition With Scott to the Pole may be a good opportunity to reconsider these traditional whaling songs in the light of the conservation debate. In the workshop Rewriting Our History we will express our feelings towards this dilemma by writing new songs.

The exhibition With Scott to the Pole will be at Aberdeen Maritime Museum from 24 September 2011 to 8 January 2012. Rewriting Our History is a workshop for adults that will be held on Saturday 24 September from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm. To book a free place phone 01224 337714.

Copyright text Aberdeen Maritime Museum and Petra Vergunst
Copyright image Petra Vergunst