The traditional Protestant holiday of the Twelfth of July 1914 was observed with even more fervour than usual in Belfast: the prospect of being ruled by a Dublin Parliament was very real. Asquith's Liberal Government was intent on pushing through the Government of Ireland Act, despite the huge enlistment in the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, determined to keep the province of Ulster British. Meanwhile, far away in the Balkans, there had been reports of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke, but little attention was being paid to this (even by Asquith and his Cabinet). 'The Ulster Question' dominated politics.
How refreshing, therefore, to have booked a ticket for a 'Grand Excursion' on the commodious steamer Magpie for the following day (also - as it still is today - a Bank Holiday). Campbeltown was the ship's destination, and Machrihanish the ultimate goal of the excursionists. The organisers, according to the attractive publicity leaflet I have recently acquired, were the 'C.P.A.', not an organisation known to me. A little checking revealed it to be the Central Presbyterian Association, dedicated to providing a wide range of social, sporting and religious activities, and based in Assembly Buildings, Belfast, then, as again now, the Headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Perhaps I should have guessed this was a church excursion: 'The Bars of the Steamer Will be Closed Against the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors'!
No doubt, however, the fresh salty air was going to be refreshment enough as the party left Belfast at 8. I 5 a.m. (Irish Time) with arrival expected in Campbeltown at I 2. I 5 p.m., to be adjusted to 12.40 p.m. (Scotch Time) - a reminder that time had not yet been standardized across the country. Almost six hours were allowed ashore.
The Magpie was one of the fleet of Messrs. G. and J. Bums and normally engaged on the overnight Glasgow/Belfast route with her sister Vulture. Rather than lie at Belfast all day, it was perfectly possible to fit in a return trip to Campbeltown - a very different world from today, when ferries turn round as quickly as possible (the Captain of the Magpie would have been greatly offended if his ship was demeaned by calling her a 'ferry', a term then applied only to river crossings.)The 'Catering Arrangements' are set out for prospective excursionists. Breakfast, lunch and tea could each be enjoyed for one shilling and ninepence. Rather than queue in self-service like today, however, there was a splendid waiter-service dining saloon. If all that the passenger (perhaps impaired by seasickness) desired was a sandwich and a glass of milk, four pence sufficed. So, by the time the happy excursionists had finished breakfast, the splendid scenery of the Antrim coast was passing on their port side, and (assuming it was a clear day) the Mull of Kintyre loomed ahead. The brochure for the trip outlined the history and attractions to be viewed: three miles from the Mull 'is the shooting lodge of the late Duke of Argyll' before Davaar Island is passed and Campbeltown comes in sight: ' ... a town of some 8,000 inhabitants ... in the centre stands an ancient granite [sic] cross, believed to have been brought in earlier times from Iona's sacred isle ... ' No doubt owing to the ecclesiastical nature of the party, the brochure details the tale of MacKinnon's Crucifixion picture on Davaar Island: 'I painted just the picture I had seen in my dream.' Machrihanish was the stated goal of the Presbyterians. 'Trains will leave at 1.5 and 2.50 p.m. Return fare one shilling. Single journey occupies 20 minutes.' The wildness of the coast is emphasised, the eminent Scottish man of letters, J. C. Shairp, being quoted.
'The following lines by Principal Shairp befit the naturally sombre character of the spot':
And no sound was heard, save onlyLet us hope the Ulster Presbyterians enjoyed their Grand Excursion. Three weeks later, Europe was at war ...
Distance-lulled the Atlantic roar,
Over the calm mountains coming
From far Machrihanish shore,
Like an audible eternity
Brooding the hushed people o'er.
A Lost Ring Recovered, 1912
The remarkable circumstances of the recovery of a ring lost more than forty years ago occurred in this district last week. A lady from Helensburgh while holidaying in Kintyre found in Saddell Wood, lying among the leaves and twigs, a gentleman's gold ring, which she forwarded to the Police Station in Campbeltown. The ring being apparently a valuable one, its discovery was advertised, the place where it was found being stated. The incident stirred memories of a ring lost exactly forty-one years ago in Saddell Wood by Mr D. Macfadyen, Beachhill, and out of curiosity Mrs Macfadyen called at the Police Station and mentioned the fact to Inspector MacCalman. Her description of the lost ring, which was of uncommon design and was engraved with some Arabic characters, was so minute that it corresponded exactly with the ring in the possession of the inspector, which was ultimately positively identified as the one lost by Mr Macfadyen so many years ago. The ring had suffered no deterioration by having lain so long in the recesses of Saddell Wood. The incident must rank as one of the most remarkable stories of the recovery of lost property.
'Road to Drumlemman' was written in April 1948 in a country still recovering from WW2. Some foodstuffs, for example meat, sugar and sweets, were still rationed. However, the war was over and things in general were improving, albeit slowly. It surely must have seemed, to those who had lived through the previous ten years, that it was a springtime of hope, and thus I think that the climate of that particular time had something to do with the writing of the song, though the main inspiration was certainly the writer's great love for the Laggan of Kintyre, the village of Drumlemble and the people who lived there.
For as long as I can remember, my father, Willie Mitchell, had a very deep love-relationship with these people, and with the place that they made of Drumlemble. He joined in most of their activities, the choir, the youth club, and the entertainments in the village and its surroundings. He wrote rhymes about them and their doings. He was well aware of their hopes and fears. Although in later years, I often heard him remark that the song had been written in a few minutes, ] am sure that the germ of it had been growing for some time, and growing out of that close relationship with people and place, and also, to a lesser extent, out of the post-war hope of better days to come. 'Road to Drumlemman' was, and is, a very personal song, reflecting one man's love for a very small place in a peninsula at the extreme western edge of the country, and of the continent, yet within a few years the song had travelled and found admirers world-wide. Willie never boasted about having written it, but if anyone came looking for the words, he provided them. Most people were familiar with the tune he used, a version of the tune used for the widely known song, 'The Green Bushes'
I believe that the first commercial recording of 'Road to Drumlemman' was made by the group Ossian, who recorded it to a tune written by Tony Cuffe. This tune was also used by Anne Lorne Gillies, who, after hearing a recording of the song, recorded it for one of her own albums. It was only later that she learned, from a Kintyre friend, that the song was written in and belonged to this part of the world. Anne visited Willie in the last year of his life, and heard him sing his own version of it. In fact, the two had a fine old ceilidh that afternoon, singing and talking about many songs. Willie died in January 1986.
Later, when the world moved into more immediate electronic communication, my nephew Fergus Kerr saw the song mentioned as the title of a disc by the American group Full Moon Ensemble. At some time in the late I 990s, he made contact with the group, explaining that he was the grandson of Willie Mitchell. He later received from them several complimentary copies of the disc, on which they perform the song using a tune written by one of their members, Scooter Muse, I still have a copy of that disc. Full Moon Ensemble came to the Mull of Kintyre Music Festival in August 2002, and met with members of our family then living: in Kintyre, and they were thrilled to meet the two surviving daughters of the man who had written the words, and to hear Willie's own version of the song sung by my late sister, Cathy.
In 2010, Jan Nimmo used the song with the original tune as background music for her excellent film about the life and the demise of Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish, telling the stories of some of the men who had worked there.
Between 2002 and the time this article was being written in late 2014, the song was recorded many times, usually to Tony Cuffe's tune. Then in May 2014, I had a visit from Kirsten Easdale and Gregor Lowrie, who had been entertaining in local hospitals and care homes. When Kirsten sang 'Road to Drumlemman' in Kintyre Care Home, a member of the staff told her that Willie Mitchell's grand-daughter worked there. My niece, Maureen Mathieson, brought the two performers round to see me, and they were thrilled to meet the only surviving daughter of Willie Mitchell, and interested to learn something about the man himself and the tune that he used for his song.
Then probably the most amazing story of all started in August 2014, when the editor had an e-mail from a Kintyre friend now living in Canada. That man, Alastair Thompson, heard 'Road to Drumlemman' sung by a lady named Teresa Tratnyek at a Celtic music festival in the town of Goderich, on the shores of Lake Huron, Canada. Alastair was amazed and not a little moved to hear on the far side of the Atlantic a song about his home place, and he had a slightly emotional meeting with the singer at the end of the concert. Angus forwarded Alastair's e-mail to me, and I was able to correct the story he had heard of the writing of the song. That singer, Teresa Tratnyek, had heard the song on a disc by a group whose name she had forgotten, but from the evidence it seems likely that the group she heard was Calasaig, with whom Kirsten Easdale sang.
I eventually made contact with Teresa via e-mail, and she was thrilled to hear more about her 'favourite song' from the only surviving daughter of the man who had written the words. I directed her and Alastair to the web-site 'Kist 0' Riches', and they were able to hear the song sung by Willie himself, when it was recorded in the 1950s for the archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Incidentally, during the 1960s Alastair worked as a message-boy in our family business, and he said that Willie was 'the best boss he ever had'.
In the months following that particular encounter, I thought a lot about 'Road to Drumlemman', and wondered just what my father would have made of this world-wide interest in the song that he wrote down in 'a few minutes'. I now believe that the attraction of it is that each and every person has his or her own 'Road to Drumlemman', some place that touches a chord deep in the heart, so that the song means something to many different people even if they never see the real Drumlemble. They will certainly never now know the man who wrote it, nor the people who made Drumlemble the place that it was; but I think that my father would appreciate the fact that something of these people and the place lives on through his song, although - like me - he always preferred it sung to the tune for which he wrote his words.
Oh the springtime returns to the Laggan again And the lark sweetly sings o'er the green fertile plain So I'll tak the road that is dearest to me, The road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea. For I've made many friends there on every green mile And the folks always greet me with a wave and a smile If I spend all my days here, it's happy I'll be, On the road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea. For we sat roon the fireside when the winter winds blew And we laughed and we sang till the night was well through Then we'd have a good dram and a wee cup o' tea For the road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea. And the long summer days when we tramped the hills o'er To spend hours at the Eenans or Creggin's wild shore And the soft summer twilight made shadows to flee On the road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea. Oh these days passing swiftly bring changes I know And as time passes on from this place we must go But I'll always remember while the heart beats in me, The road to Drumleman that winds tae the sea.
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