Early Song Writing Memories

I’m not sure when I wrote my first song. I do however recall at the age of thirteen, lying to my French teacher, Mr. Dawson, falsely claiming to have written the lyrics of a song on a Hamish Imlach L.P. He undoubtedly knew that my claim was nothing more than a juvenile flight of fancy, but he smiled and nodded and never challenged me on the matter. Looking back on it now, this incident was simply an early indication that the idea of writing songs was one that appealed to me and that I was comfortable bending the truth.

My older brother Peter MacNab (better known by his nickname ‘Snab’) played a large part in encouraging my interest in folk music. He was heavily involved in the Edinburgh folk scene in the sixties, not only as a singer, but also as a song writer. I was immensely proud and impressed when I watched him perform, singing self-penned material. It was therefore no great surprise that I would follow in his footsteps and also become a writer of songs.

My earliest recollection of song writing goes back to when I would have been about fifteen or sixteen. I was working at the grouse beating in Glen Artney in Perthshire and I came up with a song about the various grouse drives we had to do. The head gamekeeper was a man called Alistair MacIntyre. He knew me well and was a great friend of my father. Alistair made good use of my knowledge of the surrounding hills and my youthful fitness. He would organize the grouse beaters into a long line to sweep across a moor, or around a hillside, driving the grouse towards a line of butts where the guns were waiting for them.

He normally singled me out to be the beater at the end of the line which had the furthest distance to travel or most arduous terrain to cross. He was aware that I knew where I was supposed to go and that I would not tire. On drives around a hillside the man at the top of the hill might only walk a couple of hundred yards. Meanwhile, as the line swept around the hill’s contours, I would be running flat out around the bottom, jumping over burns and peat hags, or wading through ankle grabbing deep heather.

Two drives in particular, Dundurn and Coirenochd, were exhausting because of the number of peat hags I had to negotiate. Some of the hags resembled miniature Grand Canyons and I would launch myself into space in an effort to reach the other side in one gigantic leap. Sometimes I would succeed, but as often as not, I would crash and burn. Crash landings were usually of the soft and wet variety and left me with peat clad legs scrambling furiously up the steep sides to try and catch up with the line of beaters as it marched relentlessly on towards the butts. It was hard going and, whilst I wouldn’t always admit it, I loved the physical challenge and reveled in my stamina and fitness.

Glen Artney

‘Keeping the line’ was a priority for Alistair and he was not shy about letting you know if you were out of step with the other beaters. He had a roar that a rutting stag would have been proud of, and his voice would ring out across the glen chastising anyone who was not keeping up.

On one occasion I had been engaged in my most common pastime, of day dreaming, and as a result had not heard Alistair’s instructions. I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of the most ferocious verbal expolsion. The air in the glen turned blue as Alistair ripped into me with a tirade of four lettered words. It was his closing salvo though, that struck home and found its mark.

“You’re trouble is, your f***ing head is too full of f***ing guitars and f***ing folk songs. Wake up and start f***ing paying attention!!”

I was hurt to the quick and acutely embarrassed, but looking back, well, he may just have had a point. Whilst music was a principle preocupation, I was many years later to be diagnosed as an adult sufferer of Attention Deficit Disorder of the inattentive variety (A.D.D.).

In my day dreaming I had been composing a verse in my head to the Irish tune of “The Little Beggarman” which went as follows:

“There’s the Corrie Beagh, the Dubh Choirein, the Carrie as well
Dundurn and Coire nochd, well they can go to Hell
I like the Carrie it’s the best of all
Coming oot o’ Finduglen and doon around the Wall
And Friday is pay day, its best of a’
But the trouble is ye’ve got tae gie your money tae yer Maw
A’ that sweating at the beating o’ the grouse
Just tae gi’ yer mither some money for the house”

The various Gaelic names in the rhyme referred to the different drives. The drive known as The Wall was a favourite amongst all the beaters for two reasons. Firstly it was short and not physically demanding, and secondly, it ended at Mailerbeg, Alistair’s house. That only happened at the end of the day or in time for lunch break, and both were equally welcome.

Those lines about the beating formed one of two ditties which are the earliest lyrics I can recall writing. The other one came from around the same time, and it was about one of Alistair’s colleagues. It referred to a young gamekeeper with a shock of red hair and a weather beaten freckled face to match. He lived at the top of the glen and had a reputation for being a bit of a wild man. If I’m being honest, I never really relaxed in his company. My impression of him inspired these lines to the tune of “The Day We Went Tae Rothsey O’”.

“At the head of Glen Artney there’s a man
He’s got red hair and they call him ‘The Cram’
He’s fond o’ the women and he likes a dram
He’s a keeper up on Drummond Oh”

I went on to write a verse for as many of the gamekeepers on the Drummond and Ancaster Estate as I could, but the one about the Cram is the only one I recall now. I wish I could remember the one I wrote about Alistair. If I wrote it after my bollocking I’m not sure it would have been all that complimentary.

Just before my 20th birthday I signed up for nine years service in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. About nine weeks in, the novelty had worn off, and I was planning my earliest possible discharge back into Civvy Street. Taking a cut in pay of fifty pence a day to ‘buy’ myself out, I reclaimed my freedom with five years and twelve days service to my name.

Duncan as a Royal Naval Recruit

Being awarded a cup for best seamanship skills (not the best beard).

Those five years however, were not wasted. I had some great adventures, met some great people and visited lots of countries that I would never have otherwise seen.

Inevitably, some of my naval experiences resulted in songs. One of the first came when I was serving onboard the Tribal Class Frigate H.M.S. Gurkha. During my time on the “Jolly G”, as she was affectionately known, my job was that of Gunners Yeoman. I looked after all the small arms, pyrotechnics, ammunition and explosives. It was a job that meant whilst at sea I was on call 24 hours a day, but once we were tied up alongside I was exempt from duties and I could go ashore every night. I was quite happy to work around the clock at sea if it meant I would never be stopped from going ashore when the ship was in harbour.

I teamed up with a shipmate called Dave who played guitar and we sang together as a duo under the name of “Tanelorn”. The name comes from the writing of the science fantasy author, Michael Moorcock. Tanelorn was a city in the novels about the Eternal Champion. The city’s nature was to appear and disappear both in place and time and nor could it ever be destroyed. We sang in places as diverse as The British Legion club in Dunfermline to the White Heather Club in Gibraltar. We got the odd bob or two for our efforts but mostly we sang for the fun of it or for free beer.

Onboard the Gurkha we spend a lot of time carrying out patrols off the coast of Northern Ireland during the troubles, and it was the feeling that we were doing more of these patrols than other ships that triggered a song.

HMS Gurkha

HMS GURKHA, Copyright: © IWM.

One of many naval traditions is a night of entertainment called a Sod’s Opera. Members of the crew performed ‘turns’ in front of the assembled ship’s company and I took part on one such occasion as we steamed homeward towards Rosyth at the end of a long patrol. Rank, and respect for rank, were put aside for the duration of the event and the crew could be as crude or insulting as they liked, although it was always done with good humour in mind.

I wrote and entered a song parodying Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?”. It was aimed at the ship’s second in command, who onboard RN vessels is always referred to as ‘the Jimmy’. Although I can’t recollect it all, some of it has remained etched in my memory.

“Oh where do you go to Rosyth
When we’re away from your walls
I’d like to get hold of the Jimmy
And swing him round by his.. La la la la la la la.

The Zulu and the Yarmouth
Are welded to the wall
But not the jolly old Gurkha
We’re always on f***ing patrol

So where do you go to Rosyth
When we’re away from your walls
I’d like to get hold of the Jimmy
And swing him round by his.. La la la la la la la.”

There were several more verses which escape me now, but the response from an inebriated crew joining in the chorus was enough for me to be voted as the winner. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my loft lurks a silver goblet engraved “Able Seaman McNab – Top Sod”

This was my first experience of winning a prize for my song writing. But more importantly, it was the first time I had performed in front of an audience, who to a man, were singing enthusiastically the words of a chorus that I had written. I got a massive buzz from hearing my composition being sung so loudly and by so many people. That was a far greater prize than the Top Sod goblet. It was the moment that I realized I could write songs that someone other than myself might enjoy. On top of that heady feeling was another key factor… I had made them laugh.

That feeling has never diminished, and it is just as strong to this day whenever I perform and make an audience laugh and join in with my songs. That feeling is the drug which has kept me writing songs for over forty years

Throughout those years it has mostly been unusual incidents and experiences that have happened to me, or to people that I know, that have inspired my songs. In most cases the songs tell a story and I suppose I think of myself more as a story teller who just happens to use the medium of song to tell his stories. I am under no illusions about the quality of my voice. I am no Pavarotti. For that reason I am comfortable in the world of folk music where a few rough edges are forgiven if not expected. I also like to think that if people are following the narrative of the song or laughing at the content, they are less likely to focus on the quality of the voice.

So what follows are some of the stories that I have turned into songs. Some are true stories, whilst others stray to varying degrees from the truth. Even those that are completely fictitious are often laced with experiences and emotions that have affected me over the years.

I do not intend to post the stories behind the songs in any chronological order. There is a chronology to the stories involving my journey from childhood into adulthood but they were not written in sequence. So, each month, in my inattentive attention deficit disordered state, I will relate then as they come to mind. That having been said, next time I will relate the story of a girl that has featured to date in four different songs, and her name was ‘Maggie Ann.’

2 thoughts on “Early Song Writing Memories

  1. Fiona Jollie

    Fabulous story Duncan and it’s amazing when you advise what the tune is how I ended up singing each of your songs, badly I may add, singing not one of my strong points but it made me smile at the end lol…. looking forward to the next story!

  2. Stan Ginter

    You’ve narrated many a tale of your Naval escapades in times past in person to me, and “Ring On The Homeward Bounders” has always been a favourite song of mine. I enjoyed this narration very much also. Prose being a newer expressive media from you. Keep it up.


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