Isla St Clair - The ScotsCare podcast - Episode 1

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[Intro Music] Hello, I’m Marcus Railton and this is the ScotsCare podcast ScotsCare is the only charity dedicated to helping disadvantaged Scots in London through a range of support including mental health therapy Financial grants advocacy sheltered housing for older Scots job coaching social events befriending and support for Children and Families the Charity’s been running for 400 years to help break the cycle of poverty experienced by some Scots in this series of the ScotsCare podcast I’ll be chatting to celebrities and supporters of the charity that have also forged a life in the capital away from home and about the ups and downs that can bring

Today I’m chatting with Isla Sinclair one of Scotland’s foremost and best known traditional singers Isla was singing before she was even walking and the recordings are still used for reference in the school of Scottish studies to me even before the music she was the lady on my TV on a Saturday night and I must admit to being just a little nervous to finally be meeting her the charity helping to break the cycle of poverty some Scots find in London

[Music] hey Isla Hi Marcus I know this is an odd thing to start with but we’ve never met

and we’ve never spoken before but I kind of feel like I’ve known you all my life because you’ve been a well-known name to

me since since I was a wee boy really exactly so you’re of a certain age that

can remember because it’s a long time since I was doing a lot on the television but anybody of them shall we

say middle age and onwards would pretty well remember some of the work that you know I did on television and

and so on and so forth and you’ve been a well-known name much longer than you

haven’t been a well-known name is that kind of does that form the kind of person that you became

um that’s interesting I think the well-knownness bit I was sort of not as

well known as Andy Stewart and so on when I was in Scotland but I was getting very well known because I’d kind of

crossed over from just being in the folk scene and doing the folk clubs and so on and had crossed over into the various

light entertainment programs like with a welcome to the Kelly’s and what was that thing that sdv used to do our

thingamajig exactly so whereas a lot of the folks singers perhaps it wouldn’t have fitted

them or they couldn’t have transferred their skills shall we say I was able to be a bit Adept there and get from one to

the other and I earn a few Bob to keep me going till the next program and so on and thus

through television and radio and sauna became you know quite well known uh as I

say I don’t think I was quite the star that Andy and these others were but uh I was certainly getting up there with them

and becoming well known in Scotland and and perhaps Beyond a bit as well I was

doing a lot of touring abroad and so on so it was really the generation game that made me a household name I would

say and the people presume as you went through this period of Fame did people presume they knew you where you’d be

walking around Sainsbury’s and people say oh hello and not quite right yeah didn’t know you

absolutely there’s the silver how are you doing or how’s Larry and all you know that’s during the generation game

spell and thereafter I was amazed but after a few weeks how that kicked in it

quite extraordinary because prior to that yes people had perhaps recognized me in Scotland or wherever and my name

was known and whether they would instantly put my name to the face before is is debatable but my goodness me once

that program which was going out what was it beaming into 16 million homes every week and then more when ITV went

on strike but I think we got 26 million or something at one stage so virtually everybody at some stage would have seen

this program in the United Kingdom and so wherever I went I was recognized it was um quite a

shock actually well that’s what I was going to ask because I I was I thought what I will say to you is I do want to

talk about your music and your musical background and I want to talk to you about your family but I kind of wanted to start a little bit forwards and talk

to you about that time because this was a time of Television before it was

diluted by Netflix and Amazon Prime there only was three channels and you

were 19. that must have been quite mind-blowing to be watched by 26. no no no no no no no no no no no no I was not

  1. I was 26 when I started the generation game oh

yes yes I was getting on already you looked I looked at a photograph of

it the other day and I thought you looked so young I know I did look young and I was young and actually in my own self I was young

um very young and yeah you know whether it’s naive or

emotionally immature was a lot to take on at that point oh no emotionally I think I was very immature I could sing

Barbara Allen some of these ballads at the age of 12 and understood the great sadness and the terror and all the other

emotions I understood all that very well what I didn’t perhaps get quite such a grip on was real life as it was now I

was in medieval times mainly but the emotions of course are still the same for people whether medieval or present

time but go back to the generation game well I think nobody

is used to fame not even those who are trained for it and whether it’s the

royal family or whatever it is nobody knows what that’s going to be like or how you’re going to react to

you’re actually in it and I know many people desire it because it seems like

you know a great thing as opposed to have other people knowing who you are and all that kind of thing but

uh it’s not what you think when you get there are you tempted by the Showbiz

lifestyle than London no well I mean before I knew it perhaps I was a bit and

you know I remember actually going to see um what’s what Warren Beatty’s sister

called you know the oh goodness me my brain you know um what’s her name the actor the actress for goodness come on

you can do it singer and actress and all the rest of it anyway I went to this great show and

she was singing and dancing Sue Brett style and absolutely fantastic and I

went on my organs went to things on my own actually and anyway I remember watching that and thinking God that’s

fantastic got it exactly I knew I knew who she was

full of my brain just took a little bit of time to kick in there yeah but I was filling the Gap while you were thinking

and uh anyway I thought God you know I’m going to be like that one day I’m gonna

everybody’s gonna know who I am and all this sort of thing but little did I imagine in a million years that it would

actually be through a game show and the generation came out just in a million

years that one I did not expect look at the stuff you did early on in your career and I was thinking I want to ask

Isla this been you know I don’t want to offend her you know that might be wrong but is there an element that the work

that brought Alice and Claire to the attention of most people is maybe not what fed your soul the most completely

right absolutely right it’s always been the singing and the songs and interacting with people in probably

smaller venues actually and that sort of thing I’ve always enjoyed the the traditional songs that I’ve sung

have given me the most sustenance and grounding and Sanity actually of

anything I mean no no no show businesses is very superficial and wasn’t for me

the kind of um that kind of world although I did dabble in it a little bit but it really wasn’t for me in fact what

I used to do when I was doing the generation game was to have a little Kelly every at least if not every

weekend every other weekend and then I’d invite um my Chums or whoever it was I’d met that week that I thought was a nice

kind of person I’d invite them along get them all there get in a pile of Buffy type food and we’d all have a good sing

and I could sort of reenact my my days as the folk singer and all the rest of

it because that had kind of been put in the back burner for those few years so that was good fun I used to enjoy that I

didn’t really enjoy going to um other people’s Gatherings because they’re they didn’t have the same sort

of singing and things which I enjoyed you know the musical aspect well who was making the decisions for you back then

because you obviously I mean you must have had a manager or an agent but you you you sound you’ve always sounded like

you had your head screwed on you said no this is this is what feeds my soul I’m going in this direction well there must

have been somebody or or powers that be pushing you in another direction that maybe you didn’t want to go in well

actually I never had um a really a proper manager I suppose certainly not

in the days when I was um most well known but I did have a very good Agent excellent agent he was quite convinced

that it was the personality and the the generation game sort of thing that was the big seller and the singing was very

secondary and certainly in those days we’re talking back in 1970 late 70s early 80s

folk music well I mean if you’ve seen the Cohen Brothers film when the guy

sings the shoals are Herring on one of these fabulous traditional another song Queen

he just looks at him and says I just can’t see the money in it and basically that was it I mean you

could barely scrape a living together by doing the focusing so I suppose Peter Pritchard who was my agent then quite

rightly thought for goodness sake you know it’s uh there’s nothing in that but for me there

was everything in in in in my in the singing and the songs the songs are just so great because they are coming from

people’s emotions because they’re they weren’t written to make money on the Hit Parade or any such thing they were

written from people’s experiences and from their their Joys their hopes their desires their sadnesses their tragedies

and and and also the ballads themselves are just goodness me they’re like films in in themselves the episodic and

exciting and you know just all of life is is in them and when you started out

and you you came down south and you were in London did you have to tone down your scottishness no no I’ve always just been

what I’ve been I’ve been a right mixture you see because although I started my life in uh well actually in grangemouth

but only for a few months I was born there but my mother hastened back to Phoenix in the northeast of Scotland

when I was just a few months old and we stayed there until 1956 when I was now

four and we moved to England and I had four years down in a little hamlet in England which oh gosh I loved it I mean

it was really super I went to first school there and used to run freely through all the fields near in Bradfield

green near crew and thoroughly enjoyed my young life and I don’t think my

mother was having a great time by the way but that’s another story but anyway we moved back to Aberdeen in 1960 when I

was just about eight and and from and we stayed in Aberdeen for the next day oh

five seven years to move back up to Bucky from the last couple of years in school so I’ve forgotten what the

original question was now but scottishness scottishness ah scottishness well

I must have my mother spoke in Broad Doric well she she would go between broad Doric and then proper English if

you like she could do the two languages if you like and she obviously spoke to

me a lot in the dark when I was we when I was little and uh and would have continued to do so in England but of

course as you do you pick up the local accent and by the time I got back to Aberdeen in 1960 I was uh I spoke with a

broad Cheshire accent well of course it was amusing to all the other pupils and horrifying to me who was very

embarrassed about it also I kept my trap shot of fear him into the time and then gradually obviously I had a balance

between whatever it was learned up till then and I got in the Doric though I can

understand it perfectly all the direct from her and I can speak nabad and I can certainly sing in it

um but um the English thing was modified by Living

in Aberdeen and the Northeast for the rest and and Scotland until I moved back to England when I was 27 28 you know so

the accent you’re hearing now has not changed very much I think you’ll hear my voice is higher in younger recordings

you hear me um speaking in a slightly higher voice and so on but that’s because I’m because

I’m wearing on your mother Zetta used a beautiful phrase to describe you she described you

as my linty bird long before she talked or walked she sang and I love that it’s just so simple but what what is a Lindy

bird it’s just a birdie it sings the singing bird memories of song in the home that you

were born in and as you moved around oh my earliest memories are well I’m never

half a sure if it’s what I’ve been told or what I actually remember but being in

in Infinity when we were living there um whenever I was lost my mother knew exactly where to find me and I’d be with

the Salvation Army Band either at the rehearsal hall or trips and up and down the streets with them because at that

time there was there was no pubs in fenectady but about 13 different denominations of churches you know

including the Salvation Army my favorite and I used to sing with them and the money who ran the Salvation Army

there he he was called Johnny copy and uh he would say that a week early here

and she just loves to sing and I drove that way down and sing my heart I just love to sing that was it it basically

loved to sing and so did Zetta of course my mother loved to sing and she was now

running the brown owls the the brownies and my sister and I would go along even though I was rather young to be going I

got to go as an honorary pixie and uh that I performed my first concert at the

the wee Harley Infinity singing nursery rhymes and uh my mom

said she I wondered what would happen when they opened the curtain would I stay and sing her with a runoff well I

stayed and I sang and I literally threw myself off the stage Gucci Gucci Gander and doing various actions to go along

with the nursery rhymes but uh thoroughly enjoyed it and that was the perhaps the beginning of a performance

era shall we say and my mother always always encouraged it and loved to perform herself you see so that was um

that was a wonderful thing and I would say anything anything I heard anything that was on the radio and I would you

know sing my heart and she loved it she never I was never told to be quiet I was always it was always fine that I was

singing oh well let’s hear something now let’s see this is my love is like a red red rose how how long have you been

singing this when did you first record it about 2002 I think I made an arrangement for

it I was asked to sing at a Burns thing and I was away with my partner and I think I was still in the throes of a

great deal of Love or something and anyway I was just I came up with this

Arrangement which is slightly different in timing and so on to the usual ones I’d heard you know which are very very

good by Kenneth McKellar Etc but anyway I did it away I thought I could sing it and express it best

and um and that is what I did and so it’s it’s perhaps not the song that’s

been with me in my heart for the longest but it’s certainly one that holds a big bit of my heart I do I do think it’s an

extremely beautiful piece my love is like a red red rose oh

oh my love is like

the red red rose that’s newly sprung into

melodies [Music]

thank you as fear the lord

[Music] is

[Music] still [Music]

idea [Music]

do all seasons [Music]

while the sons of Light Charlotte

[Music] unfairly

my only life and fear the wings


oh it was ten thousand miles

us fear the lord tonight


the sea is [Music]

foreign [Music]

Scott’s care for Scots in London in need of support Financial practical or

emotional help [Music] how strong is the traditional music

scene in Scotland these days Ireland do you see younger folk coming through and carrying that torch very much so um

people a terrific Talent musically and the bagpipes of course have been

encouraged greatly as long as well as fiddle playing Etc oh I think there’s a I think there’s a big search huge surge

compared to when I was young and the standard is terrific lots of young good

you good young singers lots of musicians uh I don’t think there’s any fear that

it will vanish but I still think it’s only a small proportion of the country

who are are aware of how wonderful it can all be

can I ask you a silly question no this seems like a silly question but I’m totally naive about things but do you have to sing every day is it like going

to the gym do you have to keep vocally in shape well you have to but I love singing so it’s fine for me but I’ve got

we roomie here that I can go up to and I can sing for half an hour to go to an hour whatever just to keep yes you do

have to keep going and I’m not a train singer at all but just to keep that

because it is just a muscle you know your vocal cords need to be exercised and anybody enjoy it it’s it’s like um

it’s uh where people go and work out in the gym when I sing I’m sure that I get

the same kind of release of tensions or stress or whatever it is you’re needing

to to do I mean I don’t go to the gym I do walk I do gardening and I look after

my bees I like having my bees and I love to sing I still love to sing and I think

that would be the hardest thing if I couldn’t well I want to talk more about your mum in her own right a very

skillful singer and a writer yes absolutely she was writing long before I was a twinkle in anybody’s eye and had

written many many poems and I mean about 70 that I’ve managed to research collate

and put together and they’re found on my website along with 20 songs that she wrote very beautiful songs what she had

was a natural ability with words along with a very lyrical melodic

and melodic ability to give her these lovely tunes that she thought of because she

couldn’t read music or anything so it was all picked out by notes you know on the on the piano and all piano we had

and also I suppose she was very idealistic and romantic actually and

that comes through too and she just had had a great way of of catching things and putting them

together and anyone who cares to read any of her work or hear any of it it’s

all all available there through through my own website and and honestly I’m very proud of it and I was able to finally

get it all put together from all our wee bities of paper and scraps of writing finally be able to get it all together

during um lockdown though I was near driven demented with Punk trying to punctuate

poetry is not an easy thing I had to try and think what she would be thinking you know exactly what she was meaning and

try to do it and then it is very very difficult very difficult but you know

what I think it comes across beautifully I read every poem in the book and oh you did I think what runs through nearly all

of them is a real appreciation for the beauty of Nature and what I absolutely what I took away from much of a writing

was to enjoy the simple things live in the moment be grateful for what you have

and after I read them and I like the one the ones about children and I like the one you know that mentioned the Sea and

the beach and I wondered if did this philosophy extend to the way she raised you you know in a kind of not a simple

way but just to smell the coffee a bit every day very much so she was very I

wouldn’t say the moralistic isn’t the word exactly but she she she had very well what I would consider very

high values in life and what was important and how to be and to be honest and you know to to to

particularly to take all you could from nature and she’s absolutely spot on you

know and at the same time where you read it in these these wonderful words but she was obviously a very I’m not a tough

woman but a strong woman bringing up three kids in tough times very tough times indeed and after a first fairly

unhappy marriage and going on her own with me and her other two children to

live in findoki alone um that I think was an extremely difficult time for her and then that was

why she decided having met some people in England to go down there but yes you’re right because also physically she

she had a lot of ailments I mean she was she had double pneumonia at the age of three and they had a coffin all built

for her and she survived at 12 she contracted double pneumonia again she

then in her teens I think got diphtheria rheumatic fever teens in early twenties by which time she was married and had a

child she lost a child um all kinds of tremendously difficult illnesses and

losses during the the wartime she lost I think it was five members of the family

in the space of 18 months I mean both are brothers our mother or father and her child I mean she was only 23 and

gosh how does that affect the rest of your life in her case it made her made

her serve well she survived I love the fact that you’ve done this you know I think and it’s something I’ve been

thinking about a lot recently you know but chronically experience your family’s experience because my dad passed away at

the start of lockdown I was at April 2020 and my mum had passed away a few years before and I’ve got three children

and my oldest boy now who’s 13. he asks me questions and I kind of before I

would have said oh go and ask your papa and now there’s a lot of answers that I can’t possibly give him so I think it’s

a wonderful thing to actually get these get these facts written down for future Generations yeah I think it’s all the

way that you you it’s the way that you view when your parents die you realize you are no

longer the child and you it changes your whole perception of living and of life

and it’s quite frightening actually I think because you’re it’s now all down to you

and you are responsible particularly when you have your children you must give them good advice and

tried to give them honest advice that will help them and at the same time you don’t want to be

lecturing folk all the time and I think it is by example because every all of us every single one of us humans who live

on this planet suffer in one way shape or form and nobody nobody gets out free

nobody nobody does there are different problems for in different ways and I think it is then how how you have the

support and where you look for your support whether that is through your

communing with nature singing um friendship all sorts of different

ways of of having support but most important that you know you you how to

look for it and where to look for it are you close to your two Lads oh very oh Incredibly Close yes very very close to

them did they follow you into did they sing or are they in Show Business they they my Elder son is is it will

sing at the drop of a hat and in any possible venue but he he’s he hasn’t taken it up as a profession

no he hasn’t taken it as a profession but by goodness he’s got a good voice and and he’s a he’s a great guy he’s a

wonderful guy I love both of them so dearly and Callum my younger one is

extremely kind and always always helpful and uh patient and so I’m so wonderfully

proud of them both you know um they have the most important things in life

they have a good moral compass and they have um and again that sounds slightly

sort of what you call it preachy but I don’t mean it to be so but they do and

they know what’s important and what’s important is is the basic things everybody tells you about all the time

and kindness and patience and and you know forgiving and remembering that um

forgive yourself as well by the way that’s also be kind to yourself because you know the world is a hard place oh

what a tough tough Place believe me and I’m not having plenty of times is that I had plenty of times of down I asked her

towards the end of her life actually how how she got through so many difficult

times and she actually said well I just hoped that the bad times would go through quickly and I’d get on to the

good times that’s a lovely thought it’s lovely I did and I’d like to play something and

and say thank you for speaking to me today it’s been really interesting but I’d like to play some by by your mum now

he said I want to play the Bonnie boats of Bucky to to play out the podcast today can you just tell me briefly is

that one of her poems but you have said this to music no all the tunes are hers all the tune this is one of her 20 songs

if you like that she wrote and all of these songs and tunes all the words and

all the tunes are hers and um I just sing them I just sing them this one

actually was written probably in the 60s when we were in Aberdeen and she was a

member of the Aberdeen fucson club and it won the competition there and so on and so forth that and I’ve always

continued to think I think it’s awfully Bonnie her her own father my grandfather was a fisherman had his own books for

some of the time he was a fisherman and the boats are Bucky played a large part in zetta’s young life and indeed even in

my young life because I remember when the harbor Bucky was stowed for the booties and only they were even though

they were even though by that time they were mayor kind of trawlers and that kind of thing you know the old Five

Seasons and so on I think it’s an awfully Bunny song and I think her should her parents my grandparents have

been able to hear it that have been extremely proud well this is the Bonnie boats of Bucky and I understand Claire

thank you for taking part in the Scotts care podcast today oh it’s been a great pleasure


sailing out across the bay now there’s a sight on a summer’s night

before the sun sets for the day

before the sun sets for the day

see the bunny boots or bucket spreading out across the bay

they are broadening till the dawning sailing home at break of day

sailing home at the break of day

see the fishermen or Bucky happy crewmates you may say

but hear them balling at the hall and

tail and plums we calls it Faith

Talent prawns we calls it pain

see the fish what a price they have to pay

to earn their bread They Mourn their dead but go to see another day

but go to see another day

see the bunny boots or Bucky hold it up

across the bay now there’s a sight on a Winter’s Night

when Northern Lights we power the bay

when Northern Lights we power the pain

Scots care



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