Singing the Gospel along Scotland’s North-East Coast, 1859-2009

Editor: Northern Scotland’s Evangelical revival is an important aspect of religious cultural and tradition which this  book, published in the SOAS Musicology series, carefully describes, drawing on local archives, museums, heritage centres and oral accounts.  The book details how music and worship followed fishing boats around coastal communities, popular forms of religious music becoming part of a day-to-day pattern of work and relaxation.  This is a lively and evolving tradition: the author pays attention to the technologies of transmission (a ship’s radio) as well as the contributions of individual performers and groups, placing local practices in Scottish historical as well as wider international sacred contexts. 

Sacred musical expression has been and continues to be a hugely important aspect of daily life for many people living and working in Scotland, and no more so than in the fishing communities of North-East Scotland. Singing gospel hymns has been part of the daily soundscape of fisher life for generations, and this was especially so from 1860 and 1960 in the wake of some hugely influential Evangelical Christian revivals in the region including the Great Awakening of 1859-60, the missionary visits of Moody and Sankey to the region in 1874, and the Fisher revival in 1920-21. These revivals attracted thousands of participants, mostly from the fisher communities, and were characterised by extended daily revivals meetings which often ran late into the night and involved extensive hymn singing, prayer, and conversions among those in attendance. The revivals gave the impetus for the establishment, and further establishment, of a repertoire of gospel hymnody which was embraced by the fishing population and sung not only in the church, but across many areas of daily life including whilst at work, in the home, and in secular performance contexts. Hymns such as ‘Will Your Anchor Hold’, ‘Let the Lower Lights be Burning’, and ‘Sweet By-and-By’, full of nautical imagery and metaphors, became particularly popular and held special significance in the daily lived experiences of those working both at sea and ashore. Following the visits of Moody and Sankey, harmoniums became popular instruments for accompanying the hymns both in the church and the home.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and unique aspect of the gospel hymnody tradition was the singing which took place over the ship’s radio. After the introduction of the ships radio in the mid-twentieth century, fishermen would regularly take to the wheelhouse and sing hymns over the radio to the fishing boats nearby and family and friends ashore. One particular singer, Jim Mair, was famous in the communities for his singing in this way and his nightly ‘request shows’ during the time of the Seine Net fishing. Singing the Gospel along Scotland’s North-East Coast, 1859-2009, based on research the author conducted in the region from 2005-2009, explores these multidimensional aspects of gospel singing in the fisher communities, paying particular attention to the ways in which sacred singing has both reflected and reinforced the occupational and community identities of the singers.

Frances Wilkins is senior lecturer in ethnomusicology at The Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. Her research interests including Scottish sacred singing traditions and fiddle music among the Eeyou people living in the James Bay region of Canada. She is currently in receipt of a British Academy research fellowship to further explore sacred singing traditions in the West Highlands and Western Isles.
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