He’d been a hero of mine since I first heard an album way back in the 1960s, so it was a life’s ambition some day to make it over to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to attend Doc Watson’s MerleFest and see him perform.
Commissioned to write a three-page feature on the event for the UK’s leading Americana music magazine (well, it was back in 2003), Maverick, I was ecstatic. Imagine my delight when I later got a call from one of Doc’s closest associates a few months after I returned home to say that the great man had enjoyed my article so much that he wanted to run it in its entirety in the next year’s programme! A seal of approval from Doc Watson, I thought…well, I’ll be darned!
The following year, I went back with a mic and recorder, to interview him for BBC Radio Scotland’s country music show. I’d done my research and discovered that he’d once been to Scotland in the 1960s and wondered, as he had been completely blind from the age of two, what impression he had formed of my home turf, or if he had any abiding memory of the trip?
He told me that was “easy, son,” revealing he’d sampled some of the best home made strawberry jam he’d ever tasted, and never forgotten how good it was. On my return home, I sourced some quality jam from a maker in Kilbarchan and posted it off to Mike Palmer who had the local music store and looked after all of Doc’s equipment, putting in a covering note to explain what it was all about and asking if he’d pass it on, next time he saw Doc.
Without telling me, Mike went one better, contacted a local film maker inviting him to bring his camera and called Doc asking him to come to the shop as he had something special for him.
They filmed Mike reading my letter to Doc and the handing over of the jar of jam all the way from Scotland, and sent me a dvd of the presentation as a special keepsake.
Doc was one of life’s gentlemen and we were saddened to learn he’d passed away in 2012.
We were sad to learn if this great man’s passing, aged 93, in 2018, having had the extraordinary pleasure to enjoy an audience with this Elder of the Cherokee Nation who spent so much of his life encouraging the young to keep traditions alive and not to let their language die out.
He was so spiritually charged with all of the pure, good energy so many “seekers of the truth” endeavour to source, that Bren and I were both tearful at times when we listened to his dreams for a better world for all, and it felt like we had spent some valuable time in the presence of a major force for good such as His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. In 2013, he was named Beloved Man of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians – the first person to receive this great honour in over 200 years.
We felt truly privileged to connect, albeit so briefly, with an individual whose words of wisdom and influence remain with us to this day. Those young uns couldn’t have asked for a better teacher.
Fiercely proud of his Welsh roots, here is a South African who grew up to admire the Zulu people whose great history and traditions he studied to become a leading authority and one of the most highly-regarded guides on the Battlefield Tours of KwaZulu-Natal.
Dave had so much respect for the tribesmen and women he grew to know and work with that they became as close to him as family. A man with a heart as big as his own stature, he welcomed me into his home when I visited with a group of other writers but was not keen on the host they had chosen to be with that night. His gracious wife Sue had already prepared the evening meal at their home in Fugitive’s Drift, and they very generously shared food and wine (and later a single malt or two) with me.
It turned into a sing-song that nobody had planned as the guitar came out and was passed around until much later than any of us had imagined, and at one point he produced an ancient set of bagpipes which hadn’t been played for many years and did his best to coax a tune from them. The reed was dried out and virtually unplayable so when I got back to Scotland, I ordered up a replacement produced by one of the best makers and sent them to him. He was thrilled.
We subsequently received a thankyou package from him that put big smiles on our faces.
Dave and Sue now run a very successful lifestyle magazine and their own radio station, broadcasting out of Ballito.
That time we spent together provided one of my most cherished memories.
Barge master and man of many talents, we had the great pleasure to enjoy his company when cruising with European Waterways in France. I’m sure he would not mind one bit if I described his general attitude to life as completely self-assured, admirable but verging on the entertaining side of mildly eccentric.
If you watched any episodes of the popular TV series, “A French Odyssey” in which UK chef Rick Stein and his production team were onboard guests for the duration, you will have seen Leigh hovering in the background and occasionally taking full control of situations, often with a wry smile and frequently with a tut-tut shake of the head.
One day the barge ground to a shuddering halt and it transpired that some carelessly discarded clothing that had ended up in the canal had become wrapped around the propeller, locking it tight. No problem for Mighty Man Wooton who jumped over the side and, up to his neck in water, wrestled with the offending material and freed the prop.
When driving the barge with the big wooden steering wheel which protrudes higher than the roof of the upper deck saloon, one day while approaching a very low bridge under which we needed to pass, he realised that the water level was higher than normal and that, if he did act speedily, disconnect the steering wheel and quickly duck down too, it would be smashed by striking the stone arch we were about to sail under. He magically completed the task in a few seconds flat without even breaking into a sweat. Did I say he was a cool dude? Hell yeah!
Harold ‘Mule’ Ferguson
When we were organising our first ever trip to western North Carolina and sending emails back and forth to tourism staff, and they asked what our preference would be for accommodation, never thinking for a minute it might land them with a headache, we said that we actually enjoyed staying with people in their own homes (thinking B&B or Guest House).
It didn’t occur to us that those just didn’t exist in that particular neck of the woods, and it was pre-Airbnb.
What we subsequently found out was they held a town meeting in North Wilkesboro and asked local residents if any of them would like to host us for our stay. ‘Mule’ and his wife, Debbie put their hands up (they had a soft spot for Scotland) and said they’d be delighted to welcome us to share their beautiful home.
What fine hosts they turned out to be, providing a self-contained apartment on their beautiful property, organising a great welcoming party, showing us around and even letting us drive their car. An adventurer as daring as any, he was renowned in his community as someone with a heart of gold and a sense of fun as big as it gets.
He built and flew his own single-seater aircraft, had a hot air balloon, was a talented film-maker, played a host of musical instruments well, was a fan of Lonnie Donegan – and wore the kilt. We were very sad to learn that our good friend who had such zest for life had died in 2020. One in a million!
We see and hear the term ‘legend’ used and abused on a regular basis. Where Carsten Panduro is concerned it is the perfect description.
I first heard the man’s name way back in the ’70s when I learned that this extraordinary music-loving Dane had given the talented and well-loved Scottish singer-songwriter, Rab Noakes and his playing buddy, Davie Craig their first big break. Carsten grew in stature after helping to launch and build Denmark’s hugely impressive Tonder Festival to become one of the premier events of its kind anywhere in the world.
We first met and got to know him when he travelled over to Glasgow with his partner, Anni, for the city’s big Celtic Connections Festival that is staged each January to help us shake off the midwinter blues. We had some great nights of merriment and a drink or two together! It was always our dream to visit his home town of Tonder to experience his own event, though, just to watch him conduct one of the biggest shows on earth, and what a treat that turned out to be.
Carsten is now retired and enjoying a chilled life that still has music as a big feature. He made so many good friends in the biz who admire the tremendous contribution he made, that he just has to accept they will continue to be a part of this bigger-than-average life that has had such a positive influence on so many careers.
Well done that man!
He has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and as that might suggest, enjoys a spot of leg-pulling. He was raised in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots on the planet – the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a country boy who went on to become a hero of some of the top names in modern music, such as Eric Clapton.
As a young lad he had one of the great bluegrass legends, Estil Ball, as a neighbour, and would take every opportunity presented to get his hands on his cherished old Gibson guitar. Inspired, he set out to build his own instrument, made from a cardboard box that had once contained little jars of snuff.
As a young man, he had fine-tuned his talents so well he was building real instruments (guitars and mandolins) which were so good he soon had a waiting list of customers all keen to own a Henderson, including Old Slowhand himself, Doc Watson, Gillian Welch and Peter Rowan.
Bren and I once spent a whole day in his company. We laughed so much, he just about single-handedly stoked us up enough to live happily every after! That was one of our all-time favourite happenings. Wayne, a world class performer himself, runs his own music festival on a gorgeous site high in the hills above his home in Mouth of Wilson, near the Virginia/North Carolina state line.
All of the profits go towards inspiring and teaching young people to learn to play an instrument and follow the mountain music traditions of their forefathers. Those whose picking shines above all else, and win the guitar competition, are said to stand the only chance of jumping the queue to owning one of his prized instruments.
“Above and beyond the call of duty” – now ain’t that something to celebrate these days when mostly we are accustomed to so much less that it becomes something to shout out loud about when you see it in action?
During a visit to The Faroe Islands we were fortunate to land in the company of this great man, not so much because he wanted to be there, but as he chose to step up to the plate and not let the side down.
For most of his adult life, this is someone who has answered the call and sought to serve his friends, neighbours and fellow islanders.
A university professor, political activist, author and people’s representative, his duty has always been to do things right and to the best of his ability.
So, it was with some hesitation (he had never done it before) that he stepped in to save the day when his daughter, a professional tour guide, had to stand down due to ill health when our ship pulled into harbour and we boarded the coach all set for a tour of these far flung islands.
Straight off the top he let us know that he was a rookie who had offered to guide us around as best he could, apologising, before he even begun – and with all that knowledge he had stored inside his head, what a great job he did.
He raised a few smiles, however, when we found ourselves travelling through countryside with very little else to see apart from fields of grass and sea and sky, but, determined to fill those awkward gaps, he still kept going.
And so, we also learned about farming practices and produce, and got a caution against any desire we might have to take a dip.
Zakarias, we salute you!
Eustace R. Conway
Once when horse riding as darkness descended and dusk turned to night, his face struck the low lying branch of a tree and was ripped open. Undaunted, this outdoor survival expert and lover of nature, stitched up the open gash, treated the wound with plant-based medicine and honey, and it healed with barely a scar to be seen.
If that’s not heroic enough, just think about this: TV viewers who tune in to the History Channel might have seen his exploits in the popular series, Wilderness Men, but they didn’t learn the whole story. When he was just 12 years of age, he camped alone for a week in the mountains, living off the land.
At seventeen, he’d moved out of the family home to live in an Indian tipi, which was his only refuge for 17 winters. As an 18-year-old, he canoed 1,000 miles on the Mississippi River, then walked across America on the Appalachian Trail, successfully completing the 2,000 mile journey. For years, he survived only on what he could find in nature’s larder, carving out a pioneer life for himself, living in the wilds with no need for money or technology.
We met him at his Turtle Lodge Preserve near Boone, North Carolina, where he teaches students of all ages if they are genuinely prepared to listen. His story is amazing and inspirational. America needs true heroes more than ever these days. Modern man is hellbent on destruction of the planet with wealth generation the prime motivation. He wants not just to make us feel uncomfortable but to make our hearts bleed, prodding any conscience he can access. “Waken up before it’s too late,” he yells with a pained urgency.
We’ll never forget the first time we were captivated by Sara Ski.
Won over in an instant by the zing of her brain, the spark of personality, the truly clowny way she delivered quite complicated tricks and displays of juggling… and her sharp and very lovable sense of humour.
Here is an old-school artiste performing in that enthralling way that only the very best from mime school can achieve.
You thank the heavens that there are still entertainers learning their craft from the old masters while turning in modern, slick new routines.
That first encounter was with well-known Tyneside company, Let’s Circus at a big festival event in Lincolnshire.
Next time was in Belfast when she had a starring role in The Met’s annual panto.
Since then, Sara has toured with many of the best troupes in the world in countries as far afield as Italy, France, Australia, Ireland and Brazil.
There is a hunger for quality circus acts and when you have earned a solid gold reputation, on the circuit word goes around. The work has never dried up.
We always thought Sara would be an outrageous success at Edinburgh Fringe. So far, she’s been far too busy to give it a try.
Recently, she has been happily passing on her considerable skills to students attending a world-class training camp in the Ukraine.
We have never been to that great country, although it has long been on our must-do list, and now we have even more reason to go.
An affable figure who is a fount of knowledge about the great art of The Netherlands and the history of his home town of Haarlem, we met him and spent some valuable time in his company when, as our guide, he took us on a conducted tour one crisp winter’s day.
We were impressed by the full depth of understanding he had about the work of the great Dutch masters as he showed us around the impressive collection of portraits held by the Frans Hals Museum
Later, while enjoying lunch together, and discussing the merits of good old-fashioned black pudding or boudin noir, he told us that he made his own from a recipe he found in an ancient Scottish recipe book he discovered in a junk shop in Edinburgh!
Walter gets his kicks from sharing his knowledge with others he feels have a truly genuine interest in what he has to impart. He is a great ambassador for his country and the principality that’s been described as “the most Flemish of them all.”
There’s that old saying you hear folks come away with when they want to pay the highest tribute they can to someone who is greatly admired. They’ll say they “thought the world of them.”
We opened the feature on Shetland Folk Festival with our own personal tribute to this great man. Of course, he was a hero, so we’ll tell a wee bit more…
Davie was first and foremost a champion for his own part of the world and his people.
I’ve seen him referred to as Shetland’s greatest ambassador. He sold his corner of the world at every opportunity, and did it well, as honesty and sincerity were his core values.
And, kindness, oh, what kindness.
Before we got to know him really well, Bren and I made plans to travel up to Shetland to explore the territory and get to know it better.
He immediately insisted we used his home as our base as it transpired he would be working offshore that week and would not be around to greet us.
“I’ll leave you the key, make sure the fridge is stocked and get some booze in for you,” he announced – “and you can use my car too, as I won’t be needing it.”
He explained he’d be flying out from Sumburgh Airport and would leave the vehicle parked there with the keys tucked tightly behind one of the front tyres for us to retrieve on arrival. What a treasure he was.
These are the true ambassadors of this world – no pinstripe suits, limousines, cocktail parties and all of that, just good old-fashioned hospitality a warm welcome and a smile. It’s never in short supply in Shetland.
We’re talking about heroes here.
Some of them are people with a vision who grit their teeth and single-mindedly get the task done once they have set their mind to it, no matter what challenges are thrown in their way or distractions might try to tease them from their special purpose.
Indomitable, dedicated, determined, focussed, virtuosic, sincere…Roll them all together and you’ll get close to understanding the character of Barnaby Brown.
Few people have impressed me as much as he has.
His story is utterly inspiring.
Firstly, he’s renowned throughout the piping world as an exceptionally fine musician and recognised as a leading authority on the pibroch. Then a mystery appeared on his horizon to spark off a major quest that led Glasgow-based Barnaby to embark on an amazing voyage of discovery…
He had learned there was an instrument played in his native Scotland long before the Highland bagpipe – an instrument long forgotten and unheard – and he became intent on bringing it back to life.
The clues had come from medieval stone carvings both here and in Ireland which showed the triplepipe, long since disappeared from the scene, but still, as he found out, at the very heart of the “folk” tradition in Sardinia.
He HAD to find out more, so the quest began in 2002, to seek out the instrument’s master makers and players, search for links between the triplepipe and the pibroch and endeavour to revive more widespread interest. He upped sticks completely, moved to the Mediterranean island, found a plot of land and built himself a house, much of the project with his own hands, and settled there.
Barnaby then immersed himself in the “Launeddas” tradition but found to his great dismay that although the instrument could still be heard, it was primarily being played by the older generation and, with an unhealthy lack interest from the young, in serious danger of dying out.
He met and befriended Gianluca Dessì the renowned Sardinian guitarist, ethnomusicologist, and a passionate promoter of Sardinian music. A mutual respect led to a musical partnership, the duo Band-Re was formed and a debut album, Strathosphere, subsequently released in 2006 as they explored common ground and crossovers.
In this fascinating process, Barnaby mastered the triplepipe and allowed his creative juices to begin to imagine what music might have been played in Scotland and Ireland on the triplepipe back in the mists of time.
The instrument is complex and hard to master. Circular breathing an essential process in its playing, it has one of the most exhilarating sounds of European civilisation, and the enthusiasm shown for Launeddas by this energetic Scot went on to spark a re-kindling of interest from the new generation in Sardinia.
Those who previously feared for its future are happy to give him the credit for re-igniting a passion for the music among the young.
That’s what happens when you are a do-er fired up by single-minded intent…
Those described as Scotland’s national treasures, both past and present, have been inspirational and influential beyond the call. Some are born to lead, move and motivate us and others learn by example and go on to encourage and influence.
Michael Marra was right at the very top of the list. Hugely talented and characterised by his own wicked sense of humour and loveably distorted view of life, he embraced the ridiculous, packaged it beautifully and entertained the home crowd with songs and stories that left you speechless and filled with admiration.
A one-of-a-kind (although a close “cousin” style-wise of Randy Newman), Michael did not take to the strict schooling methods of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and was “asked to leave” aged fourteen. He then showed them how blind and wrong they had been. Clever doesn’t even come close to describing him; some have called him a genius.
Forming his first band in 1971, he subsequently rose far above any of those early expectations to eventually become known as The Bard of Dundee and win Doctorates from both Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian Universities.
We very happily booked him to appear in our own village on several occasions and each time he was just as sensational as the last.
Brenda and I got to know him more closely. Despite all he had achieved, and the many successes he had on stage both as an entertainer and playwright, his extraordinarily humble outlook revealed him to be a very gentle and sensitive individual who always got nervous before the gig and paced back and forth puffing on a cigarette. In conversation, Bren once asked him if he had any thoughts on why it was that no one had ever written a song about a Brenda. Every other girl’s name, it seemed, had featured in some title or lyric.
At the time, she had her own little boutique and gallery called Minerve, and we were privileged to show some of Michael’s own work, which rarely got seen beyond Tayside. Days later, he responded with a verse he’d written just for her:
O Brenda Minerva
You Goddess of Craft
Who has never been idle
And seldom been daft
You’re bonny and clever
A woman of means
Who could blow all the
It was one of the very saddest days when Michael passed away in 2012. Heavy hearts remained leaden and sorrow-filled as we remembered the joy he had brought to our lives and how much he would be missed.