Archie Fisher

Archie is a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and broadcaster. He has several solo albums and tours extensively. He ran the Travelling Folk radio program for BBC Scotland for over 25 years.


Singing in the family was very strong. I grew up in Glasgow. My father was actually a police inspector. He sang tenor in the police choir and broadcast on 2LO. He would go into the back of variety theatres in Glasgow at the end of a day's work and so picked up a lot of music hall ditties. At that time, you would get a lot of bothy ballad singers, which we now call traditional singers, as novelty acts. The very first time I saw the Mc Peake family it was at the Metropole theatre, and they were billed as a novelty act. So, we had a little repertoire of bothy ballads as well. My father had a repertory of bothy ballads, fragments of some of the bigger ballads and little bits of Italian opera.
My mother was a Gaelic speaker from Vatersay and so, she had lots of little songs and ditties which had been passed down inside the family, but of course she sang in Gaelic so we didn't understand it, but the melodies were very strong. I had six sisters and, as the family increased, the vocal volume of singing increased accordingly. My dad had an old Ford Prefect car and quite often we would sing music hall songs when we went out for a drive on a Sunday. Usually it was raining so we were singing in time to the windscreen wipers as a kind of metronome. So that was there in terms of singing. My dad had a concertina at one time that he got from a cousin of mine. He also played the ukulele, which is actually experiencing a bit of a come-back now. The girls had a cheeky street version of La Donna e Mobile.
La Donna e Mobile
My legs are wobbly
No bloomin' wonder
Look what they're under
We had a piano, but it was so badly out of tune that it was entirely neglected. School music was rather boring with songs like 'Cherry Ripe.' There was no inference at all that there was a Scottish tradition of music. Dad sang a few Burns songs so that was the nearest we got to any traditional song. We sang in school a bit, but it was mainly Dad's favourite drawing room songs, (leaning on the piano type songs) as well as light opera. I was in the Boys Brigade and we had to do pantomime and sing things like 'Down by the Riverside.'
Halloween was a great thing in Glasgow back in those days. Children were allowed to go out and wander the streets freely. They dressed up in all sorts of costumes and you had to do a turn. Sister Ray and I would go out together and sing a duet. We sang Mairi's Wedding and The Sky Boat song and things like that, the popular Scottish songs of the time. We didn't know all the words of everything, so we’d just sing a few verses and the chorus. It was about the first time that I had the courage to sing to other people.
At fifteen I went off to sea in the Merchant navy to see a bit of the world. When I was in Newark, New Jersey, I went ashore to a cafe near the quay where we were docked and there was a record they kept playing over and over again on the duke box. It was Lonnie Donegan singing the Leadbelly classic, The Rock Island Line. This was my introduction to Skiffle which had just started up in Britain. When I got back a lot of my mates had bought guitars and got swept up by Skiffle so I followed suit and picked up a guitar as well.
I used to go to all the musicals I could find in the cinema. I had a big repertoire at that time of songs from musicals. I recognized that the guy who was a singer got the girls, so it was a good thing to be a singer. I was more interested in being a guitar player than a singer. When I was working on my guitar-playing I learnt all the jazz chords for songs like Autumn Leaves and blues techniques were a great influence on my playing.
London guitarist Davey Graham came along, and he was a real game changer in terms of guitar playing. He was a brilliant, finger style, jazz and Celtic music guitarist and he was playing in open guitar tunings which we weren't doing then. We were playing conventional guitar tunings. That opened a completely new way to play and accompany.
I remember at the age of eighteen or nineteen seeing Pete Seeger for the first time in Glasgow. Blues performer Josh White made a big impression on me also. There was a group of maybe about five or six American singers and they were brought over from America by traditional jazz bands and they did a spot with the jazz bands in a major concert. This made a big impression on me... that a man could stand there alone. When I heard the group The Weavers, I decided to give up doing the real job and become a musician. I was at agricultural college at the time. I was going to be involved in farming because we used to go to Dirleton every Summer to a farm and camp. I loved the idea of farming but then music took over and that was it. I went back stage and met them and just got completely intrigued. They were very strong politically at the time and they didn't just sing lyrical entertaining music. There was a political awareness happening with my contemporaries at the time as well.
I lived in Fife for a long time. My second marriage brought me to the Borders. I married Lucy Cowan whose parents ran the International Cello Centre at Edrom House near Duns. At that time, I was playing all over the world, particularly in America and Canada. I was the record producer for Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy and backed them on guitar and bass. That was a three or four year period. Lucy came over and played some concerts in Ireland with us as well.
Following the split up of my marriage I lived in Denholm for a while. I started to do freelance broadcasting when BBC Radio Tweed opened up. I ended up producing albums in Edinburgh for the band Silly Wizard. Martin Hadden, who played bass in the band, lived at Brockhouse, just outside of Fountainhall. I dropped in to see him one day and he said he was going to be moving up to Perthshire. I was looking for somewhere new to live in the Borders, so I ended up taking on the cottage. At that time also, I was invited by the BBC to present their Travelling Folk program. I was doing freelance radio documentary at the time too and still doing a bit of live music and touring.
I played in Hawick and other places when I was in my twenties. These were early days for the folk revival. Everything seemed to centre around the urban areas particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh at that time. Fife was one of the first areas in Scotland that opened up in terms of venues for folk.
In terms of the Borders, it is very self-sufficient. It has its own dramas with things such as the Common Ridings and the Rugby Sevens. I didn't have the impression that there was a great body of traditional music going on in the Borders at the time when the Folk revival started. There was perhaps the remnants of border pipes and some fiddling happening. I had more interaction with other musicians when I lived in the city and when I was in Fife. There was no real cohesive revival of folk in the Borders although there were little pockets of folk going on in different places.
A decade or two later I found that the guitarist/songwriter John Renbourn was living in Fountainhall. However, he was seldom seen as he toured so much. Towards the end of the eighties Tommy Bonnar moved into Stow and started a Folk club. This met fortnightly for several years, making use of several venues in Stow including the Royal Hotel, The Manor Head, the Stow Town Hall and it finally moved to the Lauderdale in Lauder.
Burns is said to have visited Stow at one time. 'Braw Lads of Gala Water' was written at Galabank. The Wilkinson House at Galabank is said to have had the verse etched into the window. The local joiner, Scot Miller, apparently replaced the old window at some stage. It is not known what happened to it ultimately. I heard that Burns also etched a verse into a window at Selkirk.
12 and sixpence for a dinner!
As sure as ever living sinner
If ever I come down this road
I'll mind the overcharge, by God!
Other musicians in Heriot are Sally and Peter Caunt, cello and flute.
Andy Law, flute and guitar, and Pat have a studio that can be hired out either as an art studio or music performance and recording studio. Karine Polwart, among others, has recorded there.
There are various young musicians in Heriot and surrounding area who get together from time to time to perform in the MacFie hall or for weddings or other occasions. Felix and Helen Otton lead this group.
Cymric Welsh was spoken in this area early on all the way up the valley with place names like Plenploth, Torsonce and Torquan. The latter two possibly meaning the sixth hill and the forth hill. I have a book which says that the valley was known as Valles Dolores – the valley of sorrow, which eventually translated into Woe Dale and became Wedale. Mythology claims that King Arthur fought his last battle against the Picts between Fountainhall and Heriot. There are wonderful earthworks along there.
I wrote a Border love song in 2005 - My Bonnie Border Lass which is on the Windward Away CD. I couldn’t find any love songs in the Borders, so I had to write one. I was asked by a BBC producer, who I had worked with as a radio presenter, to set two pieces of poetry to music for a documentary on his life. One was by Roger Quin, the Border tramp poet, called 'Borderland.' I wrote the melody and edited the poem down slightly as it was quite long winded. The other was Lady Jean Scott's song, Ettrick, commemorating the battle of Flodden. I recorded this in Selkirk and both tunes were played on radio as part of this documentary. I’ve written another song about a character that used to frequent a pub in Denholm, but it’s a bit of a caricature and I don't perform it in public because it’s almost slanderous.
There are some wonderful new songwriters in the folk scene genre particularly some of the American singer/songwriters. I like lyrical songs. I’m very much a melody man but also I like strong poetry and strong imagery in songs and that tends to be found in contemporary folk songs rather than in the music of the pop world.
As well as performing all over the world I have played locally in the Borders.
I played at the Stowed Out festival in 2016 and played at the Stow folk club in the 1990s which was run by Tom Bonnar. I’ve played at the McFie Hall in Heriot on several occasions and had a record launch at Pat and Andy Law's studio in Heriot.
I’ve contacted ' Live Borders ' to propose running a songwriting clinic in the Borders. I’ve led many of these in Canada in advance of festivals. In Fife there was a realization that many stories and historical events had never been documented in song. They decided to get lots of songwriters together to put local stories to music.
The Borders is very rich in stories and tales, which could be made into song. Will Ogilvie is another poet whose poems you could easily sing. There are many unsung heroes in the Borders. Those good at writing words can work with others, good at writing melodies. Working in pairs can be quite creative.
Asked about friends he has worked with in the past, Archie said......
We all owe a great debt to the Clancy Brothers in the early days for popularizing traditional music. Working with Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy was a real education. They were both actors as well so there was a thespian element to what they did as well as the musical side of it and their stage presentation was so casual. I never heard them once say...'This next song.......' They talked about something and created a context and the song came out of it and you couldn't see the join. It just flowed out of them. It was real artistry. Liam was a great singer. There are some beautiful Irish songs.
I think I've been influenced by everybody I've ever liked. Quite often young musicians start off cloning themselves to someone and then find their own style afterwards. But I had such a variety of people I was influenced by. I didn't have one particular style. Now I hear young musicians start off with, 'This is a song I learnt from an LP. It's an archive song …... ' so LPs are now archives. Most of the songs we learnt in those days we would learn by ear. There was very little recorded stuff. We were learning by the oral tradition. Everyone is a hero – from whom came every song that I've stolen or borrowed.”
Asked about his broadcasting history ….......
I was freelance broadcasting for well over 30 years. I presented Travelling Folk for 27 years, from its early stages, where it was mainly a DJ program where you just played recorded sources that were available. I co-presented for a few months with Robin Hall. Then he went off to work for the world service in London. I took the show over and it changed to more of a magazine program with information about live performances and live interviews and live studio sessions. Then it tapered down as things tend to do, but it's still running as a program on air which, compared to some of the programs which have been ditched, is a good sign.
The most interesting person I interviewed was Joan Baez.
She swept into the studio and said, 'Don't start at the Newport folk festival in the sixties or we'll be here all day! I'm a working girl.'
I interviewed Pete Seeger, along the line, in New York. One of the first people I interviewed was a guy call Mose Scarlet. He had the lowest graveliest roar I'd ever heard in my whole life. I said, 'You've got a kind of lived-in voice,' and he said,
' Lived in?..... I've been evicted!!'
Over the years I think the man I really enjoyed interviewing most was the Peebles singer/songwriter Eric Bogle. He was always very entertaining, and he was always coming up with new and brilliant songwriting as well, so I always looked forward to that.”
Asked about links with gypsy travellers......
There were the Stewarts of Blairgowie. Jeannie Robertson wasn't so much a travelling singer. She was more of a static singer but of the oral tradition. Old Davie Stewart was also a busker. He was a wonderful character. In the early days we were picking up songs from them orally because they weren't written down. We used to get the old reel to reel tape going to record them. I didn't have a lot to do with them, but Ray, my sister used to go and stay with them.
We transferred songs throughout the family. We had quite a big catchment area, learning from different people and passing the songs on to each other. I had 6 sisters. My elder sister in the 50s had gone to work down in Rothesay. She wasn't involved in the musical thing. I was 2nd eldest. Ray was the next one nearest in age. Ray and I were a duo. Then Joyce and Cindy were the next two. Then Audrey and Cilla were the youngest, so they stepped down in ages with the various duets. I, as I was travelling, collected lots of albums, LPs and I used to drop them off at my Mum's house in Glasgow and the sisters would learn all the songs from them. The sisters were natural harmony singers. Joyce played guitar. Cindy played 5 string banjo and Cilla played guitar as well.
I used to drop off instruments too that I'd picked up along the way. They had boyfriends from the musical side as well. Most of them were guitarists. They started off being my friends. Then they would come to the house and I'd say, 'Where's your guitar tonight?' and they'd say they had come to take out one of my sisters. They'd gradually pick off all the girls. I thought they'd come for the music, but they went off with my sisters. Three of my sisters married musicians in Glasgow. The others married musicians down in the Newcastle area. Ray had moved down and that meant a section of the family followed her for some reason. My mum was widowed by then. So, I've got a foot in the door of Geordie music as well.