by Isla St Clair
My mother Zetta Sinclair
I have had the great joy of researching, collating and recording my Mother’s work resulting in a CD of her songs ‘Kist of Memories’ and a substantial collection of her poems which are reflections and thoughts of her life. This has been an odyssey of discovery for me too.
To help you enjoy the project use the TABS below to access more information. ZETTA is a short introduction to my mother’s life. The REVIEW by Professor Alison Lumsden will give you an overview of the importance of Zetta’s work. CD NOTES will take you to the Song Footnotes and the Glossary.
For Zetta’s Poetry Book Click Here
INTRODUCTION TO ZETTA SINCLAIR
by Isla St Clair
The collection of songs on the Kist of Memories CD were composed by my mother, Zetta (Georzetta) Sinclair, who was born in the North East Scottish harbour town of Buckie, in 1920. Her parents, George and Isabella Sinclair, were part of a close and deeply religious community of fisherfolk, whose ancestors had lived around the Moray Firth for many generations, fishing the often treacherous North Sea.
The family owned their own home in Gordon Street, Buckie, where Zetta was to spend her childhood. Unfortunately, she was a sickly child who suffered the first of two bouts of pneumonia at the age of three and was not expected to survive. The toddler rallied, but thereafter was cosseted at home at the slightest sign of any chest infection. These times at home ensured a strong bond between mother and daughter. The little girl was included in the daily chores which were always accompanied by much singing. In fact, all the family were good singers and Zetta’s brothers also played in the local pipes and drums.
Zetta’s desire to create poems and songs was overwhelming. It was a way for her to express thoughts, opinions and emotions in what could be a repressive society.
In 1939 Zetta married Bob Dyce and their first child, George Sinclair, was born the following year. In 1943, tragedy befell the family when a second child, Wilma, died at only a few months old. Joy returned two years later when another daughter, Christine Mary, was born and finally, in 1952, I arrived and was named Isabella Margaret but always known as Isla.
The second world war brought immense grief into Zetta’s life with the loss of both brothers serving in the army, as well as the death of both parents and her baby, Wilma. In addition to these family bereavements, Zetta suffered from serious bouts of ill health throughout her life, including diphtheria in her early twenties. She found solace and peace in nature, drawing inspiration from the fisherfolk community and the outstanding beauty around her home in the Moray Firth as well as her growing personal experiences of life.
Zetta, like many of her generation, enjoyed the Brownies. She was the initiator of the first Brownie pack in Findochty and, as Brown Owl, she encouraged the girls to sing and play as well as knit and sew. I was allowed to attend along with my sister, in an honorary capacity, as I was only a toddler. In fact, I made my first solo public appearance singing nursery rhymes as part of my mother’s Brownie concert on the stage of the ‘wee hallie’ in Findochty before I was three years old.
Living conditions were very basic with no electricity and so we made use of Aladdin lamps and a coal fire. Hot water was always in short supply and the weekly washing was done by hand in a small outhouse. Cooking was done on a solid fuel Rayburn. On one occasion, a chip pan caught alight and Zetta, in a panic, tried to douse the flames but was severely burned on her hands and face requiring considerable treatment. Soon after this trauma, my mother became ill with rheumatic fever which weakened her heart muscle leaving her with lifelong heart problems.
My mother was a wonderful storyteller and her love of music and singing was something we all shared. Apart from making our own entertainment we all enjoyed listening to the radio. I believe that the Scottish and Irish dance band music, popular at that time, must have influenced some of her melodic compositions.
Zetta’s life in England produced more songs and poems, some of exile and others of love. While living in Findochty and before moving to England, Zetta had begun a romance with George (Geordie) MacDonald, a handsome Gaelic speaking man from Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides. He came to see us in Bradfield Green and she visited his family in Lewis. The couple married in April 1960 and we all returned northwards to live in the ‘Silver City by the Grey North Sea’, Aberdeen.
Articles were written about Zetta in The Scots Magazine and other publications. The confidence that my mother gained from the recognition of her work brought many other rewards, including correspondence with the Scottish poet and writer, George Mackay Brown. By now, she was immersed in the world of traditional folk music regularly taking part in folk festivals and gatherings around Scotland and spending time in Edinburgh with her good friend, legendary poet, songwriter and intellectual, Hamish Henderson, who rightly described Zetta as, “an important tradition-bearer, as well as a talented singer and songwriter”.
Unfortunately, Zetta’s marriage to Geordie failed. Now in her late forties she met and married Albert Doran, from Buckie, and returned once more to live in her birthplace. Albert, an active liberal supporter, councillor and local headmaster was happy to embrace the world of folk music, enjoying travelling to various festivals with my mother. Once retired, the pair spent some time living in the beautiful Glen of Isla, which produced her delightful song, Glen Isla.
Copyright Isla St Clair, 2021.
THE SONGS OF ZETTA SINCLAIR
by Professor Alison Lumsden, Regius Professor of English Literature
The folk revival inScotland played a significant part in the renewal of a sense of Scottish identity in the twentieth century. The most significant figures in this revival are well known and their place in the cultural landscape of Scotland rightly established. However, what is less well remembered is the fact that these figures had standing at their backs a whole host of people working in local contexts, people who were working within their own traditions and dialects. It is to this often-forgotten group that Zetta Sinclair belongs.
Scottish song can trace its origins to the oral ballad tradition and has several recurring themes: history, and the lament and celebration that accompanies key historical moments; a celebration of the local; place and landscape and, in more recent times, working life. All these themes can be found in Zetta Sinclair’s work, but this work is never merely derivative or stuck within the patterns laid down by its predecessors. Rather, Sinclair takes these themes and deftly adapts them to her own circumstances and her own times. Consequently, while traditional Scottish historical moments such as the Glencoe massacre are commemorated, more recent and pressing circumstances such as Dunkirk are also urgently present in her work. The places of which she writes are those often celebrated in song, such as the west coast islands, but so too her more local landscape of Cullen, Aberdeen and Glen Isla find a place in her work and are deftly captured in the Scots of the north-east. As a result, the hardships of the fishing industry form a theme, one often forgotten in more ‘official’ folk song. The hard work and worry faced by women in this environment are poignantly captured, and motherhood and marriage are also foregrounded in a body of work that is clearly female in its approach.
Zetta Sinclair’s work deserves to be remembered both for itself, and for what it represents. It is a reminder to us that there is a long-standing and energetic tradition of song writing in Scotland and that this is most lively at the local level and among those who are in danger of being written out of the story of Scots song. It also reminds us that much of this local tradition resides with and has been preserved by women and that the unique perspective of women may be found within it.
KIST OF MEMORIES
CD Notes by Isla St Clair
As an adolescent my mother, Zetta, had romantic hankerings to live in Edinburgh. The first time she lived in the city, as a young woman with two small children, was however, far from pleasant, owing to poor accommodation and a hard landlady. In later life, thanks to her many friends associated with the Folk Song Revival, especially Hamish Henderson, it indeed became a city of the happy times celebrated in this song.
A Toast to Stornoway
While married to George MacDonald from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, visits to his people were clearly happy times to be remembered in song.
The Sang o’ the Fisherman’s Wife
This scene would have been witnessed many times by Zetta in her childhood. My grandmother’s anxious vigil as she waits for her husband’s return from the fishing and the homely welcome to greet him. The final verse pertinently questions the future of the fishing industry. After two world wars and the depression of the 1930s, many of the old ways and attitudes were changing. People travelled further afield and did not automatically follow in the family’s work tradition. The last verse acknowledges these shifts in society and aspirations. My grandfather was the last of his line to earn a living as a fisherman.
|The Burdened Bird
This moving portrait of a fisherman’s wife is of course based on my grandmother, Isabella Innes Sinclair. She was a hardworking woman who lived through very difficult times. My mother always spoke of her with great respect and love. Sadly, Isabella was only 62 years old when she died in 1943, followed within a year by my grandfather, George. It is through my mother’s stories and songs that I have been able to know something of my grandparent’s life.
Not far from my mother’s home town of Buckie is the charming fishing harbour of Cullen. On rare days out, as a treat, young Zetta was taken there by her mother. In due course Zetta took her own young children to enjoy relaxing on the golden sands when the weather was fine. I too have followed the family tradition by taking my children to Cullen, where on one occasion they were so enthusiastic that they happily rushed, fully clothed, into a very chilly North Sea at Easter!
My mother describes the scene as the emergency siren alerts the fisherfolk to the launch of the lifeboat and of impending disaster. Families would gather at the ‘heid o’ the brae’ (top of the hill) to wait for news of their fathers, brothers, sons and husbands who were often on the same boat. The deep faith of the community was a great comfort to be able to bear these times.
Situated on the western end of the great pass of Glencoe, Ballachulish is a place of dramatic and beautiful scenery enjoyed by Zetta during a romantic holiday and the inspiration for this song.
The brooding Pass of Glencoe was the scene of a horrific winter massacre in 1692 of the unsuspecting MacDonalds of Glencoe. Men, women and children were slaughtered in the early morning by Government troops who had been quartered upon them. It was a deliberate act of genocide whose infamy echoes down through Scottish history and moved Zetta to compose this song.
The Deserted Wife
A wife abandoned by her spouse in the mid twentieth century, would have had to suffer not only financial deprivation but humiliation, prejudice and malicious gossip. State assistance, meagre as it was, had only just become a reality, so her only hope would be charity or help from close family and friends.
|Lullin the Littlin
While living in the charming coastal village of Findochty, my mother would take my sister and I to paddle in the harbour, weather permitting, to collect buckies (periwinkles) in nearby rock pools.These happy times inspired this lullaby which makes fine use of the diminutive, ie boaties, wavies, gamies and sleepies. The diminutive is commonly used in the Doric language.
The Call Tae Arms
Buckie and Scotland’s North East were fertile recruiting territory for The Gordon Highlanders during the twentieth century. The Regimental drums and pipes, dressed in their glittering gear, would be sure to attract young adventurous men and gain local support. Zetta will have witnessed this spectacle many times but none so poignantly as at the start of the second world war in 1939.
|Lament for the Commandos and Dunkirk
Both of my mother’s brothers were killed during the Second World War. Her elder brother, John, a well-loved member of the community with a young family, was accidentally killed by a live bullet while training with his men. Sandy, who had enlisted in 1936, was one of the thousands of soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk.
That extraordinary retreat brought Sandy safely back to British shores. Soon after he volunteered for the Army Commandos and was posted to 3 Commando, the first in action. He survived raids on the Lofoten Islands, Dieppe and Sicily only to be killed on Sword Beach on D Day, 1944.
The Blind Maid o’ Moray and Spinning Wheel
Zetta’s ambition was to develop a folk operetta and did write a story outline and some songs but it was never completed. These two songs were intended for that project, which was influenced by the work of author Maurice Walsh. The idea for the Blind Maid o’ Moray was due to my mother’s increased awareness of those suffering sight-loss, during her time working for a blind charity.
During our four year stay in the small Cheshire hamlet of Bradfield Green in the 1950s, the local hunt would meet on the village Green, something Zetta had never seen before. Her love of animals and eternal championing of the underdog (in this case the fox!) gave her inspiration to write this protest song.
Situated in the Angus Glens the beautiful Glen Isla winds its way up into the Grampian Mountains. It was home for some time to Zetta and her third husband, Albert Doran. It is rightly celebrated in this song.
|Lullaby For Kerowin
I became an aunt at the age of twelve to my sister’s daughter, Kerowin. At that time we all shared a small flat on the outskirts of Aberdeen. I was happy to share my room with the new baby of whom I was very fond and viewed more as a sister.
Clearly, her grandmother Zetta was also very taken with the bonnie bairnie and wrote this charming lullaby for Kerowin.
|A Highland Lullaby
This song is an excellent example of my mother’s natural ability to create delightful melodies and words. She was a charming storyteller captivating her audience with emotion and humour combined with a sweet and pure singing voice.
|The Bonnie Boats o’ Buckie
Perhaps this is Zetta’s signature song. The profound love of her home area with that of her fisherfolk community are enshrined in this moving song set against the extraordinary natural beauty of the Moray Firth.
The Sang o’ the Fisherman’s Wife
lang syne: long ago
corrie: circular hollow on a mountainside
The Deserted Wife
is’t a’: is it all
twa blin’ een: two blind eyes
Lullin the Littlin
The Call Tae Arms
Lament for the Commandos
sic a sicht: what a sight
The Blind Maid o’ Moray
Laich: low lying land
heich and laich: high and low
ca’ed fu weel: searched thoroughly
Lullaby for Kerowin
winna lat: won’t let
kelpies: mythical water horses
scoorie moosie: scurrying mouse
My grateful thanks go to those who have helped bring the songs and poems of my mother, Zetta Sinclair, to your attention.
Patrick King, Ian Stuart Lynn, Bill Reed,
Ian Green, Phil Cunningham, Ian Olson,
Marion Welch, Professor Alison Lumsden,
Urda Cotter, Chris Henderson, Patricia MacDonald
and my sons, Elliott and Calum.
Digital Cover photograph
CD Cover Design
Isla St Clair: Vocals
Ian Lynn: Keyboards, violin
Phil Cunningham: Keyboards, accordion, whistle, Snare drum
Tony McManus: Guitar
Bob Thomas: Guitar
Danny Prendergast: Guitar
Ian Hardie: Fiddle and double bass
Recorded in the United Kingdom
Copyright 2021 Isla St Clair