Why the Road to Drumleman?

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The late Willie Mitchell who wrote the song, The Road to Drumleman. Photo courtesy of Agnes Stewart ©

Why did I name my film about the Argyll Colliery at Machrihanish and the current community exhibition project,”The Road to Drumleman“? Well I think from even before I had formalised the structure of the film, Willie Mitchell’s song, The Road to Drumleman, just seemed to be the most fitting title for the documentary. Drumlemble or Drumleman (from the gaelic Druim Lèamal – various spellings), the village 4 miles west of Campbeltown on the road to Machrihanish, was once the home to many mining families who worked at the various mines around Tirfergus, Coalhill,  KIlkivan and Machrihanish.

This song, an integral part of the identity of both the local community and the Kintyre diaspora, is sung worldwide. It’s a deeply nostalgic song which takes us not only on a geographical journey but also one that marks the passage of the seasons and of time.

I was delighted to be able to record Willie’s song being sung by his daughter, Agnes, for the soundtrack for “The Road to Drumleman”. It was an emotional occasion as for many of us The Road to Drumleman evokes absent friends and family. In the film, I used the verses from the song to punctuate and frame the narrative.

As we start The Road to Drumleman Community Exhibition project I think it’s only fitting that we have an opportunity to read a little bit more about the song. The following article was written by Agnes Stewart (nee Mitchell) and was first published in the Kintyre Antiquarian and Natural History Society magazine.

Jan Nimmo

Road To Drumlemman: The Story of a Song

Road to Drumlemman was written in April 1948 in a country still recovering from WW2. Some food-stuffs, for example meat, sugar and sweets were still rationed. However, the war was over and things in general were improving, albeit slowly. It surely must have seemed to those who had lived through the previous ten years, that it was a springtime of hope and thus I think that the climate of that particular time had something to do with the writing of the song, though the main inspiration was certainly the writer’s great love for the Laggan of Kintyre, the village of Drumlemble and the people who lived there.

For as long as I can remember, my father, Willie Mitchell had a very deep love-relationship with these people, and with the place that they made of Drumlemble. He joined in most of their activities, the choir, the youth club, the entertainments in the village and the surroundings. He wrote rhymes about them and their doings. He was well aware of their hopes and fears. Although in later years, I often heard him remark that the song had been written in a few minutes, I am sure that the germ of it had been growing for some time, and growing out of that close relationship with people and place, and also to a lesser extent, out of the post-war hope of better days to come.

Road to Drumlemman was, and is a very personal song, reflecting one man’s love for a very small place in a peninsula at the extreme western edge of the country, and of the continent, yet within a few years, the song had travelled, and found admirers world-wide. Willie never boasted about having written it, but if anyone came looking for the words, he provided them. Most people were familiar with the tune he used, a version of the tune used for the widely known song, “The Green Bushes.”

I believe that the first commercial recording of Road to Drumlemman was made by the group Ossian, who recorded it to a tune written by Tony Cuffe. This tune was also used by Anne Lorne Gillies, who, after hearing a recording of the song, recorded it for one of her own albums. It was only later that she learned, from a Kintyre friend that the song was written and belonged to this part of the world. Anne visited Willie in the last year of his life, and heard him sing his own version of it. In fact, the two had a fine old ceilidh that afternoon, singing and talking about many songs. Willie died in January, 1986.

Later, when the world moved into more immediate electronic communication, my nephew Fergus Kerr saw the song mentioned as the title of a disc by the American group Full Moon Ensemble. Some time in the late 1990s, he made contact with the group, explaining that he was the grandson of Willie Mitchell. He later received from them several complimentary copies of the disc, on which they perform the song using a tune written by one of their members, Scooter Muse. I still have a copy of that disc.

Full Moon Ensemble came to the Mull of Kintyre Music Festival in August 2002, and met with members of our family then living in Kintyre and they were thrilled to meet the two surviving daughters of the man who had written the words, and to hear Willie’s own version of the song sung by my late sister, Cathy.

In 2010, Jan Nimmo used the song with the original tune as background music for her excellent film about the life and the demise of Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish, telling the stories of some of the men who had worked there.

Between 2002 and the time this article was being written in late 2014, the song was recorded many times, usually to Tony Cuffe’s tune. Then in May 2014, I had a visit from Kirsten Easdale and Gregor Lowrie, who had been entertaining in local hospitals and care homes. When Kirsten sang Road to Drumlemman in Kintyre Care Home, a member of the staff told her that Willie Mitchell’s grand-daughter worked there. My niece, Maureen Mathieson brought the two performers round to see me, and they were thrilled to meet the only surviving daughter of Willie Mitchell, and interested to learn something about the man himself and the tune that he used for his song.

Then probably the most amazing story of all started in August, 2014 when the editor had an email from a Kintyre friend now living in Canada. That man, Alistair Thompson heard Road to Drumlemman sung by a lady named Teresa Tratnyek at a Celtic music festival in the town of Goderich, on the shores of Lake Huron, Canada. Alistair was amazed and not a little moved to hear on the far side of the Atlantic a song about his home place, and he had a slightly emotional meeting with the singer at the end of the concert. Angus forwarded Alistair’s email to me, and I was able to correct the story he had heard of the writing of the song. That singer, Teresa Tratnyek had heard the song on a disc by a group whose name she had forgotten, but she thought that it began with the letter “C,” and that the singer was somebody Easdale. It seems likely that the group heard by Teresa was in fact “Calasaig,” with whom Kirsten Easdale sang.

I eventually made contact with Teresa via email, and she was thrilled to hear more about ‘her favourite song’ from the only surviving daughter of the man who had written the words. I directed her and Alistair to the web site, “Kist o’ Riches,” and they both were able to hear the song sung by Willie himself, when it was recorded in the 1950s for the archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Incidentally, during the 1960s Alistair Thompson worked as a message boy in our family business, and he said that Willie was ‘the best boss he ever had.’

In the months following that particular encounter, I thought a lot about Road to Drumlemman, and wondered just what my father would have made of this world-wide interest in the song that he wrote down in ‘a few minutes.’ I now believe that the attraction of it is that each and every person has his or her own “Road to Drumlemman,” some place that touches a chord deep in the heart, so that the song means something to many different people even if they never see the real Drumlemble. They will certainly never now know the man who wrote it, nor the people who made Drumlemble the place that it was; but I think that my father would appreciate the fact that something of these people and the place lives on through his song, although – like me – he always prefered it to the tune for which he wrote his words.

By Agnes Stewart ©

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Agnes Stewart (nee Mitchell). Photo: Jan Nimmo ©

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2 thoughts on “Why the Road to Drumleman?

  1. Pingback: Trodigal Cottage: A song by Willie Mitchell | The Road to Drumleman

  2. Pingback: Argyll Colliery Miners’ portraits by Jan Nimmo | The Road to Drumleman

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