Scotsman Obituaries: Robin Morton, folk musician, producer, promoter and manager
For someone born and bred in Northern Ireland, Robin Morton’s impact on Scotland’s traditional music scene has been far-reaching. As a founder member of the Boys of the Lough and manager, for more than 40 years, of another pioneering outfit, the Battlefield Band, as well as proprietor of Temple Records, he was a tireless enabler within the developing vibrancy of the Scottish folk music revival and the wider “Celtic music” world.
With the Boys of the Lough, then with Battlefield, he helped establish the worldwide touring patterns followed by many other Scottish folk artists, while his label issued numerous significant albums. In roles such as his three-year directorship of the former Edinburgh Folk Festival and as chairman of the Scottish Record Industry Association, as well as wider lobbying, his pugnaciously argumentative energy made him a thorn in the flesh of arts funding agencies and a champion of the artists he promoted.
Yet the folk music activist might have been lost to a career in psychiatric social work. Growing up in Portadown, Co Armagh, on leaving school Morton worked with mentally handicapped children, later studying social work at Queen’s University Belfast, then taking a further qualification in psychiatric social work at the London School of Economics.
Meanwhile, an early interest in jazz was overtaken by an increasingly passionate enthusiasm for traditional music. He became an initially tentative singer, then an avid collector of folk songs and co-founder of the Ulster Folk Music Society, combining his studies with a developing career in broadcasting. He also published his collection Folksongs Sung in Ulster, as well as Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday, on Fermanagh singer John Maguire.
It was while collecting in the late Sixties that Morton, who played concertina and bodhran, met two important Fermanagh tradition-bearers, fiddler Tommy Gunn and flautist and singer Cathal McConnell. Eventually calling themselves the Boys of the Lough, the trio toured the UK. The older Gunn left and Morton, who had moved to Edinburgh to pursue a PhD which fell by the wayside, toured with McConnell before they recruited the formidable young Shetland fiddler Aly Bain and guitarist and singer Mike Whellans. The group won international acclaim, establishing a gruelling touring schedule.
Morton left the Boys in 1979, having established his Temple Music label in the beautiful old church, in the Midlothian village of Temple. He and his wife, harpist and glass artist Alison Kinnaird, acquired it in 1976 and converted it into their home and studios. He and Kinnaird had met through music in Shetland in 1972 and wed two years later, going on to have two children, Ellen and John.
Having produced albums for the Topic label – including Dick Gaughan’s still revered Handful of Earth – he set up Temple Records in 1978. He also took on management of another influential group, the Battlefield Band, whose first generally available album he produced for Topic before issuing on Temple some 30 Battlefield albums over four decades, the band’s line-up changing over time but consistently featuring a powerful fiddle and bagpipe front line with the initially groundbreaking use of keyboards.
Like the Boys before them, Battlefield established the kind of global “Celtic music” touring circuit followed by later artists, performing in places as far flung as Anchorage, Beijing and Uzbekistan. The band’s longest-serving member, keyboard player and singer-songwriter Alan Reid, recalls: “Robin was a constant driver of the band, urging us ever forward. Whether pitching us into longer tours, or pestering us to start on a new album, he was constantly thinking of ways to raise the band's profile.
“We also had Brian McNeill, followed by myself, crafting original songs, mostly in traditional style. Robin was always at the helm, harnessing all this creative energy. In my later band years I wrote songs that I couldn't have envisaged, had he not encouraged or suggested the ideas to me. For that alone I am very grateful.”
Temple didn’t just release Battlefield material, however. Notable recordings included its very first – Alison Kinnaird’s The Harp Key, a 1979 landmark in the early days of Scotland’s vigorous clarsach revival. Other significant early albums included one by Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, paving the way for several important Gaelic recordings by the label, as well as 1983’s A Controversy of Pipers, featuring a new generation of players. The converted church became a hotbed of creativity, its sound studio regularly occupied by Battlefield or other artists, while in her glass-engraving workshop, Alison produced beautiful artworks and architectural commissions which, along with her music, would ultimately earn her an MBE.
Morton, who was inducted into the Scots Trad Hall of Fame for services to traditional music, told one interviewer: “I always say that Temple Records doesn’t release albums, they just sort of escape.”
One artist who made his first recording there, at 18, is Gaelic singer and former Mòd gold-medallist Arthur Cormack, a co-founder of Skye’s Macmeanmna label and chief executive of Fèisean nan Gàidheal. “I will always be hugely grateful for the opportunities Robin gave me,” he says, “and for what I learned from him about the music business. He did great work in the background, cajoling and lobbying politicians and he was certainly a forthright thorn in the side of a few Scottish Arts Council music officers. What he did, though, was what he believed was in the best interests of artists and traditional music. I will remember him with a smile; he was a funny man and great company.”
Morton died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary following a heart attack. He is survived by Alison, Ellen, John and three grandchildren.
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