True story of man behind The Corries
Alan Campbell, The Herald
As half of The Corries Roy Williamson was adored, especially after he wrote Flower Of Scotland.
But beneath the fiery folk music lay a character shaped by emotional upheaval and family divisions.
Nursing a glass of whisky in a hotel bar after a Corries show, Roy Williamson was an easy man to like. Despite being one of the biggest names in Scottish music he exuded an air of restfulness, of contemplation, but there was much more to him, and to his past, than that. In the early 1970s I met Williamson on several occasions, often on The Corries’ twice-yearly tours of Scotland. Inevitably, after the instruments had been locked in the van we would repair to the nearest hotel for refreshments. Neither Williamson nor his bandmate Ronnie Browne were big drinkers, but they did enjoy a dram and some good-humoured political chat.
Whereas his colleague could be forthright, Williamson was the more thoughtful of the two. By that time he had written Flower Of Scotland, a song he initially didn’t much rate, but it was a long way from becoming the unofficial national anthem of the country he was so passionate about.
Flower Of Scotland had achieved that status – but only just – when Williamson died of a brain tumour on August 12, 1990, aged 54. As the 20th anniversary of his death approached, I wanted to learn more about Roy Williamson the person.
He was born on August 25, 1936, a year after his brother, Robert, who is now retired in Pitlochry. Their comfortable upbringing in Northumberland Street, Edinburgh, where there were servants and children were expected to be seen but not heard, was shattered by tragedy in 1944, but unlike so many other Scottish families it had nothing to do with the closing months of the Second World War.
Their father, Archibald, came from a well-off family of Aberdeen solicitors and had moved to the capital, where he soon established himself as a prominent advocate who was tipped to become a King’s Counsel. He married Agnes Cumming, the daughter of a master haberdasher from Haddington, but the union did not prove a happy one.
Agnes was a talented pianist and her son’s musical gifts probably came from her. According to Robert, who is now 75, his mother had been working for the BBC as a secretary when she met his father, but her free spirit had been evident earlier when she travelled steerage to Australia, where she worked as a governess, and then the US. While in Los Angeles she was befriended by the famous English actor Margaret Lockwood, who lived in Hollywood and got her some modest acting parts.
The blend of intellectual and creative genes served the boys well but made for a disastrous marriage. The 1944 obituaries for Archibald Williamson, carried in all the leading Scottish papers, praised the achievements of the 45-year-old advocate, but delicately avoided the cause of death, describing it as “sudden” and “unexpected”.
The circumstances were also held back from Archibald’s sons, and it was to be some 30 years before Robert, at least, learned the truth. Only in the 1970s, when his mother died, did he learn that his father’s cause of death was coal gas poisoning – at the time, the most common form of suicide in the UK.
Robert Williamson, who became the inspector of salmon fisheries for Scotland, surmises that his father must have been depressed and deeply unhappy in his marriage. The death, and perhaps knowledge of her implication in it, had a profound effect on Agnes, who suffered a nervous breakdown and was confined to a psychiatric hospital for several months.
During this period the brothers were cared for by neighbours and relatives in Aberdeen. Robert believes it was they who put up the money to send the boys to Aberlour, a preparatory school for Gordonstoun, the boarding school in Moray, where the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles were educated.
Although Williamson suffered from lifelong asthma, Gordonstoun’s emphasis on outdoor activities saw him develop into a decent athlete who, when a student, was a winger for the Edinburgh Wanderers rugby side. Throwing himself into the varied pursuits at Gordonstoun probably also helped him push aside memories of the dreadful events of 1944. But even when his mother was declared fit to return home, it was evident that family life hadn’t resumed as normal.
“On at least three occasions, possibly more,” recounts Robert, “our mother phoned up the school a day before we were due to break up for the holidays to say she couldn’t have us. Whether she couldn’t cope, or whether she wanted to push responsibility on to the school, I don’t know.
“The odd thing is that I have no recollection of thinking badly about it – presumably you just blank it out. The family in Aberdeen couldn’t take us, so the first time it happened we were sent back to our old prep school and the headmaster took us in for Christmas. On another occasion we were put into the care of a young German master, and off we went to the Bannavil Arms in Newtonmore to spend Christmas and New Year there.”
This emotional buffeting may have been compartmentalised by the more practical Robert, but it as good as ended any relationship the younger brother had with his mother. When, after a brief spell teaching seamanship at Burghead, Williamson became a student at Edinburgh College of Art, he moved into lodgings rather than stay at home. His mother reciprocated by refusing to attend his wedding in 1958, and when she died Williamson wasn’t among the mourners at her funeral.
The woman he married was Violet – or Vi – Thomson, a fellow art student. Vi, who now lives in Edinburgh with the couple’s youngest daughter, Sheena, recalls, “We met when we were both attending evening classes, building up a portfolio for the art college. I had left school at 15 and was working in a laundry. I remember walking into a room and there was Roy, dressed in a sports blazer, white shirt and flannels.”
Although she was immediately taken by his self-deprecating humour, it wasn’t love at first sight. “It was a while before we started going out,” Vi says, as initially Williamson was very taken with another girl. “He took a tremendous interest in one of the models and at other times he would play a not-very-good guitar in the classroom with a circle of girls round him. It was in the second year that we started getting involved.”
The couple were still students when they got married in Inverness. Williamson’s mother boycotted the wedding, believing her son had married below his station. The first night of the honeymoon was spent in the town’s Drumossie Hotel, before the newly-weds left to go to an art exhibition in London.
Williamson was already shaking off the conventions of Gordonstoun. Whereas his brother attended the University of Aberdeen before spending 10 years on colonial service as the chief fisheries officer in Nyasaland (now Malawi), Williamson and his wife’s lifestyle was becoming increasingly bohemian as the swinging sixties penetrated Edinburgh’s Presbyterian defences.
Nor did the arrival of two daughters, Karen and Sheena, prevent the Williamsons’ home in the city becoming a popular venue for parties attended by “a lot of people in kaftans”, Vi recalls, giggling. Marianne Faithfull, who was dating Mick Jagger at the time, even made a cameo appearance. There was a particularly strong Irish influence, and Williamson became great friends with The Dubliners, The Clancy Brothers and, later, Finbar Furey. It was from listening to their passion for Ireland that Williamson began to think more deeply about his own feelings for Scotland.
In this he found an accomplice in Ronnie Browne, another art student. The two had been in the same year, and in a further coincidence directly opposed each other on the rugby field, as Browne was also a winger for Edinburgh rivals Boroughmuir.
Williamson had been interested in music from an early age. Robert Williamson remembers how quickly his brother mastered a mouth organ he found in his stocking one Christmas at their Edinburgh home, before their father’s death. Whenever there was classical music on the radio Williamson would pretend he was the conductor, and, whatever her other failings, Agnes Williamson regularly took her two sons to concerts at the Usher Hall.
At art college Williamson had been keen on skiffle, and Lonnie Donegan was an early influence. After forming The Corrie Folk Trio with guitarist Bill Smith and later adding singer Paddie Bell, circumstances and arguments led to Williamson and Browne forging out on their own at the start of 1966.
The folk club scene in Scotland was flourishing and the two young art teachers – Williamson was at Liberton High School and Browne taught in Musselburgh – found it increasingly difficult to juggle day jobs with exhausting post-school trips to Aberdeen and other far-off venues. Something had to give, and it was usually the classroom. When The Corries started to appear on television, the game was up for their sick notes.
Besides ditching the day jobs, Williamson and Browne resolved to abandon the time-consuming trips to folk clubs and instead organise and run their own concert tours. With no middle men the cake was divided into three enticingly large slices: one for each musician and the third for expenses.
As a business model and an artistic venture it was outstandingly successful. Browne, assisted by his wife, Pat, an accountant, took care of the business side, while Williamson, the more gifted player, looked after the music. Browne, by his own admission, could barely strum a guitar before he joined The Corries, but he was willing to learn and his singing voice complemented his partner’s.
The duo’s concerts could give the impression of being couthy and off-the-cuff, but the reality was entirely different. Rehearsals were meticulous and nothing was left to chance. The pair were the ultimate professionals and their audiences loved them, buying records, tapes and CDs and other merchandise in huge quantities at the shows. Yet, just as Williamson’s relationship with his mother was fractious, so too it could be with Browne. If they weren’t on a par with Noel and Liam Gallagher, they had their moments.
Even now, Browne concedes he knows very little about Williamson’s life outwith The Corries, an astounding admission to make of his musical and business partner of 30 years. Especially since, on the surface, they had so much in common, with shared passions for painting, music, Scotland and rugby.
Yet in their personalities and priorities the pair were chalk and cheese or, as Williamson’s second wife Nicky prefers to put it, fire (Browne) and water (Williamson). Where the former favoured financial and emotional security – he and Pat have been married for more than 50 years – Williamson eschewed material possessions and had a much more nonchalant view about relationships.
The marriage to Vi ended towards the end of the sixties and Williamson, who was charismatic and attractive to women, had at least two serious dalliances in the following decade. His brother believes he might have married either woman, but was unwilling to have further children. Robert also says his sibling fretted about not being a good father to Karen and Sheena. He was certainly unable to see them as often as he would have wanted after Vi and the girls moved to London for a while, and Williamson’s touring schedule meant he was often away from home. Despite that, both girls doted on him, and Karen would go on to write a warmly appreciative account of her father’s life after his death.
To complicate matters, Williamson had a further love in the 1970s and for a while it was all-consuming. The Sheena Margaret, which he co-designed as an amalgam of traditional Scottish fishing boats, was launched at Arbroath after taking two years to build and many more in the plotting. Although, as it transpired, he spent relatively little time aboard it, the Sheena Margaret combined his creative flair with his love of the sea and boats, which blossomed in his childhood when he and Robert were fascinated by replica sailing boats, and used to sail them at Inverleith pond.
In 1980, Williamson was living with a partner again, a relationship which, just months before he died, led to marriage. The circumstances were extraordinary, and the new woman in his life did not meet with the approval of too many of Williamson’s friends, family or associates. Nicky van Hurck, from Holland, had learned about The Corries from her older sister, who was married to a Scot. Although she was only in her early twenties in 1980, and Williamson, a complete stranger, was twice her age, she now recalls, “I promised my family I was going to come to Scotland, meet Roy Williamson and marry him. Everybody fell off their chairs laughing.” Remarkably, by turning up at Corries concerts and speaking to Williamson, she was his partner within months of making that statement – even if the marriage was not to occur for another decade.
The couple moved from Edinburgh to Forres, buying Mayfield, a large old stone house with a garden. Whether due to Nicky’s influence or not Williamson became more reclusive, turning to painting (seascapes, naturally) more than music, although his favourite mandolin was never far away and he continued to tour with Browne once a year.
Then, during The Corries’ 1989 tour, Williamson’s health went into decline. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and operated upon in January 1990. The procedure gave him eight months – and he spent most of his last months in Forres, at home with Nicky, close to where he went to school. He died in August. His premature death at least spared him having to endure the death of his daughter Karen, who died of cancer in 2005, aged 46.
When I met Williamson all these years ago, I had no inkling of the turbulence beneath the surface, of the childhood happiness shattered by depression and his mother’s eccentricities. In the last few weeks, as I tried to unravel the mysteries of his life by visiting his family and friends, I learned more about his struggles and got to know him much better than I did through those encounters in the early 1970s.
Scotland might have lost Williamson too soon but the legacy of the man who wrote Flower Of Scotland will live on for ever.