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Singer Claire Hastings remembers lighthouse tragedy as acclaimed Stonehaven Folk Club celebrates where the sea meets the land

Singer Claire Hastings
Singer Claire Hastings

He was a lighthouse keeper who lived and died more than a century ago, but the loss of George Simpson has rippled through the decades.

His shocking death after being swept into the sea half a mile from his lighthouse, has inspired folk singer Claire Hastings to write a song in his memory.

The Tod Head lighthouse man was washed into the North Sea on December 29, 1917, at Powdam Head, between Stonehaven and Montrose on the A92. It is unclear how Simpson – also known as Walter – lost his life but it is thought he was either fishing or helping a farmer land supplies. His body was never recovered.

“I was fascinated by him and his unique way of life when I learned about it,” said Hastings. “It was such a sad story and one I was sure I could write a song about.”

Tod Head lighthouse, south of Stonehaven (Pic: David Wood)

The opportunity for the musician, 31, to write the song Keeper Of The Light came when Stonehaven Folk Club, founded in 1987, started a project to produce an album celebrating the culture, heritage and songs of the north east and commissioned acts to write and perform for the album Sense Of The Place.

The 10-track album brought together award-winning folk musicians providing original compositions with a grounding in the coastal communities’ strip from Findon to St Cyrus. Their songs explore what it is like to live on the fringes, where land meets sea in this corner of the Mearns, while reflecting on the area, the people and their stories.

The club – winner of MG Alba Traditional Music Award Club of the Year Award in 2009 and 2016 – set up the Folk In Crisis Fund in conjunction with Hands Up For Trad, a group aiming to raise the profile of traditional music, last year to provide financial relief for performing artists seriously affected by the lockdown.

So far, almost £22,000 has been raised and the idea of making a CD emerged from this fundraising effort and a Coastal Communities Grant from Aberdeenshire Council.

When the club presented the artists with a list of stories steeped in the history of the Mearns, Hastings had no hesitation in choosing to remember the tragic lighthouse man. “I read the information notes supplied by local historians and writers and immediately I thought my song should be about him,” said Hastings, who was BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2015. “So, I started writing a few lyrics. The lyrics were going well but I was still wondering what the melody should be.

“But then on my friend Jen Austin’s Instagram account, I listened to a beautiful piano melody she had posted, which reminded me so much of the sea. I got in touch with Jen and we moved together on the track.”

Claire Hastings

The next stage was for the song to be recorded but there was a slight delay with music having to take a back seat while Hastings gave birth in May to her daughter, Nuala.

But only a few weeks after she was born, mum and baby reported to Glo Worm Studios in Glasgow to record Keeper Of The Light with Jen Austin and Sense Of The Place’s producer Mike Vass.

“I thought it was going to be a bit daunting as I was breast feeding but, thankfully, everything went really well and within an hour or two, we had completed it,” said the singer, who will be performing at Celtic Connections in January as part of the 21st anniversary of the Young Traditional Musician of the Year competition and singing Auld Lang Syne on BBC Scotland’s TV Hogmanay show.

“It was such a lovely experience recording our song for the album and I am very proud of the track,” she said. “I was so pleased the lovely people at Stonehaven Folk Club got in touch and asked me to be involved. Their Folk In Crisis Fund was such a great idea to help musicians, including me, to bring out this extra special album.”

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Stonehaven Folk Club has been nominated in the Community Project of the Year category, sponsored by Greentrax Recordings, in the MG Alba Scots Trad Music Awards 2021.

The club’s chair and co-founder, Meg Findlay has been delighted with the reaction to Sense Of The Place and praised all the acts involved. “Some of Scotland’s finest musicians, songwriters and local artists contributed to the recording, and we were over the moon when they took part,” said Meg.

“We commissioned these original songs and we hoped when we started the project that some of them would become future traditional songs widely sung in clubs and schools in the decades to come.”

She explained the club created a library of 60 songs about the people and places of the Mearns and then the musicians were allowed to make their own choices.

Gloria Potter, project co-ordinator with Meg, believed the writing and performance of new music celebrating history and communities was “even more crucial at this moment when it is hard to get together as a folk community” because of the pandemic.

She added: “This project is a boost to the local area in sharing their heritage, culture and stories in songs that will be sung for generations. We were extremely fortunate to be able to tap into the enormous wealth of knowledge of some of our local historians via the Mearns Writers Group.”

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