Lizzie Higgins

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Lizzie Higgins: was born in the Guest [ghaist = ghost] Row of Aberdeen, an ancient side street which was to vanish under desperately needed slum clearance in the 1950s, leaving behind only the house previously known as the Duke of Cumberland’s Lodging.  It was here that the infamous Butcher had his quarters while resting and training his Government army in the techniques that at the battle of Culloden in 1746 were to utterly destroy Bonnie Prince Charlie’s feared Jacobite forces - a grim history she was later to recount movingly in song.

Her parents were settled Travellers: Donald (‘Donty’) Higgins, a piper of great repute, and Jeannie Robertson.  In the house also was her uncle Isaac (‘Seely’) another fine piper.  These were happy times, and Lizzie was to recall the kindness of the headmaster, Mr Craig, who encouraged her love of literature, especially poetry.  To him she was a ‘child of the arts’ and he got her to represent the school at a poetry reading.  Brought up as a town child with a love and respect for learning, this pleasant, shy, twelve year old had her world shattered when the school was twice bombed during the Second World War and her mother moved the family 17 miles west to the country town of Banchory on Deeside.

Despite her manner and education, in the playground of the Banchory school she learned what it was to be abused, isolated and discriminated against, for the country folk especially despised the ‘tinks’.  Yet they were happy enough to use Traveller labour, and every year, between 1941 and 1945, Lizzie happily spent the months from April to September pulling flax with her family.  The Government agent, Robbie Allan, who owned the inn at the roadside clachan [hamlet] of Garlogie, employed them on this essential wartime activity, and they would work along the fields of Deeside and Donside, living in a fine ‘Gypsy Queen’ wagon pulled by their magnificent Clydesdale horse, Tibbs.

But the winters and springs at school continued to be a misery and Lizzie ended her education at fifteen to work as a fish filleter in Aberdeen.  This was a cold, hard occupation although not badly paid (just under £5 basic per week, almost what a bus conductor earned) and she took the opportunity to learn to stand on her own two feet while earning the liking and respect of her fellows.  She was proud of the fact that she could lift her own weight - 9 stone - in fish, and work the arduous 12 to 14 hour day to earn much-needed overtime.  In slack times, when laid off, she would work as an agricultural labourer.  Over the years she was to develop into a big, strong woman, whose appearance belied the shy, sensitive and rather vulnerable person within.

In 1953, Hamish Henderson came to record her mother, Jeannie Robertson for the School of Scottish Studies.  Jeannie was thus launched on a singing career which brought her international fame, but although Lizzie was also recorded singing with her mother, she refused all invitations to perform in public, being not just shy but unwilling to be seen as competing with Jeannie.  There was more to it than that, for as Lizzie later said: “The folk scene claimed Jeannie.  I didnae want it tae claim me.”  Lizzie held out until 1967, when the late Peter Hall persuaded her to sing at the Aberdeen Folk Song Festival.  With a sad irony Lizzie’s debut was also to be her mother’s last public performance.

She made an immediate impact on the audience, for singer and performance were both remarkably composed, to the delight of her highly supportive parents from whom she had learned most of her repertoire.  From such a beginning she became greatly in demand throughout Scotland, England and Wales, but there were catches: her audiences at first consisted of ‘Jeannie’s followers’ who expected to hear her perform her mother’s repertoire, and Lizzie was persuaded to produce a solo record on such lines, with which she was little pleased.  She determined to succeed thereafter on her own terms, with her own songs and style of singing, attributing both largely to her father.

In 1992 Lizzie was diagnosed with cancer of the gullet, which she faced with realism and great courage - only once was there anything like despair, when she said: “Who will sing the auld sangs now?”  Cut down at the height of her powers, she was to die the following February, to be buried on the Broad Hill, close to where her mother lay.


Part of the booklet notes, written by Ian Olson, to the Musical Traditions Records CDs Lizzie Higgins: In Memory of (MTCD337-8)

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