Tag Archives: Cumnock

A time to meet in Ayrshire



The A Frame of the former Barony coal mine in Auchinleck. “The Barony A Frame” was the title of a piece of music by Scott Lygate given its world premiere at the Cumnock Tryst this year. The coal mine closed in 1989.


Three years ago, a Leaf Collecting post drew similarities between contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan and the earlier Benjamin Britten.  If I had waited another year, I could have added the further similarity of their two music festivals.  

MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst is still small by the standards of other festivals, but it is significant for being a classical music weekend in an area which does not normally host such things and which will benefit greatly from any such cultural and financial investment. Cumnock, the former mining town where MacMillan grew up, and its smaller neighbour Auchinleck together boast several handsome churches and other buildings which can ably stage classical concerts, especially of sacred music. 



The interior of the Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist in Cumnock is the more striking, but its sloped, wooden-framed entrance vestibule still catches the eye and hints at the varied influences of its architect William Burges.


I was thrilled to be at the first concert of the first festival in 2014 to see the world-famous and brilliant choir The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, in the church of St John the Evangelist, Cumnock, with its sumptuous Arts and Crafts/Gothic interior by architect William Burges. Their programme included a mix of works by the 16th century English composer Sheppard and modern compositions based on the “Stabat Mater”.



This view of Cumnock Old Church displays its proportions but not really its prominence in the centre of The Square in the town.


Nothing in the second festival line-up enticed me like The Sixteen, but the concert at the Cumnock Old Church was still highly satisfactory. It included Fauré’s “Requiem”, some Bach and a MacMillan première, performed by the collected forces of the Hebrides Ensemble, Genesis Sixteen and the newly-formed Festival Chorus.

This year I was back at St John’s Church for a performance by the aforementioned Genesis Sixteen, the younger “apprentice” ensemble of The Sixteen, conducted by Eamonn Dougan. Their varied programme included Renaissance composers like Lassus, Bertolusi and Ramsay and 20th century names like Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton and Roderick Williams.



The exterior of Trinity Church in Cumnock, where Nicola Benedetti performed as part of a trio at this year’s Cumnock Tryst, is echoed by the distinctive shop fronts next door.


One tiny criticism of the Cumnock Tryst is that twice in three years it has featured another Scottish classical music celebrity, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and thus might create the impression that it is too heavily reliant on two local star individuals. Another is that the use of the 18th century Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House, already a great tourism and commercial development for the area since a Prince Charles-led consortium secured its future in 2007, unbalances the shape of the Tryst as it has hosted three Sunday finale concerts with the most expensive tickets which have all sold out quickly.



Dumfries House, designed by Robert Adam and his brothers in the 1750s.


However, I know these criticisms are not really fair.  Benedetti is the designated patron of the festival and her appearance this year was as part of a trio in a varied programme which included the contemporary music by Mark-Antony Turnage, which I would rather liked to have attended myself. And why should the fans of the splendid Dumfries House not enjoy their rare chance to hear live music in its period setting? Elsewhere throughout the weekend, the Cumnock Tryst celebrates less famous composers and musicians, plus some fine buildings in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

Next year, I should go more often than once to this valuable social and cultural enterprise.


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Ayrshire’s other 18th century writer


The contrast is often drawn between the world-wide fame of Robert Burns, and the lesser renown  of his Ayrshire contemporary James Boswell.



A banner advertising the Boswell Book Festival in 2014.


The imbalance was redressed a little five years ago when the Boswell Book Festival  was set up to celebrate the life and work of the writer at his former family home in Ayrshire, Auchinleck House.  It was launched as a festival dedicated to the genres of biography, memoir and diary, the three forms practised by Boswell, the 18th century Ayrshire boy who travelled to London to make his fortune among the literary elite.

From the first, the Boswell Book Festival has been well sponsored and packed with well-known names who might not normally be seen in Ayrshire. The familiar talks and readings have been imaginatively supplemented by occasional theatre and music performances. The diary element was quietly dropped after the first year, but it has continued to be publicised as a festival of biography and memoir.



Visitors to the rain-washed 2014 Boswell Book Festival outside Auchinleck House. As Boswell wrote about his home when Johnson and he visited Boswell’s father there, “It rained all day, and gave Dr Johnson an impression of that incommodiousness of climate in the west…”


You can understand that a book festival needs to have a varied programme to attract the widest possible audience, but for me a significant weakness of the event is how little it deals with Boswell himself and his times.

Its first two years did include David McKail’s one-man show “Bozzy”, David Ashton’s play “Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary of Crime” with Timothy West as Johnson, and an appearance by John Byrne, who had written and directed a TV film about Boswell and Johnson’s trip to the Western Isles.  In addition, Dr Gordon Turnbull, General Editor of the Yale University Boswell editions, has been an annual speaker. However, there have been no events about  other aspects of 18th century history and culture, such as might be provided by Jenny UglowAmanda Vickery,  Linda Colley or Maxine Berg.

Instead, many of the guests are the familiar names who appear at other book festivals –  for example, Kate Adie, James Naughtie, Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, Ian Rankin –  and their topics often seem distant from  Boswell and the 18th century.

This year, in fact, the festival actually moved away from Auchinleck House to another period property in Ayrshire, Dumfries House near Cumnock.  The new location has certainly been able to provide improved space for events and catering within the house and outbuildings, thus reducing the dependence on vulnerable marquees. In addition, the estate already had more extensive parking space (on level, dry surfaces!) and established woodland walks and children’s playground.



Dumfries House, built in the mid 18th century, venue of the 2015 Boswell Book Festival .



The rear of Dumfries House with two marquees erected for Book Festival events.


It still seems unfortunate, though, that the festival’s physical link with Boswell’s own family home should be severed.  The stated purpose of the Boswell Trust, alongside the Festival,  is to restore the Boswell Mausoleum in Auchinleck Church. Some Auchinleck estate buildings which have just recently been converted to a cafe and gallery have lost a potentially lucrative weekend.

Still, the organisers of the Boswell Book Festival have done a great job for the local area and the event will surely continue to enhance Boswell’s reputation as, to quote from Andrew Marr in the BBC programme  Great Scots: The Writers who Shaped a Nation “the father of modern journalism (and) the inventor of literary biography” as well as a colourful early example of the ambitious young Scot who makes his name in London’s literary and social circles.



Another view of the exterior of Auchinleck House, home of James Boswell. Samuel Johnson described it as “a house of hewn stone, very stately and durable” when he visited it with Boswell.


Reference :

Johnson, Samuel and Boswell, James (1984)   A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal                                                                          of a Tour  to the Hebrides  ed. Peter Levi     London : Penguin


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