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Young traditional musician of the year Robyn Stapleton on her Robert Burns influences

BBC Scotland’s young traditional musician of the year Robyn Stapleton talks to History Scotland about how the work of Robert Burns inspires her singing, and her work to record traditional songs for future generations.

Since winning the title of BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician in February last year, Robyn has gone from strength to strength. In September 2014, Robyn shared the stage with Katherine Jenkins, performing with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Last Night of the Proms.

Robyn is extremely proud of her own Scots dialect and is committed to promoting traditional songs and the Scots language in her home region. She is the current winner of Dumfries & Galloway Life’s Person of the Year award and was recently made an ‘Ambassador of the Scots Language’ (Education Scotland).

When did you first become interested in the work of Robert Burns?

It was when I was aged seven and at my local primary school we’d have competitions for Burns Night. I come from Wigtownshire, an area where Burns is really popular and so there were lots of Burns Suppers every year. I won our local Burns Federation competition which really spurred me on in terms of traditional music, traditional song and folk singing and the interest grew from there.

What do you think makes the songs and poetry of Robert Burns still relevant today?

A lot of Burns’s most beautiful songs were love songs, people can identify with beautifully written love songs. The range of material also amazes people – humour, political, historical, his songs span such a range and have a wide appeal. And people continue to be interested in everything about Burns.

Obviously I’ve been going to Burns Suppers year after year and everytime I hear ‘Tam O’Shanter’ I hear something different, there’s always so much to learn. People have so much enthusiasm and desire to learn more about Burns and his work. Because of the sheer quantity of work, I personally am always learning more about him.

What sort of music did you grow up listening to?

A total range! My parents weren’t all that into trad music, although I did hear some of that – but I was also exposed to classical, jazz and lots of pop. It would have been a real mix and we also had Scots friends that play in a band in Stranraer and they used to encourage me to get up and sing with them as a teenager. Then I studied classical singing before moving onto the Royal Conservatiore of Scotland in Glasgow.

How did your Song Roots project, which aims to preserve community singing traditions, come about?

I’ve been interested in local songs for many years but not a lot of the music and song from my local area is available in books or online, it hasn’t been documented and so I’ve found it difficult to sing the songs I wanted to sing.

I thought it was important to try to find local songs, and that there must be a great singing tradition from my local area, especially because of the links with Ireland, particularly for the older generation.

I’ve gone out looking for traditional songs and have uncovered many which hopefully people can relate to and pass on to younger generations. So, young parents might want to sing to their children, but not know what to sing. We did a concert at the Wigtown Book Festival which was the first Song Roots concert and I performed songs that I’d found during my Song Roots research and they went down really well. I’m now able to share these because I have a great platform for performing and I’m also writing them down as I go.

How did you get involved with the Big Burns Supper 2015?

I’d heard about the Big Burns Supper and thought it sounded great for the region. So I went onto the website and was interested in all they’ve been doing, then I submitted an application, not really sure what would happen and now here I am, looking forward to my two concerts, Robyn Stapleton Sings Burns.

And you also have your first album coming up?

Yes, Fickle Fortune, which is coming out in May. It’s made up of twelve different tracks, all traditional songs. These are songs I was drawn to, through the honesty and rawness of the traditional stories and songs – I chose the ones where I had the most personal connection. And as for the title, I’ve noticed how quickly fortune can change, and that's a theme that occurs often in traditional songs and stories– it’s all different twists of fate.

Robyn’s concerts will be held at the Cairndale Hotel, Dumfries on 29 & 30 of January, 8pm. For tickets and more information, visit the Big Burns Supper website or call 01387 271820.

The Big Burns Supper is a nine-day celebration of music, theatre, comedy and more. Eighteen music acts will perform during the festival, including Hue & Cry, The Undertones, Nina Nesbitt and The Undertones. For the full programme and details of all events, visit the website.

 To find out more about Robyn Stapleton, visit her website.

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