FAIRPORT CONVENTION – WALTER SCOTT AND AN ORIGIN FOR THE GROUP’S NAME?

The legendary UK folk-rock group Fairport Convention need no introduction to lovers of folk or neo-folk music, with a rolling membership over decades including some of the most important names in that world, among them the late great female vocalist Sandy Denny and the still prolific Richard Thompson. Fairport’s album of 1969, Liege and Lief, is often considered to be folk-rock’s finest moment. The origins of the group’s somewhat arcane name have been charted in the past, but the last word is perhaps yet to be said.

It is known that in the mid-1960s an early avatar of the group used to rehearse in a largish house located in the Fortis Green district of the north London borough of Haringey, built around 1900 and going under the name of Fairport House, or just plain Fairport. It belonged to the family of founder member Simon Nicol but was later converted into bedsits, one of the tenants being another group member, Ashley Hutchings. Fairport House was thus umbilically connected with the emerging group, to which its name became attached –  the place where the budding folk-rock musicians convened as … Fairport Convention. The story is narrated by Patrick Humphries in Strange Affair, his 1996 biography of Richard Thompson: Humphries tells the tale of how the name Fairport Convention was coined by a friend of Simon Nicol’s. But why was the house called Fairport in the first place? On that, Strange Affair is silent.

I would not have taken the matter further had it not been that recently I began reading (and have now finished) The Antiquary, a novel published in 1816 by none other than Scotland’s national novelist, Sir Walter Scott (Penguin Classics edition, 1998). This, Scott’s third novel, is set in and around an imaginary Scottish small town and seaport, believed to have been based on Arbroath in Angus – but in the novel called … Fairport!

Could this fictional place lie behind the naming (by the original owner?) of the house that gave its appellation to Fairport Convention? It is far from impossible: houses have been named before now after novels or elements in novels. In French-speaking countries no-one would be surprised to find apartment blocks named after characters from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. In Scotland, Edinburgh’s Waverley station and the Heart of Midlothian football club both share their names with novels by Scott.

A connection with Walter Scott would make sense as part of the ambiance around Fairport Convention’s music. Scott’s seminal collection of traditional ballads from 1801, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, included material like ‘Tam Lin’ or the celebrated ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ that getting on for two centuries later would be recorded by Fairport. Richard Thompson, meanwhile, tells us in his recent memoir Beeswing that as a child he read three of Scott’s novels, Waverley, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. We do not know if he also read The Antiquary or if he would have recognised the link when he entered the portals of Fairport, but the connection can at least provide an interesting literary-musical intertext.

Meanwhile I would be interested to know if anyone has tracked down more data on this!

Note : For Patrick Humphries’ account of the group’s formation and naming and the Fairport house and name, see his Richard Thompson – Strange Affair : the Biography (London : Virgin Books, 1996), chapter 3 (pp. 34-47) ; for Richard Thompson on reading Scott, see his book Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 (London : Faber and Faber, 2021), p. 98.

Note 2 (added 3 March 2022): I passed this piece to Patrick Humphries and am pleased to relate that a subsequent post on his Facebook page elicited replies from both Simon Nicol and Linda Thompson, Richard Thompson’s onetime spouse. Simon Nicol said that the house’s previous owner, a Dr Munro or Monroe, was Scottish, a fact certainly interesting with regard to my speculation!

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