Tarbolton Bachelors Club is the latest album from Edinburgh’s Steven Anderson (Letters From Mouse). The follow-up to 2021’s An gàrradh, which drew its sound architecture from Anderson’s back garden, Tarbolton Bachelors Club again finds Letters From Mouse exploring localities. This time the connection is between the country park of Polkemmet near Whitburn and the village of Tarbolton, the common thread being Scotland’s Bard, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns.
The Polkemmet estate was acquired by the Baillie family in 1620, establishing a country house there which eventually became a hospital in the Second World War used by Polish soldiers escaping the Nazi occupation of Poland. The house was demolished in the 1960s but its grounds – including its mausoleum – were re-established as a country park.
Anderson included a track named after Polkemmet on 2020’s Proto Human. “The atmosphere in Polkemmet Country Park is pretty special, the history of the place is palpable and my family spend a fair bit of time there,” says Anderson. “I used to play at Polkemmet as a kid, and I was always mucking about in the river, sailing boats and stuff. I was too young to know or appreciate the history of the place and it’s only recently that I have really started to realise it’s significance. The atmosphere in the park is magical, especially in the woodland and it’s this I have tried to tap into with the music on Tarbolton Bachelors Club. I use a modular synth setup, which I think this can sound very organic, atmospheric and emotional. It’s perfect for a project like this.”
The album is named after the club, founded in a small thatched house in the village of Tarbolton, that appointed Burns as its first chairman when it was formed in 1780. Burns was then an unpublished poet and the bachelors’ club was intended as a place for local single men to come together, talk, dance and debate the issues of the day. The Tarbolton group would go on to inspire many Burns Clubs around the world, its membership observing one founding rule that stated members were not permitted to acknowledge the existence of the club, where masonic virtue was pre-eminent. In keeping with other lodges or clubs, the Tarbolton club issued ‘pennies’ to mark initiations or to celebrate members.
“The Masons are something I don’t know much about to be honest,” admits Anderson. “I can remember being in a hotel bar near Stranraer 20 years ago and the owner mentioned the Tarbolton Penny. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about but for some reason it stuck in my head. I remembered this when researching Burns for the album, and I even ended up buying a Tarbolton Penny on eBay.”
Anderson’s music is well-suited to exploring these sorts of narratives, something that shone through brightly on An gàrradh. “I’m definitely a bit old school here. I dislike the whole streaming culture and one-off songs or singles. I like to listen to an album from start to finish and a good story helps, I think. Telling that can be more challenging with instrumental music as opposed to using singing and lyrics which spell it out for you. Having a theme or concept just feels right to me.”
That being said, diving into the legacy and importance of Burns felt a little risky to Anderson. “I wasn’t sure how cool it would be,” he says. “However, I avoided bagpipes and Dan from Subexotic didn’t use any tartan in the artwork! I really only started to appreciate Rabbie later in life, and when I was putting this album together it has been amplified considerably. I’ve started to see what an impact he has had, not only in Scotland but across the world. Not bad for a cheeky chappie who was fond of the ladies.”
Stephen Anderson’s tour through the Tarbolton Bachelors Club
“Elizabeth Bishop (1785 – 1817) was Robert Burns’ first child, conceived during an affair with Elizabeth Paton. Elizabeth married John Bishop, factor to the Baillie of Polkemmet and I believe they lived in Halfway House which is situated on the edge of the estate grounds.”
“This is the grid reference for where Polkemmet House used to stand. The footsteps you hear at the beginning and end of the track are me and my daughter walking to that exact spot.”
South Church Beastie
“Elizabeth is buried in the grounds of this church in my home town of Whitburn. The first building here was in erected in 1658 and has had repairs and extension. The reference to ‘Beastie’ links to the famous Burns poem, ’To A Mouse’.”
“Burns lived for a while in the Ayrshire town of Tarbolton which is where he founded the bachelors’ club, just before his works started drawing attention. At this club he entered into Freemasonry. In orders such as the Masons, tokens – also known as pennies – were issued for a variety of reasons including signifying a pivotal part of the mason’s initiation, celebrating a particular mason, or as proof of membership to a lodge.”
“Following the war Polkemmet House became Trefoil School and was run by Girl Guides movement. The school was opened by the Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth), who later became the school’s patron. The school moved to Gogarburn which is just outside Edinburgh. After its time as a school, the house was used by the Scottish Police College.”
“Contrary to the pictures in your mind that the term bachelors’ club may generate, the one started by Burns was a civil affair where gentlemen debated the latest issues of the day and learned to dance – all without alcohol. It all sounds most cordial.”
“Expressing warm tenderness to his love-begotten daughter and welcoming his child, Burns wrote the following lines:
Welcome! lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for
That I shall swear!…
Lord grant that thou may ay inherit
Thy mither’s person, grace, an’ merit,
An’ thy poor, worthless daddie’s spirit,
Without his failins,
‘Twill please me mair to see thee
Than stocket mailens…”
“Burns was a known romancer and there is nothing more romantic than candlelight.”
“Carbon has the symbol C and the atomic number 6. Coal contains mostly carbon and it’s with coal that our connection to Polkemmet lies. The National Coal Board, who operated many coal mines in the area, bought Polkemmet House. My father was a miner back in the day. He hated it, and it was dangerous dirty work indeed. There is no getting away from the historical importance of coal in this area.”
A Man’s A Man For A’ That
“This track was added after the album had been completed. I’ve been working on a project with my brother-in-law Martin Gibbons, who happens to be a really talented musician and singer. I asked Martin if he’d like to record a reading and I was thinking that I could sample it and use it somehow. I liked what he did though so set about adding some music as backing and I thought it worked really well. I think it does a great job of rounding off the album. It’s brilliant to have family involved and hopefully it’ll be a nice thing to look back on in years to come.”
Interview: Mat Smith
Tarbolton Bachelors Club by Letters From Mouse was released January 28 2022 by Subexotic.
(c) 2022 Further.