Karine Polwart

15th February 2013 at 00:00
An all-round good guy in the primary years gave the singer-songwriter an early insight into the potent combination of lyrics and music

I loved my primary; I can't talk highly enough about it. I went at a good time, when there was a great bunch of young teachers and a real depth of teaching. My favourite was John Harley, my P7 teacher, but there was a posse of teachers: Malcolm Cowie and Madeleine Ritchie both ran extra- curricular music stuff, which was my social life, and Mr Kenny ran the dance group.

John Harley was just a good guy - and funny. I have a memory of him bringing in Ralph McTell's Streets of London and playing it as a way of talking about homelessness and songs and what songs could do.

I remember a small group of us picking our way up a hill called the Meikle Bin. We were probably in totally inappropriate clothes and I don't think any forms had been signed. I just remember him and all the other teachers were up for stuff outside school time. One phrase Mr Harley used if you weren't working hard enough was "Stop your gum beating." On that trip, me and my friend Vikki Lyall were lagging behind and he shouted: "Stop your gum beating." We made up a song: "We are the gum beaters and we gum beatAnd we've got sore feet."

To be honest, I did not enjoy high school. I don't think I made the transition particularly well. I was not a shy child at primary, but once I hit high school I just got shyer and shyer. Puberty did not sit well with me. It wasn't that I didn't like the teachers; I just found it a bit overwhelming. It was not until fifth or sixth year that I hit my stride.

I was good at school; I was a total brain box. At a small town school, being brainy was not necessarily an asset. The only thing that prevented me from being written off as some geek was I was school sports champion; that saved me from total exile.

In first and second year, music and maths were my favourite subjects - I was the prizewinner for them. Then, in third year, I was faced with this awful choice. I could not study both because of the way the timetable was structured, so that was when my formal music training stalled.

In the end, I went down the artsy route. My favourite subject was history and I loved the whole department - Mr Mackle and Mrs Hutton. They were really fantastic in quite different ways. Mr Mackle was always producing self- illustrated guides to various periods in history. He was always creative and artistic. Mrs Hutton was brusque and a little bit scary, but I grew to totally get her.

I remember being in her class, probably in S2, and the lassie next to me was constantly talking. The last call went out that whoever was talking should shut up or the whole class would get a punishment exercise. Then the girl talked again. I stood up and took her punishment exercise, but I was so annoyed at having to do it. I had to pick a book and write out six pages - so, thinking to myself "I'll get her", I picked the most risque book I could think of: Spike Milligan's Puckoon. It probably had words in it I thought were shocking at the time, like "bloody" or "damn". When I handed it in, Mrs Hutton's reaction was: "That's the funniest punishment exercise I've ever read." I was raging - I meant to offend her and fulfil the punishment exercise with the maximum amount of spleen. But those feelings were short-lived and from that point on we liked each other.

I also remember a song Mrs Hutton played when we were studying the First World War. It was Eric Bogle's No Man's Land, about a young soldier going off to war. I was blown away. I was into songs that were story songs and songs with heavy subject matter. Now I write songs like that.

Karine Polwart's new album Traces was named best Scottish album in 2012 by the Sunday Herald and best folk album by The Guardian. She will tour the UK in April and May. www.karinepolwart.com. She was speaking to Emma Seith

Personal profile

Born: Glasgow, 1970

Education: Bankier Primary and Denny High, Falkirk

Career: Philosophy teacher, then singer and songwriter.

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