Steve McGrail, who contributed to The Living Tradition both many articles and editorially for many years until 2010, died after a long illness on 11th May 2016. He had to face early onset Alzheimer’s which he did with dignity and realism. On behalf of the magazine he had interviewed a wide range of singers and instrumentalists from all over the British Isles and Eire.
His own interest in folk music started in his school days with skiffle and Lonnie Donnegan in particular. However by the time of his student days in Newcastle upon Tyne, he was ready to form a folk group which, amongst other places, played at the Bridge in Newcastle, the home of such luminaries as Colin Ross, Louis Killen, Johnny Handle, Tom Gilfellon, Alistair Anderson and Ray Fisher. Steve had a fine voice and played guitar, mandola, Celtic harp, penny whistles and bowed psaltery. His voice matured with age and experience and he was eager to learn from other singers and different regions. At his height he is thought to have known over 80 songs by heart and his singing won him awards at both Eisteddfods and Feis. After he moved to Scotland, his interest in Celtic folk music grew, not surprisingly, perhaps, given that he was half Irish, a quarter Scottish and a quarter English. He learnt Irish Gaelic as a mature man and wrote and sang in it.
Steve was a private man in many ways and many who helped celebrate his life in a packed Victoria Hall in Dunblane on 20th May 2016 will have heard much that they did not know about him. Even close friends do not know the whole story.
From his student days he was a staunch supporter of left wing political movements and he was associated with many different groupings. Whilst living in Airth, near Stirling, during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, he was very active in supporting the miners and their families and he wrote pamphlets about the effects of the strike on the men and their village communities. He felt that this activity was the acme of his political life. He was also, however, keenly interested in Irish Republican history and politics and had a collection of over 40 books on it. Little doubt that his work trips to and his language courses in Ireland gave him first hand insights into this. Even at the height of his illness, he insisted upon having his SNP badge pinned on his jersey every day and he was proud to wear it!
Steve’s degree in sociology and a diploma in applied social work led to posts as a psychiatric social worker in Newcastle and as a lecturer in social work at Stirling University. He also managed the Resource Centre in Stirling, but finally he became Steve McGrail – writer. This role gave him the freedom to do his work with this magazine and he also wrote for The Scots Magazine, The Scotsman, The Highlander and various local newspapers and trade journals. His articles appeared in both Scotland and Ireland and, in the latter, sometimes in Gaelic. He was most orderly in his practice as a writer. Each draft and its resource material were given a large envelope on which he wrote a contents list. However, such orderliness sometimes got beyond him, and one envelope’s list ends with the words “undefinable grot!” and another “bumf and drivel of the worst sort!”
As a home brewer in his Newcastle days, Steve had to learn that good wine fermentations led to somnolent guests and not riotous parties. He liked wild ingredients and helping him pick gorse petals had its drawbacks, but the resulting wine was delicious. He continued wine making everywhere he lived and enjoyed expeditions to find the fruit. He was proud of his birch sap wine, even if it was not to every taste!
Steve, whilst enjoying a good party or a rousing session at Dunblane Folk Club, was often a quiet and reflective man. That image hid the person who was ready to challenge a point of view or question organisational absurdities; his toe crossed the line often enough for him to be a bit of a thorn in employers’ sides. He was deeply compassionate, a strong humanitarian and a keen supporter of the underdog. He was highly sceptical of the motivations of politicians, senior managers and the rich. He had great humility and sensitivity.
It is great to know that his widow, Sue Harley, is making sure that his written work is retained by relevant organisations that will make it available for research. Some of his own research has resulted in particular articles being seen as authoritative on the subject concerned.
Besides all his outside pursuits, Steve was very much a family man. He was much loved by his step children and he was ready to be grandfather to their children. Though no great sportsman, he was happy to join in garden football and rumour has it that the Haggis evaded all the searches he instituted for it with the grand children! He would also have much to pass on to them about natural history, the garden and plants, and the environment, more of his interests and passions.
After Lonnie Donnegan’s death in November 2002, Steve wrote an obituary for The Living Tradition. He ended it with the words: “Have a drink, have a drink, have a drink on me, everybody have a drink on me: we will Lonnie, we surely will. And thanks.” Well Steve, we’ll now raise a glass to you for all you’ve done for family, friends and the people you helped throughout your life and for what you were to them. Cheers … and thanks!
Nick Austin & Sue Harley