Barbara Dickson has performed at gigs across the world, but one of the most memorable was the one behind bars. As patron of Prisoners Week Scotland, last year she performed at HMP Barlinnie prison.
“I’m not afraid of meeting prisoners,” she said. “Some of it is performing, but it’s also about talking to them – about my life and theirs.”
“People in prison are very interested in what’s happening outside,” she said. “People say things like ‘oh, they’ve got televisions.’ I’m afraid that doesn’t equate with having freedom!
“I was trying to spread a little bit of joy and happiness: that’s what I see my role as being. I’m not a politician, I have no power. We have to believe that everybody can be redeemed – everybody can be forgiven.
“Everybody I met inside the prison seemed to me a person who potentially could do some good in the world at some point.”
Approaching people this way, she admits, is challenging – particularly with inmates who have committed terrible crimes.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” she said. Among those she’s met she always recalls were Hugh Collins and Jimmy Boyle. Both were interned in the special unit in Barlinnie, both for murder.
Introduced by the special unit’s art therapist to sculpting, both turned their lives around after release with successful careers in the field.
“They came from very violent backgrounds, that was all they understood,” she said.
“I think that’s true now: if people are abused, they don’t stand a chance. Peo- ple in prison are damaged by the lives they’ve led.”
FINDING THE CHURCH
A convert to the Faith, she nevertheless doesn’t feel like one.
“I converted in my 40s, but I was always a closet Catholic,” she said. She visited Catholic churches as a teenager. As a pop star, she visited St Patrick’s in Soho Square in London nearby her record company.
“I used to go to Catholic churches when I was a teenager. I wouldn’t go to Mass: I would go in, sit down, light a candle and say prayers.”
Her father was a staunch, non-church-attending Protestant. But it was marrying a ‘very’ lapsed Catholic that finally led her to cross the Tiber.
“When I was received into the Church, it felt like I was coming home,” she said. “I just love that unbroken link from the Apostles to me,” she said.
And with that, she said, ‘you can’t just dip in and out of the Sacraments.’
“You’ve got to take it, warts and all.” She said that while some might criticise the Church for its teaching on female priests or contraception, she’s ‘quite happy with the Church as it is.’
FINDING THE MUSIC
“I did always feel that the Presbyterian worship environment felt like a meeting to me,” she said.
Scotland’s best-selling female singer and an avid guitarist, she nevertheless wants something different from Mass. She noted in particular the beauty of Mass in St Mary’s in Edinburgh, with a full choir.
“I love the seriousness of the music. I’m not interested in American happy-clappy hymns, it sounds like third-grade pop-music,” she said.
“I think you do pray twice if there’s music, and it’s like praying 20 times if you have the Cathedral choir. It becomes a very profound spiritual experience.”
She’s wary to compare it all to any sort of theatrical performance, though.
“When I went into Catholic churches it was the stillness, and the lingering smells of frankincense and myrrh, that I felt holiness.”
It is in fact the reverence of the Mass that has in turn impacted her music. The experience is something she’s ‘tapped into’ as she became ‘overtly more aware’ of her religious life.
In her most recent album, Time is Going Faster, the religious infiuences are more apparent.
One song is her own translation of the Irish hymn Caoineadh na dtrí Muire – The Lament of the Three Marys – which takes place during the Crucifixion.
Another, Heyr Himnur Smidur [Hear, Smith of the Heavens], is a medieval Icelandic hymn written by the chieftain Kolbeinn Tumason. In it, he petitions God to be healed.
“These two things are overtly spiritual in their meaning, and it’s a joy to play that music,” she said. The Church’s medieval heritage is a continued source of inspiration in her musical and spiritual life, in particular her devotion to St Margaret of Scotland.
“I’m very proud of Dunfermline, it’s my hometown, and I love the abbey and its legacy.” She hopes the Church could one day return to it for vespers, if not a Mass, citing examples such as the chapter of religious brothers at Ampleforth travelling to Crowland Abbey.
“I thought, that’s brilliant! That’s a real connection: if the monks can sing vespers in Litchfield or York Minster then it would be utterly beautiful.
“In Scotland we smashed everything up. It’s much more difficult. It would be nice to have a candle-lit vespers in the nave of Dunfermline Abbey.”
Find out more about the work of Prisoner’s Week Scotland at: prisonersweek.org.uk