Folk moves in mysterious ways. In the 60s and 70s, folk clubs were the way to spread the word. Through the 80s and into the 90s, the likes of fRoots kept people connected. Folk festivals saw a boom again in the early 2000s, and now… now we congregate in stone circles online, inspired by fascinated folkies on Instagram.
Meet Lally Macbeth – folk archivist, historian, Morris dancer, artist, writer, event organiser and social media influencer. She may cringe at that last description, but it would be hard to argue with it. Lally runs the wonderfully niche but impressively successful Instagram account, Stone Club (13,600 followers), and the even more popular Folk Archive (45,000 followers). In terms of social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else on the UK tradfolk scene with that kind of reach.
At a time when older folkies wring their hands and worry about dwindling interest in their long-inhabited world, it’s worth turning to someone like Lally and asking: what’s your secret? How have you captured the attention of so many? What are you doing that engages this vast cohort of people, coming to folk for the first time, suddenly engaging with folklore, folk events, academic talks and all sorts? There’s only one way to find out…
My first question is quite a big one: what does the word ‘folk’ mean to you?
Oh gosh! That is a big question. I suppose I really want it to be inclusive and I’m always at pains to make sure it is for the people, and that it’s not being taken away and made elitist or objectified, if that makes sense. I think there’s a feeling – particularly on Instagram – that you can sort of pick things and go, “all these are really beautiful”, or, “isn’t that quirky and strange?” And whilst that’s fine, I like to celebrate the lives of the people who were making the things or enacting the customs, and those who are continuing to do so. I think it’s something that is definitely not stuck in history. I think it’s evolving. There are still folk customs that are being revived, but also things that are happening now that maybe aren’t considered ‘folk’.
Well, for instance, I run various sorts of side hustles [laughs] alongside Stone Club and The Folk Archive. I’ve got the Church Kneeler Archive, the Pub Sign Archive, and the Model Village Archive, all on Instagram. I set them all up as ways of, I suppose, exploring these ideas more deeply and compiling all the things I was finding into one place. With the church kneelers in particular, I was really aware that no one was recording them.
Church kneelers? What are they?
Well, when you go into a church, mostly on the pews, you’ll see the kneelers. They’re sometimes known as hassocks.
Ah, the cushions for kneeling on when praying?
Yes. They are generally made by people in the community. I initially got interested in them because, in St Buryan Church in Cornwall, there’s an amazing collection of kneelers, which are really interesting because they sort of fuse together folk and folklore, as well as more pagan ideas, with Christianity. So, there’s an incredible one that just has a picture of the Merry Maidens [standing stones], but in the middle there’s a cross, like a crucifix with a beam of light coming from it.
I was just going around looking at the churches, as something one does on a day out, and I started realising that these kneelers were really amazing records of village life, or of folk customs that were happening in the area, and strange societies or clubs as well. There is lots of social history included in them, and they’re almost always the result of a community effort to put them together – a group of women, sometimes men, coming together and creating something that they’re not necessarily even going to use themselves because they’re not always people connected with the church.
I suppose an example from relatively recent years would be the millennium projects that a lot of villages got involved in.
Yeah, exactly. Millennium mosaics were a big thing as well. I’m quite interested in these things as modern examples of how communities can be brought together and how you can record things in a modern way, but using a sort of antiquated method. It’s quite a strange idea to do a micro mosaic or a sort of tapestry in the 21st century. It’s so time-consuming.
The archive has attracted lots of Americans. They are really obsessed with model villages and come on these trips to England to see them.Lally Macbeth
The Model Village Archive sounds amazing, too.
Yes. That came about because I discovered this amazing model village in Cornwall, in St. Agnes, which is a tiny little village in itself. The model village got dissolved in, like, 1995, and all of the pieces were sent off for auction or nicked, or whatever happens when a model village goes. I became fascinated by the idea that the model village was a kind of emblem of Britain. They are very particularly English, I think… although, weirdly, the archive has attracted lots of Americans. They are really obsessed with model villages and come on these trips to England to see them.
What fascinates you about model villages?
They are really strange records of buildings or very unique things to an area, aren’t they? The model village at St Agnes had this amazing collection of thatched cottages – kind of Cornish cottages – but they also had things like the county council hall, which is a 1960s pebble-dash monstrosity. I think it’s going to be demolished, actually. But there’s an amazing video of the model village and this county council hall is next to the cathedral. I love the idea that both were afforded equal weight [laughs].
I lived in Japan for 10 years, and they take it one step further. They build whole recreations of villages and cities. As you probably know, New Place – Shakespeare’s final home – was demolished in the 1700s, but the Japanese obsession with recreating things means that the only place that you can actually go and see it in all its glory is in Maruyama, Chiba Prefecture. They got hold of the original blueprints, they shipped over the wood from Warwickshire and they built it exactly to the original specifications.
That’s pretty impressive. And I think that’s part of my interest – the kind of passion that the people were exhibiting when they were making these things. It’s quite often retirees. There was this old guy who’d had a million different jobs throughout his life and then decided he was going to build a model village. And I think it’s an incredible feat, really, because they’re always using traditional building methods but on this micro-scale. There’s a good one at Corfe Castle, actually. They properly slated all the roofs with individual tiny slates.
Your area of interest in folk, I suppose, is folk arts, customs and rituals, particularly. Is that correct?
Are you from a particularly folkie family?
Well, I kind of am. My family were all collectors and my mum plays early music. It’s probably more like a pageantry thing because they were all from Ludlow. My mum sort of took that baton on and was really interested in that medieval history and used to make replica costumes and play lots of strange and wonderful instruments. She is also really interested in folk music. So I guess, in a way, yes, I am from a folkie family. They were also collectors, and they were always really interested in textiles and costumes. They amassed quite a large collection of weird and wonderful things, including lots of European folk dresses. And so I guess that’s probably how I first got interested in it.
Did you grow up in Shropshire, then?
I grew up in Cornwall and I lived quite near Padstow when I was a teenager, so I used to go and see the Padstow Obby Oss every year, and I think that probably had some effect because it is pretty amazing. You can’t forget it once you’ve been. But Cornwall, in general, is obviously a place steeped in folklore. It’s quite hard to avoid, I think.
There’s a lot of concentration on customs and rituals now, but I feel like the objects need a bit of love.Lally Macbeth
You studied at Central St Martins and became an archivist and fashion historian. Is that what led you into what you’re doing now?
I’m still really fascinated by textiles and costume, and I still make costumes. I made the hat from Gwenno Saunders‘ album. I’m really interested in the sort of performative aspect, I suppose, of folk customs and rituals.
So, how did the Folk Archive come about?
I like writing a lot, and I realised I could write about these things rather than just look at the photos and sort of appreciate them. When I first started the Folk Archive, my main impetus was that I was getting quite irritated by the kind of Pinterest thing of posting the picture with no context or no caption, or without any information about where it had come from. It might seem like quite a pathetic attempt, but I think I was trying to remedy that a bit and let people know that these things come from a specific place, or that there are people who actually make these things. I suppose I was trying to widen the conversation beyond, “here’s an amazing photo”. I think that’s probably my archivist nerd inside who’s going, like, “now, you’ve got to have your source” [laughs].
Yeah, I totally get that. Are you writing elsewhere as well?
Yeah, I’m actually at work on my first book at the moment, which is really exciting. But it’s quite an undertaking. I also write poetry, but this is a non-fiction book that I’m writing at the moment.
What’s the book about?
It’s about folk, which should come as no surprise [laughs]. It grew out of the Folk Archive, so it’s a sort of culmination of all the things I’ve been exploring there, through a series of essays.
So you’re looking at specific rituals and their histories?
Yeah, but also folk objects and ephemera as well, because I feel that isn’t written about very much at the moment. There’s a lot of concentration on customs and rituals now, but I feel like the objects need a bit of love.
Stone Club has 2,000 members now… all roaming around the British Isles and beyond.Lally Macbeth
The Folk Archive has got around 45,000 followers, while the Stone Club has around 13,600 followers. Which is the oldest of the two?
I’ve run the Folk Archive for about three years, since 2020. Its popularity took me by surprise. I started it one rainy afternoon. I’d been really poorly for quite a while and it was a nice thing to do from my sick bed whilst I got well. The response from people was amazing. I think folk is having a big resurgence.
What do fully paid-up members of Stone Club get?
It’s £6 to sign up and that gets you a membership pack in the post, and onto our mailing list where we send out event info, exclusive competitions, articles, and that kind of thing. Oh, and you get access to our members’ WhatsApp group, too.
What do you think the attraction is at the moment? Why is this boom happening?
I think there is a lot of overlap in the audience between Stone Club and the Folk Archive, but I think with Stone Club particularly, it’s a reconnection to the land and the landscape and sort of getting out and about. It feels like people are really pining for it. A lot of our members are in cities, which is really interesting because we’re obviously based in Cornwall. At first, I found that surprising, but when I actually think about it, I think, well, people outside of the cities don’t really need it in the same way.
A lot of our events play on that idea: what is it that we could take from the past and lead us into the future?Lally Macbeth
There’s something about, I guess, being stuck in the office or perhaps commuting in and out of work that you’re not having as much time to engage with the landscape as maybe you want. And certainly after COVID as well, I think there is this need to slow down and maybe reconnect with our ancient past a bit. We always talk about how you can use the past to inform the future, but I really do believe it. I think there’s a lot to be learnt, both good and bad, from our prehistoric ancestors, and a lot of our events play on that idea: what is it that we could take from the past and lead us into the future?
Can you give me an example of taking from the past to lead into the future?
One really interesting example is that we had a really great talk recently from a chap called Ben Pitcher, speaking about prehistory and race. He talked about wood burners, which was not what I was expecting at all, but he was basically making the connection between the need for a fire and how this becomes the heartland of a home. And there’s a real sense in the 21st century that this is something that we have been missing. But he was talking about it in relation to climate change and naturally, statistically, how bad it is for the environment. So that’s quite an interesting reversal in a way, because it’s saying, “well, OK, this is something that we are wanting from prehistory, but actually it’s damaging. And so how do we reconcile that?”
So that’s one example. But also, the sense that we spend a lot of our lives inside now and I think being outside just feels incredibly important. It does seem to be capturing people in a way that is hard to pinpoint, but there’s a sense that there’s a need for it.
10 or 15 years ago, when I was still working in London, there was a kind of entrepreneurial culture where everybody wanted to be Steve Jobs and ‘success’ meant that you had to work every hour of the day and you had to be seen to be ‘smashing it’, as they always say. I grew suspicious of that ‘smash it’ culture. And I think the reverse of that is on the increase. The importance of having a sense of balance – of seeking less consumerist forms of happiness; moments of joy in the people and places around you – that’s something I can really get behind.
It’s so much a part of it, and I do think COVID really helped in some ways with that because it did teach people that probably burning yourself out is not so helpful. And I guess returning to your home on a daily basis, and to your locality, was probably quite helpful in getting people to notice the little things in life and to slow down. It’s probably why people are suddenly completely fascinated by what’s going on in their village or the town next door.
That locality thing is really interesting, isn’t it? Especially when you think about it from this ‘folk’ perspective. In the times that these village rituals and songs would have been bursting forth, the people involved in them would never have travelled more than a few miles from where they lived.
Exactly. It would have been unheard of. And really, it’s a completely artificial thing that everyone’s been doing – getting on a train and going miles and miles away for large parts of their week. I personally felt that lockdown period was very helpful.
I live in a town in Cornwall called Penryn and it has an incredible history. It was the oldest seat of learning in the Southwest and there was a college called Glasney College based here, which was dissolved during the dissolution of monasteries. The town is a strange place in some ways because it’s made up of a history of fragments or lost things because there’s almost nothing left of it. There are bits of buildings – an arch here or there; a well – but you have to piece them together. When you’re not in a place all the time, you can’t really do that, but when you’re suddenly returned to it full time you can walk all those bits that you’ve not walked before and explore all the crevices and cracks and join the dots and make the full history.
Do you find that people tend to be interested in both the Folk Archive and Stone Club? If they’re interested in one, do they tend to be interested in the other?
Yeah, and I think that’s actually a bit of a change because I was having a conversation with someone at the weekend about the way in which standing stones used to be considered and they were saying, “I always thought they were just for boring people”. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The two audiences are very interlinked, and I think that’s because lots of ancient sites have really amazing folklore attached to them. I think it would be hard to separate the two, certainly in my mind. There is a lot of crossover, and if you’re interested in folk, you’ve sort of got to be interested in land. It’s very connected.
When I look at Instagram accounts like yours, and those of people with similar interests, there’s a lot of info about folklore and relevant places, but very little about folk music. That has always puzzled me. After all, many folk songs deal with the stories in folklore, and even if they don’t they often originate from the people who put these folkloric rituals into practice. It makes sense to me that if you like the Folk Archive and Stone Club, you’d probably be interested in these incredible old songs. But those worlds don’t seem to meet much, certainly not online. Have you noticed that?
It is really interesting. There isn’t much overlap. It’s funny because I have loads of friends in Cornwall and also in Ireland who are very involved in the tradfolk world, so I can’t really answer why that is. Maybe it’s something that needs to be addressed a bit, actually, because it seems a bit of a shame.
It makes perfect sense that if you’re sitting there with a fascination for the way the old times can inform the new, you’d include the songs in that, too.
I really hear what you’re saying. I had a conversation with someone a little while ago who is a musician, and he was saying exactly the same thing. He found it quite odd that there isn’t much crossover.
Do you think there’s a certain type of person who gets involved with what you’re doing?
Well, it’s quite interesting. I probably thought it would just be people my age or maybe a little bit older. You get a sense it will just be your peer group, but actually, it’s a really wide age range and a pretty good gender divide as well. That has been really nice because, especially at the Stone Club events we do, it’s wonderful to see people having these intergenerational conversations and learning from one another, which I think is really important. So no, there isn’t one particular type, particularly with Stone Club. There’s a whole variety of people. There are lots of quite young kids who are really into it – people in their 20s who are just very obsessed with going out stone hunting, often in an artistic way as there are lots of people making work about; making films or music.
I’m always surprised by the people who are getting into it. It’s like, “My gosh! You as well? Great!” But I think it’s a bit of a domino thing, maybe. We had one person who used to come to every Stone Club thing on their own, and she’s quite a sweet girl – very young, quite shy. She’s like, “yeah, I’ve been trying to get my friends along, but they won’t come.” And then, about three events in, she’d suddenly developed a few friendships and then they started coming in a group. I really like that aspect. They go and tell their friends. Their friends are usually a bit dubious, and then they’re like, “Actually, this looks all right. This is quite cool.”
We also have a lot of ultra-stoney nerds who’ve been into it for years and years and years and, you know, always correct me on things. And I’m always happy to be corrected because I don’t think I’m in any way an expert on stones at all. I love the fact that I learn from people all the time – people who tell me about new sites or the history of sites. In a way, that is the greatest gift of it. I have this list of so many places that I want to visit.
And they’re suddenly hooked?
Yeah, exactly. And then they’re coming back and it’s great!
What does a Stone Club event look like?
Usually, they are a sort of mixture of performances, films, talks and music – usually DJs, but sometimes bands.
Are they always down in Cornwall?
We sometimes do things in Cornwall. We do events at Verdant, which is a brewery near us in Penryn, and they’ve got an amazing taproom and a great projector, and it’s just a really lovely space to do things in. But we also do an event every other month at The Social in London, which is just off Oxford Street – about as far away from a standing stone as you can get. A couple of months ago, they put on the front of it a picture of Lanyon Quoit as a big decal, so it’s now the portal to ancient Britain in London.
That’s a great space. It’s a very cavernous kind of basement. That’s been our sort of, I suppose, our home in London. We’ve done most of our events there, but then we’ve done one-off events elsewhere as well. We’re doing one again at Brighton Spiegeltent in May. And we’ve done some things in Wales, as well as quite a few festivals. So we sort of try and pop up where we can, within reason, because there’s only two of us.
How many people do you tend to get along to Stone Club events?
I think the Social fits 100 people, and it generally sells out. Last year in Brighton was one of our bigger events, and I think that was 300 people, and that sold out. They vary so much in size, really, depending on where we are. Sometimes they’re really small and intimate, sometimes they’re bonkers and huge. We did the British Museum late with Jeremy Deller in the summer for the Stonehenge Exhibition, and that was like 5,000 people.
It’s a pretty amazing thing that you’ve managed to do.
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I really love it and I’m just so happy that people also enjoy it. I think, with the events, we really wanted them to be engaging for everyone, so we have academic talks, but we’ll also throw in some bonkers DJs, so there’s a slightly odd mashup, but I quite like that.
Is there an ultimate aim? What do you want for your projects?
I approach both of them quite organically. I didn’t set out with a five-year plan or anything like that. I think I’m quite open to what comes my way in life. Neither of them were set up as business endeavours, they were just passion projects in that they were things I loved and I wanted to share with the world. So for me, it feels nice that people like them.
What’s next? I guess more of what we’ve been doing is certainly the way with Stone Club. Definitely more events, but probably with the Folk Archive as well. I have a few things in mind in terms of events I’d like to do with that. So I think just bringing it more into reality and away from the internet is what I want to do, ultimately.
Tell me a bit about your Morris dancing life.
I dance with a side called The Wad, after Joan the Wad. Joan the Wad is amazing. She is like the Queen of the Piskies in Cornwall. She’s responsible for mischief-making, merriment and leading people astray.
She’s a really interesting character. If you ever see lucky piskies symbols, they’re usually Joan the Wad.
Is The Wad a Cotswold or Border Morris side?
Actually, we dance both. I was originally a Border Morris dancer in another side, but Kate Merry, who is the sister of Alex Merry from Boss Morris, is obviously from the Cotswold tradition. So, yeah, that’s been a bit more of a challenge. But I really enjoy it, actually. It’s mentally very stimulating trying to work out all the steps and do the hankies at the same time. But I’m actually the fool.
That always looks like a fun role.
Yeah, I was really desperate that they were going to have a fool because I felt like it was quite an underused character in modern Morris. You don’t often get fools these days in new sides.
Obviously, there are other accounts doing similar things out there. Who do you see as kindred spirits? Who else is worth following?
That’s a really good question. Well, definitely Ben Edge. I’ve always been a big fan of Ben’s work. I love Alex Merry and Boss Morris – you can’t beat an all-female Morris troop. Moof Magazine as well, run by Melanie Xulu. Melanie grew up in Cornwall and she has run Moof since she was about 18. It’s a kind of countercultural magazine, so she covers lots of music stuff, but also kinds of folk stuff. She has a really great eye for weird and wonderful people. I’m like, “how did you manage to track them down?” [Laughs] Oh, and Angeline Morrison as well. Big fan. She actually lives very close by and I’ve known her for years, so I’m just really delighted to see her flourishing.
Discover more about Stone Club at stoneclub.rocks, or head to the Folk Archive on Instagram. Find out more about Lally Macbeth via lallymacbeth.org.