Monthly Archives: October 2011


Children’s rhymes and such can be nicely called “Bairnsangs” in Scots (or indeed in Northern English, which shares some linguistic history). I made a collection a long while ago of such as I could find, from my own recollection and printed sources, the idea being that it would rival the English rhyme books of Peter and Iona Opie, particularly The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, first published in 1951, and long a standard, as the second edition (1997) still is. Mind you, the Opies didn’t attempt to give the tunes, and the second edition merely has a chapter of nine pages on “The Singing Tradition of Nursery Rhymes” by Cecily Raynor Hancock, which is distinguished by scholarship but quotes no music and seems designed to show the interested reader where to look, like libraries.
I never thought this was satisfactory, and my own collection would give tunes where found, like the Scottish collections of William and Norah Montgomerie, and the collection that inspired them, Nicht at Eenie: the Bairns’ Parnassus*. But how, you may ask, to deal with variant versions of the rhyme, and different tunes? By giving all the texts, as Professor Child did with the ballads, and the tunes too, as Bronson did to supplement Child, and as the great edition of the Greig-Duncan song collection does. A song is not complete without its music, although you can argue that some songs have perfectly awful tunes, while the text may be sheer magic. Generally speaking, I think the folksinger treats a tune as a mere vehicle for the more important words that tell a story, but in the case of bairnsangs it’s at least fifty-fifty, since the tune can be hummed without any words.
Anyway, a wee while ago I got a nice present from some good friends of mine, a little book called – yes – Bairnsangs, Nursery Rhymes in Scots, by Sandy Thomas Ross, charmingly illustrated by Charles Summers (Macmillan, 1955). This contains some good stuff, though I doubt it has had much exposure in the nursery, or at school. Ross can occasionally catch the real traditional feeling:


                              A zeenty teenty timmourie fell,
                              A clover leaf, a heather bell;
                              A zeenty teenty haligalum,
                              A Japanese chrysanthemum;
                              A zeenty teenty lillibalu,
                              Forget-me-not an I’ll be true.

Ross is writing in a noteworthy genre, some of which is poignantly memorable, though few have equalled Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, unless it be the late William Soutar’s Seeds in the Wind or, more simple and bairnlike, the charming rhymes of J. K. Annand, Sing it Aince for Pleisure, 1965. Still, the old and anonymous lines have their own magic.

                              I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
                                  An’ a cow low down in yon glen,
                              Lang, lang will my young son greet,
                                  Or his mither bid him come ben.

                              I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low,
                                  An’ a cow low down in yon fauld,
                              Lang, lang will my young son greet
                                  Or his mither take him frae cauld.

This is in C. K. Sharpe’s Ballad Book (edition of 1880), 169, a portion of a ballad from the seventeenth-century Skene MS.; whence the Montgomeries’ Scottish Nursery Rhymes (1946), 129 (no. 166).
Likewise the melody can be memorable, to stick with you all your life, for some reason. One can meet it again in a different context, perhaps quite serious and unbairnlike, and one greets it like an old friend. My grannie sang us the eighteenth-century nonsense song about Aiken Drum, and I was pleased to hear the tune again years later used for a Scottish country dance. It actually belongs to what you can call a complex of tunes, or tune family, all based on an old bass line called the passamezzo moderno, going do’ fa do’ soh do’ fa do’soh d. Other tunes that share the bass include Portsmouth, The Keel Row, and oddly enough the main melody of The Tennessee Waltz.

* Nicht at Eenie: the Bairns’ Parnassus. With wood-engravings by Iain MacNab. [Warlingham], Samson Press, 1932. [Limited ed. of 170 copies.] [Repr.: Norwood, Pa., Norwood Editions, 1974.]
At the end the anon. compiler names Dr. A.A.W. Ramsay, “who suggested the enterprise and supplied the nucleus of the collection” among the contributors. There is some music, done from line-blocks, imitated later by the Montgomeries. 37 pp. (+ 1, as above). 72 items.

aiken drum



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Jokes about Jocks

Today, about Scottish Jokes, or rather jokes about Scotsmen – whether singularly, or in a twosome, or in the classic threesome “An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman…”, where the Scotsman will probably come off best. There was a reasonably amusing sitcom on British TV named after the opening of the joke, in the sixties I think, and it does or should lend itself to that treatment. This is a well-known kind of folklore, and can be called “The Three Nationalities Joke”. In countries outwith Britain, you get another trio, at least one of which is the butt, as in Poland, featuring a Pole, a German and a Russian. This is actually an ethnic variant of an anecdote about three of a kind, as for instance three religious – a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi. For instance, about the only one that I can remember goes thus:

A priest, a minister and a rabbi are out fishing in a lake, and after a while the priest suggests some beer, which has been left on the shore. “I’ll get it”, says the rabbi, and off he goes across the water, reaches the shore, and returns trotting over the water to the boat. The minister looks at this with amazement but says nothing. After a while the priest volunteers to go, and off he sets over the water as before. The minister looks at this and realises it’ll soon be his turn. So after a while he gets his courage up and offers to get more beer. “Sure”, say the others. Over the side of the boat he goes, but his faith must be weak because he falls into the water and comes up spluttering. “Oh for God’s sake,” says the priest, “show him where the stepping stones are!”

This is of course based on the story of Jesus walking over the water on the Sea of Galilee ( Gospel of John 6:16–21), though the folklorist will tell you that miracle is often ascribed to religious leaders and heroes, or just people like Sariputta, the follower of Buddha, who have faith in them.
There can be some cross-pollination:

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a rabbi go into a bar.
“Oh,” says the rabbi, “I think I’m in the wrong joke!”

And then there’s:

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar.
“What’s this,” says the barman, “some kind of joke?”

But often enough the anecdote is about two Scotsmen, and the punch-line concerns the legendary thriftiness (to use a nice word) of the Scot, which is one of the universal attributes of the stereotype. This poking fun at such national foibles is called blason populaire, literally “folk heraldry” or such, which characterises a nation (seen as a homogeneous unity) as different or laughable or disgusting or just strange – different from us, that is, the users of the expression, who are obviously normal and nice. Scots may be expected to lampoon the stuffy English, who will themselves make remarks about the stingy whisky-swilling Scots. And their kilts of course (“Nae, madam, there’s naething worn aneath the kilt – it’s aa in fine workin order!”).
Sometimes jokes get near the knuckle in PC terms:

An Englishman, lecturing on his travels, was speaking disparagingly about the Scots in Canada and the mixing of the race with the Indians. “You’ll find,” he said, “a great number of Scots half breeds and French half breeds, but you cannot find any English half breeds.” “Not surprisingly,” shouted a Scot from the audience. “The squaws had to draw the line somewhere.”

But then again they are just intended to be humorous, with a Scots accent:

Jock’s wife Maggie went to the doctor complaining of pains in the stomach. The doctor told her it was ‘just wind’. “Just wind?” she screamed at him. “It was just wind that blew down the Tay Bridge!”

This will mean more to a Scot than others; the great railway bridge over the Tay River between Fife and Angus went down in a fearful storm chronicled by William Topaz McGonagall:

          Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay!
          Alas! I am very sorry to say
          That ninety lives have been taken away
          On the last sabbath day of 1879
          Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

My grannie, Helen Rodger, was born in 1869, and she was ten years old when the disaster occurred. Sixty years later she recalled the strength of the wind that blew slates and chimney pots off roofs – her story about the event was one I always asked for. McGonagall wrote his lament shortly after the event, having previously saluted the fine new bridge, and he went on to write another salute to the second bridge, which still stands. He was probably sincere in his seriousness, but it is an unfortunate fact that his verses have been derided as about the worst poetry ever written – by a Scot at least. They are the Scottish joke in rhyme; wherefore many a piece of doggerel has been laid at his door:

          As I was goin doon the road
          I met a coo – a bull, begoad!

Which rivals

          Upon the road there stauns a coo –
          If it’s no there, it’s awa noo.

And what about

          Oh, Water o’ Leith! Oh, Water o’ Leith,
          Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
          And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
          Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.

This was evidently written by a student at Edinburgh, where Blackie was Professor of Greek, besides Professor of Humanity at Aberdeen. He travelled widely, and went to Egypt, which occasioned a translation into Scots of Emanuel Geibel’s Lob der edlen Musika (“Ein lustiger Musikante marschierte einst am Nil”), to be found in The Scottish Students’ Song Book. It’s a very good rendition into Scots of the German, changing the fiddle that’s played to divert the threatening crocodile into (of course) the bagpipe. We’ll go into that next time.

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The proverb is a minor form of folklore, compared at least to folktales and “muckle sangs”, big ballads that can take ages to perform. (I’ve been known to stretch out the ballad of Hynd Horn to at least a quarter hour, if not twenty minutes.) One of its merits is its brevity. It has been defined in a kind of a way by Lord John Russell as “One man’s wit, and all men’s wisdom”, which works pretty well. One of the things to note about the genre is that it’s world-wide. Everyone seems to have proverbs, from illiterate tribes in jungles to sophisticated urbanites, and it’s interesting (IMHO) to compare and contrast, over time and space, the various ways in which these ideas are expressed. For instance, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” occurs in French as Moineau à la main vaut mieux que grue qui vole, literally “A sparrow in the hand is worth more than a crane that flies.” Other countries vary the number of birds or their type. Tracing connections is hard however. Take the Russian

Zavtra, zavtra, ne segodnja,
Tak lenivcy govorjat;
Zavtra budem my rabotat’,
A segodnja – poguljat’!

This can be translated roughly as “Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today, That’s what the lazy people say; Tomorrow we will work all day, but for now we’ll go and play.”
This directly echoes the German

Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute,
Sagen alle faulen Leute.

(Tomorrow, tomorrow, just not today, say all lazy fellows.) One might think it’s an individual descendant of an old saying, originating in ancient Greece – the idea of putting off weighty matters till the morrow is first met in Plutarch, who has Archias say οὐκοῦν εἰς αὔριον τὰ σπουδαῖα, “We’ll do the big stuff tomorrow.” But actually it’s what it looks like, a direct translation from the German, from the opening lines of a poem by Christian Felix Weisse (1726—1804), “The Postponement” (Der Aufschub) from his Kleine Lieder für Kinder (1766). The original runs:

Morgen, morgen, nur nicht heute! Sprechen immer träge Leute.

Weisse wrote a lot of verse, and some poems were set by such as Mozart and Beethoven. And as it turns out, this was translated into Russian as Otsročka (1769) by B M Fedorov (1794—1875), finding a place in all prerevolutionary school anthologies and hence to the mental inventory of the nation.

As for Scotland, there are two streams of tradition feeding the river of proverbs: the Scots-English and the Gaelic-Celtic. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been other influences of course, such as French, with the Auld Alliance and Mary Queen of Scots and so forth. As an example of the Celtic, take the ironic Gaelic proverb, Gu de bhios saor, cha dean a’ ghaoth torrach (Whoever may be blameless, the wind doesn’t make pregnant). Naturally proverbs in Scots echo the English a lot of the time; for instance, the above bird proverb appears as “A bird in the hand ’s worth twa fleeing by” in a grand collection by Andrew Henderson (1832). In that volume are quite a few quotation proverbs, or so-called Wellerisms, named for their humorous use by Sam Weller in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836). As the dates show, their use is a lot earlier than Dickens.The format for this type is “Rhubarb, rhubarb”, said the So-and-So, when he did so and so. This is usually done with humour in mind, as Sam did all the time, and often uses puns. One of my favourites is “These wee things are sent to try us, as the auld wife said when she saw the small judge.”

The auld wife crops up again and again as the pawky observer of the human condition, as e.g. “Every little helps”, as the auld wife said when she gaed to pish in the sea. – That by the way may have come from the Dutch, where it’s “Alle beetjes helpen”, zei de mug en hij pieste in zee – referring to a gnat. But the wife isn’t always old, she just represents womankind, or even mankind, though there’s generally an element of satire, or moral evaluation: A begun turn’s half ended, quo’ the wife, when she stuck the graip in the midden. (Compare the English Well begun is half done, in the Oxford Book of English Proverbs 877.) – The “graip”, I should explain, is a garden fork, an old Scots word that seems connected to the Norwegian dialect greip, a dung-fork.
Other characters that crop up are animals, e.g. There’s baith meat and music here, quo’ the dog, when he ate the piper’s bag, and, of course, the Devil, a real personality in Scottish folklore and literature: Muckle din and little woo, quo’ the deil when he clippet the sow. (The “woo” is “wool”.) Some Wellerisms take on a life or development of their own. In English the characters of the Bishop (or other clergyman) and the Actress (or other woman of the world) are attributed various double-entendre sayings, the addition of the formula “… as the actress said to the bishop” making something saucy out of a quite proper remark. My own favourite again is from a “Saint” novel by Leslie Charteris: That’s all there is, as the Bishop said to the Actress.

A development of this was the so-called “Swiftie”, a satirical name from the template being used with boring regularity in the children’s Tom Swift books by Victor Appleton: “So-and-so”, said Tom —-ly. That is, insert an appropriate adverb, particularly one which has a direct reference or connection with what is said, e.g. “We’ve got to hurry!” said Tom swiftly. The best I know appeared towards the end of the Profumo Affair [note: the lady in question was the mistress of the Minister of War and a Russian diplomat, and maybe some others]: “I think I’ve heard enough about Christine Keeler”, said Tom tartly.

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As to the Act of Union again: over the years from time to time I wondered about its validity. I learned early on that a breach of the treaty should automatically make it null and void, so the political independence looked for by the Nationalists would become an established fact, de jure and de facto. Nobody however seemed to be dancing up and down and pointing out that such a breach had seemingly occurred (several times in fact), so the troublesome chain binding us to the Auld Enemy was in fact broken. I wondered about such things from time to time, but not for long – other things got in the way as things do, and besides the Nationalists didn’t have much of a voice.
These days however things have changed a bit. As recently as twenty years ago a Scottish Nationalist government in Edinburgh was a laughable idea; now it’s there, and a sizable majority too. Perhaps it’s now time to challenge the viability of the Act on the basis of its breach by the United Kingdom Parliament. The point is that the Act of 1707, while a bit servile in some places, did spell out some things that a Scots patriot would insist on, including the inviolable status of Scots Law and the Scots Kirk. And this protection, mind you, was not a temporary thing, but was to be respected “for all time” – which meant I suppose until altered by Scotland itself, the point being that England had no right to interfere in legal matters north of the Tweed, and the Scottish church was so to speak sacrosanct. This was all very well in theory, but in practice it did cause some problems, or more accurately a few little bothers that were quickly and quietly put right – from the point of view, at least, of the Powers-That-Be, namely the Establishment, keenly Unionist and inevitably Anglocentric. I’m reminded of this because of the recent furore over the establishment of the UK Supreme Court, which was appealed to on Human Rights grounds a little while ago leading it to rule that a convicted murderer had been deprived of his rights because police had not had a lawyer present at his interrogation. They in effect pushed the case back to the Scottish court to think again. There was something like an uproar about this, but since the SC hadn’t actually overturned the conviction (as claimed by some of the media), all was well. Now however it can be said that the very establishment of a Supreme Court for Britain, of course in London, is a violation of that clause of the Act of Union. It remains to be seen how this sort of argument will be dealt with, in a time when Nationalism is a lot more powerful, with a louder voice and more teeth, than formerly.
One little breach of the Act occurred in 1900 when the Free Church of Scotland merged with the United Presbyterian Church, and a rump defected and took them to law. I urge all interested to take a look at “Bannatyne v Overtoun” in the ever-knowledgeable Wikipedia to see the ins and outs of the case, and it’s clear that Parliament, in passing the Churches (Scotland) Act of 1905, and also the House of Lords in overturning a decision of the Scottish Court of Session before this, were tinkering with Scots Law and the Scots Kirk. Ergo, the Act of Union was broken then. Now what? Someone should run this cookie up the flagpole and see how it crumbles.

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If any out there are wondering what the picture at the top of these screeds represents, it’s an old engraving from The Pictorial History of Scotland, from The Roman Invasion to the Close of the Jacobite Rebellion. A.D. 70—1746, by James Taylor, D.D. Published in London by Virtue, no date. Though it will be about 1860 maybe. The engraved title page bears a picture of “Calgacus Addressing his Army”, totally imaginary of course, but it’s a predictable subject, seeing that the Caledonian chief made a rousing speech to his followers, as we’re told by the Roman historian Tacitus. It’s a great piece of oratory, totally imaginary of course! Yet it contains that wonderful stigmatisation of the Roman imperial fist, Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – “They make a desert and they call it peace.” And this is told us by Agricola’s son-in-law!

Anyhow, halfway through the first volume is the picture reproduced above, “Linlithgow Palace”, in West Lothian some miles west of Edinburgh, noteworthy for being the birthplace of James V and his daughter Mary Queen of Scots. The name is Brythonic in origin, evidently meaning “Lake by the wet hollow”, though the Gaelic name on the local signage and in Dwelly’s great Gaelic Dictionary is Gleann Iucha, which is obscure in meaning. Still, it crops up in a number of Gaelic expressions, such as tobraichean Ghlinn Iucha, “the wells of Linlithgow”, one of the marvels of Scotland, going by an old rhyme:

Glasgow for bells,
Lithgow for wells.

And there’s tomhas Ghlinn Iucha, “a Linlithgow measure”, one of the old weights and measures for dry goods (peas, grain, salt and so forth) established in 1617 which fell into disuse and were officially abolished in 1824.

The town has its own “Riding of the Marches” ceremony every June, and it’s then that the band plays the traditional tune they call The Roke. This sounds quite mysterious, but it’s really only the Scots way of saying “Rock” – the tune is called The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow, after words written to it, but it originally appeared as A Scotish March in John Playford’s Musick’s Hand-Maid in 1663. It also appears as Montrose’s March, and its later title by 1731 – the original words are said to be somewhat coarse, and are unfortunately lost (which can be said, I should add, about quite a lot of old Scottish songs). However Alexander Ross wrote new words in the 1760s. Look it up on the internet: There’s also some videos on YouTube. Here’s the song as it appears in The Scots Musical Museum, volume V (1796).


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What’s in a Name

A word or two is (are) in order perhaps to explain the title of this weblog. It’s too long I expect, but it fits the subject. It derives from the name of a radio programme I host here on Saltspring Island, BC, i.e. “Themes and Variations”.  That derives from an idea/pipe dream I had ages ago when I offered to CBC a programme of that title, and it itself was inspired by two others. I wanted a combination of a general eclectic programme, such as “Gilmore’s Albums”, and a themed one like Edith Fowke’s “Folk Song Time”. That came to nothing, but here we are decades later, presented with a local radio – I volunteered, and that was that. The programme takes a theme or topic and sees what various composers, classical through pop, have done with it – e.g. on War/Soldiers, we can have Beethoven’s Battle Symphony and some songs of the squaddies like “Bless ‘em all” [the clean version of course, which came second]. The other aspect is to play a particular composer’s treatment of a tune, by himself (such as Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme”) or by someone else (e.g. Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” – or whoever wrote the St Anthony Chorale in the first place).

For the record, the URL for that station is; the programme airs every Sunday at 2 pm local (Pacific) time.  I admit I am sometimes asked about playing a lot of Scottish music on it, but actually that doesn’t get a lot of air time, except round about Burns Day or St Andrew’s Day, when it becomes obligatory. I do try and suit the music to the time of year – Vivaldi’s Seasons in their season, Yuletide, and this weekend it’ll have something to do with Canadian Thanksgiving. Among other things, I have to play the wonderful Dutch Hymn of Thanksgiving, to Eduard Kremser’s great tune, which I first heard played in moving style by Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Promenade Orchestra many moons ago. Then there’s “We plough the fields and scatter”, originally German (Alle gute Gabe) from Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815) and another from my childhood, “All things bright and beautiful”. Those two we used to sing in the primary school I attended in England, before the war [which one? Don’t be daft] and they have an aura of fond nostalgia (if I’m not mixing metaphors). More on this another time.

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More about electronic books – it’s all very well being able to obtain, due to the good offices of Google Books or the Gutenberg Project, a copy of something which I’d never be able to get my hands on in a lifetime, even had I the cost of it. That’s fine, and I salute the providers (but more on that, with brickbats, later). All the same, I do shudder  a wee bit to think that that may be ALL there is in some future – I mean, no paper, no binding, nothing tangible at all.

This means no touching of the page, caressing the physical paper, noting the indentation into it of the metal type (and that has already come to pass with photographic reproduction), smelling its characteristic odour, fondling the binding, be it cloth or leather (steady on the animal lovers), and ultimately to admire it as it takes up room on a shelf. None of that.  There is a sensual aspect to books that the future is going to miss out on.

I well remember the exhibition of books put on by the British Museum at the time of the Festival of Britain. The family went down to London, and I dragged them around the exhibits, exclaiming in subdued excitement (shhh! It’s a library) at the sight of a Caxton, a Dove Press, a  Golden Cockerel  Press, the Kelmscott  Chaucer. All right, I couldn’t handle them, either. But you know what I’m getting at I hope. There is an aesthetic  function to books that mere pictures won’t satisfy.

Having said that, the mere communicative aspect is well enough served – and served very well, I should say – by the ability to get one’s message out there in a twink for the whole world to see. Which reminds me: if anyone reading this feels inclined to comment on these random whimsies, let me know how far away you are from Canada’s west coast. I’m again in awe of the availability of the rest of the world.


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Being a proud expatriate, I try to keep up with the ongoings in the Auld Country, which is a lot easier to do than it used to be. After all, as recently as twenty years ago one could only do this on a modest income by kibitzing on a neighbour’s copy of The Glasgow Herald, or so, unless of course the news included a scandal of international interest. Like the Profumo Affair, for instance, a titillating (and I do not choose that word lightly) story of bedrooms and Cabinet secrets that ultimately brought down the Government. At the time I had been away for three years and already missing the “dear green place”, but continued on and gradually found dear green places over here. Nowadays with the proliferation to absurd lengths of the electronic media, and I include emails and all the twittering in-your-Facebook clamour that gets louder or more rampant, not to say epidemic, every day, it’s all too easy to discover the latest scandal, and there’s always at least one. The online Daily Mail will let me know of shocking behaviour in rural England, as The News of the World used to. (Alas poor NOTW! Done in by its low journalistic methods. I must do a weblog on that sometime.) As for Scottish news, the Herald from Glasgow and the Scotsman from Edinburgh generally fill me in on what’s deemed important, or even scandalous, by the editors. There’s bias of course, and as long as I remind myself that the papers have nothing much to do with Scotland (to the extent of Scotophobic malice) I’m all right. But enough of this. There are other means of inquiry, thank the Lord, in this amazing age, and in the aggregate they fill each other in and correct each other, or at least temper their temper, so to speak. Oh, how wonderful  (I reflect for the umpteenth time)  to have lived so long till an out-of-print book can be downloaded from the ether to my desk at the push of a button!

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