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Bairnsangs

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-LEARY!

                              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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Touchy-Feely

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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On Books

This weblog series will deal with whatever comes up my back in regard to Scottish music, dance, politics, language, books, etc etc etc. So the gentle reader is warned that the actual subject will (not may) vary widely and cover topics that may very well bore the hapless reader to death. For the nonce, a mention of what I’m currently reading may suffice.

I usually have at least a couple of things I’m reading in tandem, depending on how much time and energy I feel like expending on them. A whodunit, generally, on the fiction side, and some heavy tome on the non-fiction.  I’ve just finished an old Elizabeth George murder story set in wild Scotland, which bothered me much because EG has some very curious ideas about how the northern peasantry speak. This is actually a recurring criticism of mine, she’s by no means the only non-Scot to make howlers large and minor about the guid Scots tongue, and for the life of me I cannot understand why they don’t check up with a native speaker as to the accuracy or just plausibility of the dialogue. The title, by the way, is Payment in Blood.

The other book I sent away for from Inter-Library Loan, bless ‘em, having seen it recommended by a contributor to a thread on a Scottish Nationalist site. This is a scholarly edition of the account by George Lockhart of Carnwath of the events leading up the Union of Parliaments in 1707, an event which he was by no means enthusiastic about. He’s partisan, of course, and some of his comments and opinions can easily be discounted (though forgiven), yet…. The story is a sad catalogue of mischief, scheming, back-room skulduggery and quasi-criminal shenanigans that put the entire Union in what seems to my prejudiced eye an untenable situation. More of this later perhaps. Look it up yourselves – title is

‘Scotland’s Ruine’: Lockhart of Carnwath’s Memoirs of the Union. Edited by Daniel Szechi, with a foreword by Paul Scott. Aberdeen 1995, published by The Association for Scottish Literary Studies (who’ve brought out some other good stuff).

Next time maybe I’ll talk about the Child ballads, the last volume of a new edition having just appeared.

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