Category Archives: Music

Tak Anither Dram

I thought I’d give you a rest, loyal readers, from political diatribes, and instead publish a song I wrote, words and music, upwards of fifty years ago. It appeared in a collection of my tunes put out by Fiddlehead Publications in Halifax N.S., but never got much publicity. It’s a drinking song, but the tune can be used (and was used by the bands I was in) as a hornpipe in medleys for Scottish country dancing. The words are as follows:

O, it’s blithe when your cronies are a’ gaithered roun’ the table,
And it’s merry when the whisky is a-flowing in the cup;
For there’s owre mony bodies want to keep us driech and dowie,
But we’ll send them to the deil and syne we’ll fill our glesses up.
O, the man that can look at us wi’ face sae dour and lang,
He is but fu’ o’ jealousy we are sae free;
Sae come on then, my jolly lads, and jine into my sang,
Gae tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.

When the nicht it is mirky and the win’ aroun’ is howlin’
Ye’ll be gled to be inside and hae a bottle at yer mou’;
And ye’ll aye be gled an’ happy when ye see yer frien’s a-comin’,
Yer frien’s that aye hae been to ye sae loyal and sae true.
There’s some will scorn and say that every friendship it must fade,
And sae it may wi’ ither men, it seems to be;
But I’m shair ye’ll aye hae mind, houever mony years hae gaed,
Hou ye’d tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.

O the days they gae by, and ilka day we’re gettin’ aulder,
But we’ll never care, for we can aye remember we were young,
When we gaed to the jiggin’, or we had a drucken rammy,
And we liltet bonny sangs that were sae sweet upon the tongue.
Let them that’s sour, and envy us, dae what the deil they may,
A better set o’ cronies they will never see;
Sae come on then, my jolly lads, we’ll hae our Hogmanay,
Gae tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.



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The Stane

Tom Harris’s mock video has Alex Salmond preparing for the coronation, and they say “the stone of Scone will be widened and strengthened” for the event, since AS will have to sit on it and he is famously chubby due to all the curry and similar swanky food he eats. I find the video quite amusing in a dire kind of way, but it’s really not that good, and Harris should have been scolded for his lack of aesthetic integrity. As it is, he resigned and is now a footnote in the history books. But I thought it a good idea to bring in the Stone of Scone, particularly since it has become (I think) something of an icon in Nationalist history. I was a late teenager when the stunning news came out that some rabid fanatics had stolen the sacred stone from its cherished place in St Edward’s cherished chair in cherished Westminster Abbey. As I remember my feelings at the time were a mixture of elation and anxiety, the latter for the miscreants who were the subjects of a massive manhunt. [For the record, their names were Kay Matheson, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon and Alan Stuart. Hats off, gentlemen!] As it was, my worry didn’t last long, they were never arrested, and the Stone was hurriedly taken back under the protection of the Establishment. That “theft” was on Christmas Day 1950, and it can still evoke a good deal of chauvinist glee at the discomfiture of the high heid yins in London, including poor King George, who said he was “most distressed” by the whole business. I’m reminded by that that in some comment about the case someone claimed it was recovered (by divine grace no doubt) in time for the Coronation of Elizabeth. Anyway, at the time there was an explosion of comment, and as is the custom songs were written to express the feelings of nationalists (of all stripes). A collection appeared from the Scottish National Congress in a little pamphlet called Sangs o’ the Stane, contributed to by many poets of distinction, including my own favourite Sydney Goodsir Smith, who contributed :a “Ballad o the Reivin o the Stane” to the tune of the obscene classic The Ball o Kirriemuir. Note that all these songs (14 in all) were to be sung to specified or recognisable tunes, in the manner of the ballads of old. There was also a bit of intro by Hugh Macdiarmid, “On the Asportation of the Scone Stone”, which happens to be in English. They were all anonymous, deliberately, and the compiler, Morris Blythman (“Thurso Berwick”), never claimed copyright.
It appeared on the 13th April, 1951, the same month the Stone (or a similar sort of rock) was left in Arbroath Abbey. It’s a mean little thing, I suppose, but I treasure my copy, and from time to time leaf through it and shake my head at the enthusiasm that produced some very marginal poetry. It’s rather like many songs in James Hogg’s Jacobite Relics, which are interesting historically but scarcely memorable or worth singing more than just a few times. Still, one song has survived, “The Wee Magic Stane”, by Johnny McEvoy, a regular at the Bo’ness Rebel Ceilidhs of the time, who later emigrated to Canada and finally retired to Scotland in 1989. It goes to the tune of the Cockney song “Villikins and his Dinah”, or (as the original tells us), “The Ould Orange Flute”.

The Dean o’ Westminster was a powerful man
He held a’ the strings o’ the State in his hand
But wi’ a’ his great business it flustered him nane
Till some rogues ran awa wi his wee magic stane.
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay

Noo the Stane had great pow’rs that could dae sic a thing
And withoot it, it seemed, we’d be wantin’ a king
So he called in the polis and gave this decree–
Go an hunt oot the Stane and return it tae me
Wi’ a etc.

So the polis went beetlin’ up tae the North
They huntit the Clyde and they huntit the Forth
But the wild folk up yonder just kiddit them a’
Fur they didnae believe it was magic at a’
Wi’ a etc.

Noo the Provost o’ Glesca, Sir Victor by name
Wis awfy pit oot whan he heard o’ the Stane
So he offered the statues that staun in the Square
That the High Church’s masons might mak a few mair.
Wi’ a etc.

When the Dean o Westminster wi this was acquaint
He sent fur Sir Victor and made him a saint,
“Noo it’s nae good you sending your statues doon here”
Said the Dean, “but you’ve gied me a right good idea.”
Wi’ a etc.

So he quarried a stane o the very same stuff
An he dressed it a’ up till it looked like enough
Then he sent for the press and announced that the Stane
Had been found and returned tae Westminster again.
Wi’ a etc.

When the reivers found oot what Westminster had done,
They went aboot diggin up stanes by the ton,
And fur each wan they feenished they entered the claim
That this was the true and original stane.
Wi’ a etc.

Noo the cream o the joke still remains tae be telt,
Fur the bloke that wis turnin’ them aff on the belt,
At the peak o production was so sorely pressed
That the real yin got bunged in alang wi the rest
Wi’ a etc

So if ever ye cam’ on a stane wi a ring,
Just sit yersel doon and appoint yersel King,
Fut there’s nane wud be able tae challenge yir claim
That you’d croont yersel King on the Destiny Stane
Wi’ a too-ra-li-oo-ra-li-oo-ra-li-ay.

The Lord Provost at the time was Sir Victor Warren (Progressive, which roughly meant Conservative), who held the post from 1949-1952. He was an implacable foe of the Scottish Nationalists, and some fanatics daubed the front of his house with the words, “in very large letters, LONDON’S OFFICE BOY, SCOTLAND’S QUISLING, and in even larger letters underneath the word TRAITOR.” (- Harry Diamond’s fascinating memoirs.) You see today’s invective I mentioned last time has a long history.
The Attorney General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, made a statement in the Commons on April 1, 1951 – a significant date, surely, for the reivers had made fools of the authorities – saying that no action would be taken against them, his reason being that he did not think it was in the public interest that he should direct criminal proceedings to be taken:”I have no desire to provide these individuals with the opportunity either of being regarded by their followers as martyrs if convicted or as heroes if they are not convicted.”

The Dean was Alan Campbell Don, KCVO, D.D. (1885–1966), ironically a Scot, born in Dundee, where he served from 1921 to 1931 as Provost of St Paul’s Cathedral. He broadcast an appeal for the return of the Stone, and I’m sure there were many who believed that had some effect. The Square is George Square, home to the Council Chambers and many statues, including an 80-foot-high column in the centre featuring Sir Walter Scott, which was erected in 1837. Others (Wiki tells us) include the only known equestrian statues of a young Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, poets Robert Burns and Thomas Campbell, inventor James Watt, chemist Thomas Graham, generals Sir John Moore, Lord Clyde and politicians William Ewart Gladstone, Robert Peel and James Oswald (1779-1853). That should have kept the masons busy for a good while.

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The Bard

This is Robert Burns’s birthday. He was born, as he himself tells us, on the 25th of January, 1759. The age into which he was born was a rather curious one for Scotland. It was a time of transition, of flux, of change of attitude in the philosophies, moral and political, of the age. It was an age of new thought: the age of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Tom Paine. The Age of Enlightenment was at hand, and at the same time the Age of Imperialism was not far off. In Scotland, the Golden Age of Classicism was in full swing, for the country was settling down. At the same time, however, the Second Jacobite Rebellion was only thirteen years vanquished, and the memory of the atrocities of Butcher Cumberland was still strong in the Highlands, where the Jacobite songs were to be preserved for another half-century, till resurrected by James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd”. Burns’s own father, William Burness, may himself have been ‘out’ in the ’45, but this perhaps is wishful thinking on the part of the bardolaters. Burns certainly had Jacobite tendencies; and although most critics seem to think Burns had the French Revolution in mind, as well as Bannockburn, when he wrote “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled” (he himself refers in a letter to “other struggles, not quite so ancient”), I can’t help feeling that there is here at least a reminiscence of the Stuart cause. Besides this he must have been thinking of the 1790s Sedition trials whch sent those who dared to speak of social rights and parliamentary reform to New South Wales.

Apart from the political climate of the mid-18th century, we must of course consider the literary one. Burns did not begin to write until his teens; and then it was because he fell in love with a neighbour’s daughter, Nellie Kilpatrick. In her honour he wrote “O aince I lo’ed a bonnie lass”, a competent piece of lovesong for a lad of fourteen. What we should remember about this production is that it was written as a song, to a tune, the lassie’s favourite reel. Many a poem was to come from Burns’s fist in the next 23 years, but the majority by which he is remembered consists of songs, to which he turned in the last nine years of his life, helping James Johnson and George Thomson in their collections of Scots songs, entirely without remuneration, out of a sheer sense of patriotism.
For he loved the songs and poetry of Scotland. In his youth, like any other 18th century reader, he admired the elegant verses of the fashionable, and read such fustian novels as Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling with great appreciation. But there were other influences to reckon with. The immediate predecessor of Burns as a vernacular poet, Burns’s “elder brother in the Muses”, was Robert Fergusson, who died at the age of 24 in 1774, when Burns was just 15—whose grave was unmarked till Burns himself spent £5.10.0 on his headstone. He is overshadowed by Burns, as are most other Scottish poets, goodness knows! But Burns always felt a debt to him.
His other debts were many; he derived inspiration from the old Scots makars, like Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, who among other things translated Virgil’s Aeneid into good Scots verse—Burns quotes a line at the beginning of Tam O Shanter from Douglas: “Of brownis and bogillis full is this boke.” Tam O Shanter is indeed a tale of bogles, a wonderful piece of folklore cast into memorable and artful verse. I say artful, because the piece is constructed with the sure hand of a skilled craftsman. Burns knew exactly what he was doing here. It has been fashionable, for instance, to say that where Burns writes English, he is least successful. This is true in many cases, and Burns himself writes to Thomson (re his attempt at dressing up “Duncan Gray” in English) “These English songs gravel me to death.” Yet in many more instances, he uses English (or Scots English, i.e. English as spoken by a Scot) for special effects. Tom Crawford, a Burns scholar of note, points out that Burns passes from one variety of diction to another, and not haphazardly. Mind you, while on the page such lines as “But pleasures are like poppies spread…” look English, they should be read in Scots. The same goes for “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” and other pieces. For all that, he knows the versatility and accuracy of the guid Scots tongue and uses it to the fullest effect. I’m minded of the somewhat obscure poetess Janet Hamilton of Langloan (1795-1873), who could defend it well:

Na na! I winna pairt wi’ that, I downa gie it up;
O’ Scotland’s hamely mither tongue I canna quat the grup.
It’s bedded in my very heart, Ye needna rive or rug,
It’s in my e’e, and on my tongue,And singin’ in my lug.

This is his birthday. He’s now 253 years old. He’ll be that old, because although he ended his days at the age of 37 without a shilling to his name, in 1796, he gave us an immense wealth of satire and song which has kept him alive ever since. A few years after his burial (which drew large crowds) a few friends met in his cottage to remember him. And it didn’t take long before other meetings were being held, latterly on his birth day, to do him honour, till in 1859 the fellow-poet William Motherwell could produce a fat book chronicling the many celebrations that were held all over the world. As time went by, the “Burns Cult” grew and grew, reaching perhaps ridiculous dimensions at times. To say a word against Burns in some companies was (and is) as dangerous as wearing a green scarf in Brigton. Burns came to represent Scotland as Robert the Bruce never could, and certainly no-one thinks that Shakespeare represents England. But Burns was accepted as the Scot par excellence because of his nearness to the ordinary man. He was a poet of the people, a folk-poet, in fact, creating out of the entire tradition of his country a voice that could speak authentically for the country. This is one reason, incidentally, that he was a great favourite in the Soviet Union (as indeed he still is in Russia), and I can vouch for the fact that Burns translates very well into Russian. The translations of Burns’s works into other languages are past counting; but almost every nation seems to appreciate him as much as we do. (This doesn’t always happen, naturally; Byron is more honoured in France than the United Kingdom; as is Edgar Allan Poe more than in the States – due to the enthusiasm of Baudelaire.)
Often enough, however, the rise of the Burns Cult (complete, you’ll notice, with pilgrimages to the prophet’s shrine, commemorative meals, and ritual recitation of the Scriptures) has meant sometimes that people praise Burns knowing little about him, that they pay mere lip-service to his memory. Some deliberately ignore the message (and there is one) that Burns gave, and indulge in haggis-bashing sprees, merely because it’s the fashionable thing to do. Burns perhaps would be saddened by the excesses of the cult; but there is one cheering thought: the Bard was if nothing else fond of good company, and good fellowship.
That people foregather for such, even once a year, would surely have pleased him; and he who envisioned a united world (in “A Man’s a Man for a’ that”) would take comfort from the fact that at this time, all over the globe, the Turks, the Chinese, the Russians, the Australians, the dwellers in outlandish airts from Timbuctoo to Tottenham, celebrate with conviviality the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

A long time since, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, I wrote a few lines to recite at a Burns Nicht dinner, to end the Immortal Memory speech, which I like to think would not have been disagreeable to the makar himself.

Whare’er ye be, you makar guid,
Look doon (or up) and fan our bluid,
Mak us a’ human, no like wuid,
      I’m shair ye can;
Let each o’ us, this warld amid,
      Lo’e brither man.

Lads and lasses, I gie you
The chiel whas ghaist is wi’ us nou;
Leal was his hert and unco true,
      To each a brither;
He’ll keep the laurel on his brou;
      When sic anither?


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Left? Right.

I see that Janey Buchan has died at the age of 85. When I met her she was a young 34, which seems ridiculous now. I went along to Norman and Janey Buchans’ flat a few times before I left Scotland, and often regretted I hadn’t been able to further our acquaintance. I lugged my guitar with me and was pleased to be allowed to sing a song for the company – as I remember, a sort of happy-go-lucky entourage who welcomed new faces and immediately got into conversation. And the talk was mostly about leftist politics of course. My song was a Russian one I’d learned when I was training to be a spy [more on this later perhaps], titled Pomnju ja, and I was delighted when a Polish guest joined in the chorus:

Pomnju, pomnju, pomnju ja,
Kak menja mat’ ljubila,
I ne raz, I ne dva,
Ona mne govorila.

(I remember, I remember, how my mother loved me, and not once, and not twice [many times] she spoke to me…)
– about the bad company I kept, otherwise I’d wind up in Siberia in shackles. A political song, of course!
Norman was into folksongs, and had a hand in getting The Reivers onto television. We exchanged books and opinions – though I was never quite as far left as they were, although I called myself an anarchist, and in fact I’ve wondered once or twice what they would have thought of later developments in Scottish/British politics. I can’t see them as Blairites, for instance.
We talked about Burns once or twice – predictably, the quasi-socialist aspect of his poems. I mention this because of the upcoming anniversary of his birth, next Wednesday, on which significant day the First Minister of Scotland promises to unveil his plans for the much spoken of referendum, so that a dialogue or discussion may take place. I follow this from thousands of miles away with a mixture of amusement and cynicism, I can say: amusement at the knots the Unionist cabal are tying themselves into, and cynicism in that I don’t really believe the promises, or threats, that they make.
If Westminster says that Scotland should “calm down, dear” and stay in the union because of jam tomorrow, I for one nod sardonically and say “Aye, right!” There is also the undiscussed and unanswerable question of the political consequences of independence. (A long time ago, when the SNP were a beleaguered minority, I broached the obvious point that a Scottish government would likely be full of Socialists of one stripe or another, not to say Communists. This did not go down well with the Catholic family I was lodging with, but my leftist friends in the Socialist Labour League were interested to chew over the idea.)
However, as “events, dear boy” have shown, what Holyrood has is a left-centre government (so far), and the prospect of a whole plethora of parties of various colours vying for their place in the sun in a new independent Scotland. – Whatever the result of the referendum, whenever it is, I think it’s true to say that “it’s comin yet, for aa that”. Maybe not in my lifetime, alas, though geriatrics are wonderful these days.
Not until then, however, will we really need to bother ourselves about a national anthem. More on this later, I trust, but right now let me disown the idea that “Flower of Scotland” is anything other than a sentimental patriotic piece of claymore-rattling. Yes, it’s a good song, and can be very effective, nay moving, in the right circumstances; but that’s it.
Next piece will be all about Burns, I promise.

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Flodden Field

That referendum I mentioned last time has been promised for 2014. In the autumn, and not June (the anniversary of the famous victory), which may surprise people who thought a vote on the actual day of the resounding defeat of the Auld Enemy would be very appropriate for dealing another smack in the goolies. It might be thought however that the great anniversary could overshadow the political decision in an unexpected way; besides, oh horrors if the vote were no, such a defeat for national aspirations would do something to taint the blessed day.
Bannockburn Day is celebrated with some pomp and circumstance, skirling and speeching, as may be expected. Some think there’s a bit too much of that. Take a look, though, at the preserved site of that other battle in 1513. There’s a simple monument erected in 1910 inscribed with words I find quite moving: TO THE DEAD OF BOTH NATIONS.
The rights and wrongs of the event can be argued over – was James a warmongering tool of the French? Was perfidious Albion just defending its home? And what about Henry, eh? Well, no one can deny that the battle, the last great mediaeval battle maybe (the Scots used the old style, the wily English the new), changed history and had a dreadful effect upon Scotland. Look up the list of the fallen – great names and small, lords and lairds and knights and gentlemen from all over the kingdom, not to mention the poor bloody infantry and all who are not named in the history books. The loss in sheer manpower to the country was immense, and the king himself slain. It was in remembrance of the disaster that Jean Elliot of Minto wrote “The Flowers of the Forest” lamenting the sudden decimation of the manhood of Scotland:

The Flowers of the Forest

I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day;
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning;
“The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”.

At buchts in the morning nae blythe lads are scorning;
The lasses are lonely and dowie and wae;
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sabbing,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering,
The bandsters are lyart, and runkled or gray;
At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

At e’en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk ane sits drearie, lamenting her dearie,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border!
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day:
The Flowers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

I put up the words, even though they’re very available in umpteen books, and the Net of course. The above set is mostly as the song is given in the Stenhouse notes to The Scots Musical Museum. The tune is given in volume one, no. 63, to “Adieu ye streams that smoothly glide”, verses by Anne Home (Mrs John Hunter), whose main claim to remembrance is penning the words to “My mother bids me bind my hair”, a favourite canzonet by Haydn.


Henry VIII’s poet laureate John Skelton wrote a triumphant sneering sort of poem about the event, “A ballade of the scottysshe kynge”, which doesn’t say much except pour scorn on James (whose death was still in doubt) and his presumption. It was published in black letter that year, just after the battle, and ends

God saue kynge Henry and his lordes all
And sende the frensshe kynge suche an other fall,

Amen, for saynt charytë
And god saue noble.
Kynge Henry
The viij.

This is nicely reproduced with lots of background by John Ashton, 1882.
There is another “Ballad of Flodden Field”, composed much later, which is quite long and detailed, ending with the lines

                               Thus have you heard of Flodden fight.
                               Worthy of each to be commended :
                               Because that then Old England’s right
                               Was bravely by her sons defended.

In the great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads of Francis James Child, “Flodden Field” is no. 168, from a 17th-century copy of a 16th-century ballad: “in disgrace of the Scots, and in remembrance of the famous atchieved historie, the commons of England made this song, which to this day is not forgotten of many.”
I wonder what ceremonies are planned for the quincentenary next year? The Selkirk Common Riding will remember it of course. Tradition says that after the battle a lone man, the Town Clerk, came to town with a captured flag, let it be known that all but he had been killed, and promptly died.
2013 marks 60 years since the coronation of Elizabeth Queen of Scots. This year marks the 60th since good king George died. Poor man, he didn’t live to see all the shenanigans of after time, which is maybe just as well. What would he make of his grandchildren? But that’s another blog…

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Yule Blog

Scotland has not been awfully enthusiastic about Christmas for quite a while, ever since Cromwell at least, and before that under the Calvinists. But the sheer pagan enjoyment of the turn of the year has deep roots, and so in recent times Scots have joined in the festivities quite eagerly. Still, one index of the lukewarm reception of Christmas is the lack of carols. I can only think offhand of one, namely the Christ Child Lullaby (Tàladh Chriosd), which is of course in Gaelic. [I refer you to the URL There’s quite a few similar things in other cultures, as e.g. “Away in a Manger”, which is not initially addressed to the baby Jesus, and in Polish there’s quite a few, called kołysanki (cradle songs), such as this, which I got from an old friend of mine, the late Jan Freyman, who pointed out that the theme was used (or appropriated) by Chopin:


song 1

I admit a better rhyme in the first verse would be “greeting”, which is good Scots but maybe a bit confusing for Sassunachs.

German has, among many others, “Schlaf, mein Kindelein”, found in the Strassburger Gesangbuch of 1697, and still sung in the Rhone region.


It continues (with “Singet” etc after each verse):

“Komm, mein Kindelein, schau dein Bettelein,
das für dich bereitet ist!”
“Komm mein Söhnelein in dies Krippelein,
das mit Heu gestreuet ist!”

“Schliess die Äugelein, deck deine Händelein,
den es braust ein scharfer Wind!”
“Schlaf, mein Kindelein, dich das Eselein
wird erwärmen mit dem Rind!”

“Schlaf, mein Ziere, meine Begiere,
schweig, dass sich dein Leid nicht mehr!”
“Schlaf, mein Sohne: von seinem Throne
schickt dein Vater Englein her.”

Each two lines are sung by mother and father, alternately. It’s a bit difficult to render this accurately with the tenderness of all those diminutives, but:

“Sleep, my little one, sleep, my little son”
Sings the mother, purest maid;
“Sleep, my little dear, darling, have no fear,”
sings the father to the babe.
Sing all for the little child,
Honey-sweet wee Jesus mild.
Sing, all cherubs in the skies,
A thousand lovely melodies.

“Come, my sleepyhead, see your little bed
That is now all ready made.”
“Come, my little dear, into the manger here
That has hay within it laid.”

“Close your eyes now, cover your hands now,
For a wind that’s sharp does blow.”
“Sleep, my babykin, the manger all within,
Ox and ass will warm you so.”

“Sleep, my pretty one, sleep, my little one,
Hush, and have surcease of care!”
“Sleep, my son, and from his throne
Your Heavenly Father sends angels here.”

That’s my Christmas contribution. A Merry Christmas [and Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa and so forth] to all my readers! Nollaig Chridheil agus Bliadhna Mhath Ur!

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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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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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