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Bothy Ballads

The Robertson Dynasty

Jeannie Robertson MBE
Jeannie Robertson is a monumental figure in Scottish traditional song whose influence and importance as a preserver of folklore will sustain for as long as traditional ballads are sung.

Regina Christina Robertson was born into a traveller family in Aberdeen on October 21, 1908. Her father, Donald, who died a year later, was a piper and her mother, Maria, was a singer with a vast store of songs and stories.

There was music going back generations on both sides of the family and as Jeannie grew up in the traveller life, spending 6 months of the year in Aberdeen and during spring and summer on the roads up Deeside and down Donside, there were musical gatherings round both hearthside and campsite. Music wasn’t just entertainment. The songs and stories formed guides to Traveller History and lessons in life.

Some of the songs Jeannie sang weren’t quite as old as her followers suspected, as she often made up songs of her own while doing her housework. Her singing of ballads including her most celebrated song, Son David, and the Battle of Harlaw was, however, the long oral tradition at work and she gave battle songs added realism through visualising swords clashing and men falling as she sang.

I had the good fortune to hear her sing with Pete Seeger in the Central Academy Hall in the late 50's when Seeger got his passport back after the McCarthy Witch-hunts and had undertaken a world tour - 2 superb exponents of the folk tradition - little did i realise she lived very adjacent to my school in Hilton and she had an enormous repertoire of bawdy songs that would make even her blush when singing them to an audience.  The Venue should have been the Music Hall for such a worthy duo performance.  Pete Seeger then was already a big fan of her recorded material.

Lizzie Higgins and Jeannie Robertson
How did daughter and mother compare?  Early recordings show some similarity in their singing, but whereas Jeannie progressed to a dark and passionate delivery, slow and measured, Lizzie's tone and pacing varied considerably.  As Peter Hall related (comparing their 'big' ballads), 'where Jeannie invested them with a majestic and objective grandeur, Lizzie brought a more subjective and humane intensity.'  The daughter employed little of the mother's vibrato and sliding, but used similar subtle melodic changes to bring out emphasis and meaning, well demonstrated in her recordings Lizzie described being taught songs by her father and grandmother Maria, (she appears initially to have only picked up Jeannie's songs by listening to her around the house) and encouraged by Maria to sing them at family gatherings - in contrast to the popular songs that the others preferred.  After her mother was 'discovered' in the 1950s, it began to be noticed that Lizzie was also a singer, but it appears to have taken until 1967 for her to be persuaded to sing at one of Aberdeen Folk Club's concerts.

Among the small number of singers to whom Jeannie taught the songs directly was her nephew Stanley Robertson, who died of a heart attack aged 69. Although he never achieved the fame of his aunt, Stanley was nevertheless a highly skilled singer, with a seemingly unlimited repertoire, and a storyteller with a prodigious memory.  Stanley visited his Aunt Jeannie regularly in the last years of her life. She taught him many of her songs, but had exacting standards. "Sing it richt, sing it proper and sing it real," she used to tell him. With his work commitments, and a family of six children, the opportunities for Stanley to sing beyond north-east Scotland were limited until the 1990s. He recorded an album of traditional songs, A Keeper of the Lore, for the North East Folklore Archive in Scotland (1991) and was featured on the two CDs of Travellers' Tales (2005). Appearances at the Fife Traditional Singing Weekends led to his inclusion in the resulting albums, Fife Sing 1 and 2. He also made regular visits to the National Folk Music Festival in Nottinghamshire and to Whitby Folk Week in North Yorkshire. In 2003, Stanley was one of the contributors to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. 

Nicky Tams

When I wis only ten 'ears aul' I left the pairish squeel
Ma father fee'd me tae the mains tae chaw his milk an' meal
I first pit on ma nerra breeks tae hap ma spin'le trams
Then bucklet room ma knappin' knees a pair o' nicky tams 

First I got on for bailie loon an then I got on for third
An' yne, of course, I hid tae get the horseman's gripping word
A loaf o' breid tae be ma piece, a bottle for drinkin' drams
Bit ye canna gae throw the calf-hoose door without yer nicky tams 

The fairmer I am wi' the noo, he's wealthy but he's mean
Though corn's cheap, his horse is thin, his hairness fairly deen
He gars us load wir cairts aye fu', his conscience has nae qualms
When breist-straps brak there's neething like a pair o' nicky tams 

I'm coortin' bonnie Annie noo, Rob Tamson's kitchie-deem
She is five-and-forty an' I am seiventeen
She clorts a muckle piece tae me wi' different kin's o' jam
An' tells me ilke nicht that she admires ma nicky tams 

I startit oot ae Sunday till the kirkie for tae gyang
Ma collar it was unco ticht ma breeks were nane ower lang
I had ma Bible in ma pooch, likewise ma book o' Psalms
Fan Annie roart: "Ye muckle gype, tak' aff yer nicky tams" 

Though unco sweir, I took them aff, the lassie for tae please
But aye ma breeks they lirket up aroon aboot ma knees
A wasp gaed crawlin' up ma leg in the middle o' the Psalms
An' niver again will I rig the kirk withoot ma nicky tams 

I affen thocht I'd like tae be a bobby on the force
Bit maybe I'll get on the cars tae drive a pair o' horse
Wherever it's my lot tae be, the bobbies or the trams
I'll never forget the happy days I wore ma nicky tams


Barnyards of Delgaty

I gaed doon the Turra Market, 
Turra Market for tae fee, 
An I met in wi a wealthy fairmer 
Fae the Barnyards a Delgaty. 

Linten addie, toorin addie, 
Linten addie, toorin ae, 
Linten !owrin, lowrin, !owrin, 
The Barnyards o Delgaty. 

He promised me the ae best pair, 
That was in a the country roon, 
Fan I gaed hame tae the Barnyards 
There wis naething there but skin an bane. 

The aul black horse sat on his hunkers, 
The aul white meer sat on her wime 
For a that I could ‘hup’ an ‘crack’ 
They widna rise at yokin time. 

Lang Meg Scott she maks ma bed, 
Ye can see the marks upon my shins, 
For Meg, the coorse ill-trickit jaud, 
She fills ma bed wi prickly whins. 

Jean MacPherson maks ma brose, 
An her an me wi canna gree, 
First a mote an syne a knot 
An aye the ither jilp o bree. 

Fan I gang tae the kirk on Sunday 
Mony’s the bonnie lass I see, 
Sittin by her faither’s side 
An winkin ower the pew at me. 

Oh, I can drink an nae get drunk, 
An I can fecht an nae get slain, 
I can coort anither man’s lass, 
An aye be welcome the my ain. 

My caunle noo it is burnt oot 
The snotter’s fairly on the wane; 
Sae fare ye weel, ye Barnyards, 
Ye’ll niver catch me here again

The Muckin o Geordie’s Byre    

Fan I fa tae lauchin I think on the scene, 
Fan abody roon aboot cam ower tae clean, 
But clairtit themsels richt up tae their een, 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
The Rocher, Wee Wullikie, an Mickie Doo, 
The auld wife hersel an Teeny MacCrew, 
Wi dizzens o ithers that left aff the ploo, 
For the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

0 siccan a sottar wis abody in, 
Five mile aroon ye could hear the din; 
Even the ferra coo started tae grin 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

The whisky gaed roon, Tammy fleein the doo 
An aye as they drunk the mair they got fou, 
The only eens sober the calf an the coo, 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
Tammy roared oot ‘Ring the bell, noo, for mair.’ 
Syne ruggit the coo’s tail an pu’ed oot a hair; 
Fan she kickit oot he gaed up in the air 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

The first on the beesom wis Teeny MacCrew 
Sittin doon on the stibble end caase she wis fou, 
And she kickit up sic a hullaballoo 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
She yowled like ship in distress in a gale, 
An aye on the sair bit Teeny wad wail; 
Sae they bandaged her up wi her aul bridal veil 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

The bobby cam roon tae quell doon the soun, 
The cratur got lost far the rucks hae their foun, 
He fell intae the midden an wis likely tae droon 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
The wecht o him syne sent the barra in bits, 
The wheel cairriet on an the aul wife it hits; 
Losh! ye should hae seen fu she did the splits 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

Geordie lay doon sayin he winted tae dee, 
Syne winted the lave o’s fareweel tae gie, 
Fell asleep in the strae wi the barley bree 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
He dreamt an said, ‘Mistress, I’ll kiss ye the noo, 
But losh! Fit’s gane wrang? Ye’ve an affa weet mou.’ 
Fan he crackit a spunk, he wis kissin the coo 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 

Een by een cowpit ower in the griep, 
Een by een they a fell asleep; 
Bye an bye the meen took a peep 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre. 
On the riggin a hoolet lat oot a ‘Yahoo’ 
But they didna need ony hush-ee-balloo; 
Reveille next mornin wis the moo o the coo 
At the muckin o Geordie’s byre.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013