To the 6 wemen that drew the cairt xxviijs.
For 6 shakellis to the wemeinis hands,
wit the chainyeis to zame vii lib. ijs.
Mair for 14 lokis for thair waists ond thair handis iiij li. iiijs.
For ane qwhip for the gentlewemen in the cairt xijs.
That account for chains, shackles, locks and a whip (and, a cheaper item, wages) to keep women pulling cartloads of building materials is from March 1639, during the construction of George Heriot's school. But nobody wrote down what they sang.
Edinburgh's industrial past is the subject of what amounts to a conspiracy of silence by the heritage business. While it was the largest industrial centre in the northern half of Britain for centuries, hardly any of the places where all this work was done are now identifiable, and even today the most important industrial structures in the city are routinely demolished without a flicker of objection from the planners. The whole zone from Canongate to Canonmills was the site of chemical works, iron foundries, breweries, tanneries, print shops, and railway shunting yards. The vast chimney of the early 19th century gasworks north of the Canongate, the highest structure ever erected in the city, is now only documented in a few pictures where the artist was honest enough not to leave it out. The most hazardous and most polluting industries imaginable were all conducted inside the city; it took centuries for planning laws to cut the terrible fire risks of candlemaking and bulk storage of spirits. Smell was simply not a concern. At the time of Littlejohn's sanitary report of 1865, industries like the processing of animal intestines were still conducted in the heart of the city, and at the same time in the middle of it all, the Old Town's 2000 cows must have been kept in conditions close to battery farming. From this period comes Factory Smoke, a hornpipe from Edinburgh in the style more often associated with industrial Tyneside; it's from Köhler's Violin Repository of the 1880s. Its second part is a reflection of Lord Kelly's Reel from 100 years earlier.
The oldest work-related music known from Edinburgh is connected with the trade guilds. These combined functions now carried out by many different organizations; they represented their members' interests like a trade union, lobbied for business like a marketing board, examined apprentices like an education authority, provided for members in distress and their families like a life insurance company, regulated product quality like a standards organization, put on public entertainments like an amateur musical society and even maintained secret religious traditions like a mystery cult. They are first recorded in the fifteenth century, though their origins are probably somewhat older; they might have grown out of a fusion of the needs of the trades with the culture of the religious confraternities found all over mediaeval Europe, and which persisted in Scotland until the Reformation. They multiplied between 1400 and 1600 as patterns of work grew more specialized, but the first-formed ones - for bakers, metalworkers, skin and leather workers, butchers and woodworkers - remained among the most powerful. They were all-male groups; there may have been an attempt to form a guild of women servants in the early 18th century, but we know very little about it except from satires.
Each of the guilds had a set date for its annual festivities, usually the feast day of its patron saint, and most seem to have had a theme tune, played on the bells of the High Kirk of St Giles on their festive day and possibly other public occasions. These tunes must date back to the late Middle Ages, and so are among the oldest in this book. Saints were a central part of the guild culture; each guild maintained an elaborately decorated and very expensive altar to its saint inside St Giles. This was intolerable to the Reformers; all the altars were destroyed on a single day, June 14, 1559. But this made almost no difference to the other activities of the guilds.
Thrie Sheips Skins was the tune of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, as played on the bells of St Giles. Words for it found by David Herd (1732-1810) were most likely added later, or are a muddling-up of something much older, as the language is comparatively modern and they have nothing to do with the trade:
Three sheep-skins and the wrong side o' them outward -
He's a thief and she's a loon that ca'd my wife a drunkard.
She is not a drunkard, but she's a pretty dancer,
She has a tongue intill her head to gie a mettle answer.
This version is from the Skene Manuscript, a tablature book for the mandour (small 5-course lute) dating from about 1625; it was compiled by John Skene of Halyards (c.1580-1644) and put into staff notation by William Dauney (1800-1843) in his Ancient Scotish Music. The melody was reused many times, from an anti-Catholic satire early in the Reformation to a Baroque variation set in Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion.
Clout the Cauldron is a musically similar trade tune, the theme of the Incorporation of Hammermen, which included metalworkers of all kinds. An older title for it was The Blacksmith and his Apron. I've included three versions of the tune: as it appears in Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius; and two different versions from the Scots Musical Museum. Thomson "improved" the song with the gratuitous classical allusions beloved of 18th century literary hacks, and although it is almost a believable folksong if you leave them out, I've selected a much less familiar version, from the manuscript songbook of Adam Murray in the National Library of Scotland, dated 1796 but probably written 40 or 50 years before. Murray didn't write the refrain out in full - I've given the one from The Turnimspike in the Scots Musical Museum which uses the original tune, whereas their setting of the Clout the Cauldron text uses the tune for Donald Caird (or later, Cameron's Got His Wife Again) instead. Burns parodied it twice: My bonie lass I work in brass, part of his cantata Love and Liberty, which stays close to the original idea, and Ye jovial boys who love the joys, a song in praise of fornicators. Several other tunes of the 18th century seem to be variations on it. The Hammermen were one of the wealthiest and most powerful of guilds; as well as an altar in St Giles they built their own chapel in the Cowgate in 1547, which still survives. They still exist as a social organization; their lowest point was reached in 1932, when they had only three members left, all in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
The origin and meaning of The Deacon of the Weavers is obscure; the Deacon was the elected president of a guild. The Devil tries and fails to become a weaver in a set of words collected in Dumfriesshire, beginning:
The deacon o' the weavers, the sow-luggit loon
He's awa' to Edinburgh to see the new mune;
Wi' the treddles on his back and sowen-mug abune -
And he's awa' to Edinburgh to see the new mune!
The magical content suggests it has something to do with the mystery traditions of the old guilds, of which only those of the masons have been maintained to the present.
The Air of the Corporation of Tailors was used by Burns for his song The Taylor fell thro' the bed and also for a bawdy song in The Merry Muses of Caledonia, I rede you beware of the ripples young man. The Fleshers (butchers) were another of Edinburgh's trade guilds. The "Fleshouirs Seill of Cause" of 1488 contains an early example of food hygiene regulation, with ferocious penalties including imprisonment, confiscation of goods and permanent banishment from the city. Of course the main point of that statute was not to protect the public but to shut out competitors; in particular, Leith butchers and fishmongers were targeted for a boycott. The Fleshers Rant comes from Sharpe of Hoddom's manuscript. The Wrights Rant is a variant of The Stool of Repentance, published by Aird late in the 18th century; the strange-sounding G in the fourth bar, which would be an A in the modern version, is the way it is in the book. The Bakers Rant is from, appropriately, the Baxter Manuscript of the early 18th century. The bakers (baxters) were the oldest of the Edinburgh guilds, incorporated in 1522.
The patron saint of shoemakers (sutors, souters) was St Crispin, secularized as King Crispin after the Reformation. The Fourteenth of October is named after his feast day in the Old Style calendar (the 25th in the modern one), and was the march used for the shoemakers' procession.
On the fourteenth of October
Was never a sutor sober.
Eventually this was held only every three years, but it long outlived the rest of the guild celebrations. The tune is here taken from Orpheus Caledonius, which attaches a completely irrelevant text. The Cordwainers March is another tune for the same guild; it was first published by Aird in 1781. This version is a few years later, from Sharpe of Hoddom's manuscript. Afterwards, it went through many attempts at plagiarism or appropriation. It first became Mr Nairne's Strathspey in Daniel McLaren's collection of 1805; then Lord Balgonie's Favourite, mislabelled as an old Highland tune by Nathaniel Gow; Alexander Campbell, the editor of Albyn's Anthology of Gaelic songs, claimed to have written it, as the strathspey Rev'd Mr Patrick McDonald of Kilmore, named after the editor of the first important collection of Highland vocal melodies and an authority on the Highland pipes. Robert Tannahill used it as the melody for his song Gloomy Winter; then Simon Fraser published a variant of it in 1816 in his collection of Highland music as An dilleachdan (The Orphan), claiming his father used to sing it. Finally it turned up in the 1990s as the English minimalist composer Michael Nyman's theme for the New Zealand film The Piano (itself with a scenario plagiarized from a novel of the 1930s by Jane Mander), with no indication of any origin except that Nyman thought it was Scottish. Given the history of this tune, a real Scot would have said he'd written it himself.
Other groups of workers had organizations that functioned like guilds without having the same political power. Cadgers were porters, carrying goods through the narrow closes of the Old Town where carts or pack animals could not go; they also acted as guides and bodyguards and formed a close-knit society, often more effective at police work than the official forces. "Caddies" in golf were at first cadgers taking on a new line of business. Cadgers of the Canongate is a very old dance tune; I've taken it from the Gows. In settings for the flute or pipes, it's known as Dalkeith Fair. Cadger Watty is taken from Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion.
Whipmen, or carters, brought goods into the city; they often lived in communities outside it, like Gilmerton. Is Your Graith In Order, also known as The Whipman's Rant, seems to have been their equivalent of a guild tune. (A graith is a girth-strap for a horse). I've taken it from the second volume of the Gows' Complete Repository. By modern standards it's a strange tune, a slow reel in six-bar phrases. Perhaps it was intended for a dance in the old Whipmen's Play, a little-documented festival revived by guesswork at West Linton from 1803 onwards.
Workers on the land, and the poorest in the city, were unorganized. The poor man's labour's never done is a tune from the late seventeenth century, from the Blaikie Manuscript.
Laundry in 18th century Scotland was done by large groups of women together, trampling the clothes in tubs of water. Early in the century this often meant taking tubs to the river and washing them in cold water. By the 1750s, furnaces sold hot water by the bucketful at the wash-houses, which could be on a huge scale, with hundreds of women trampling at once. Stockbridge was a natural place for a laundry, with the Water of Leith running fast over rocky shallows. Had I the wyte she bad me was sung by the Stockbridge washerwomen at the end of the 18th century, according to C.K. Sharpe in a manuscript with this one verse only. I've given three versions of the tune: early ones from Orpheus Caledonius and Alexander Stuart's Musick for Allan Ramsay's Collection of Scots Songs which fit, and a two-part version, The Bob of Fettercairn, which I've taken from Kerr's Merry Melodies of the 1880s. It occurs in other collections as Highland Hills and Jockey and Peggie. A variation set on it was published in Bremner's Curious Collection of Scots Tunes of 1759. It's the only Scots tune in the Lydian mode I know. A much longer version of the words was included by Burns as Had I the Wyte She Bade Me in The Merry Muses of Caledonia and (unrecognizably sanitized) in the Scots Musical Museum, where it is also used for the song Now Westlin Winds. Probably the women ad-libbed extra verses going far beyond Burns in bawdiness for as long it took to get the dirt out. I haven't heard of any other urban women's laundry songs, but since "steamies" survived in Scottish cities until only a generation ago, and were a natural place to sing, songs that went with them might still be recoverable.
"Waterman" is a word that could describe several different groups of workers. One was the people who operated the colliery pumps; from 1661 on, they became serfs as the miners already were. Another group was the men who carried water from the High Street wells to sell in outlying parts of the city; they were incorporated as one of the trades. The Watermen's Rant is from a collection of Bremner's from about 1760. In England the word usually referred to boatmen, particularly the men who worked the London ferries and passenger boats; several songs and dance tunes from the decades around 1700 relate to them.
A Midlothian riddle:
Black I be, though much admired,
People seek me till they're tired;
Tired horse, and tired man,
Guess this riddle if you can.
The answer is "coal". The Great Seam underlies much of the Central Belt of Scotland, a single stratum of coal from Lanarkshire through the Lothians under the Forth to Fife. Mining has been one of the major industries of the area since the Middle Ages. It began by people picking seacoal, grew into small drift mines, and seems to have been on an industrial scale at Gilmerton by 1427, digging ever deeper into its vertical seams, "edge coals". This mine was producing 24,000 tons a year by 1760, and in 1830 it was the deepest mine in Scotland. The largest of all was the colossal Lady Victoria pit at Newtongrange opened in 1895, which extended as far as the present southern boundary of Edinburgh The smaller Monktonhall pit of 1953 swallowed old mines used to fuel the lime-kilns at Burdiehouse and make mortar for building the New Town. It sank to nearly 4000 feet deep, broke British and European extraction rate records, and extended under much of eastern Edinburgh suburbia, as many local residents have found out since its closure; the collapse of the workings has produced a series of micro-earthquakes.
And the mines feeding Edinburgh's industry spread out far beyond these. Many of the great families of Edinburgh owed much of their wealth to coal mines. The Duke of Buccleuch's mines around Dalkeith were among the largest; the Dundas family's mines at Arniston supplied the towns of the Borders; and the aristocratic style-setting of the Clerks of Penicuik was made possible by the wealth under their feet, which they were among the first to exploit on an industrial scale. One of the longest-worked mines were those of Newbattle, operated by Newbattle Abbey for 400 years much like a secular mining company; they also had lead mines and a harbour. Mark Ker was made abbot as a young man in 1547, probably through family influence and bribes. At the Reformation he effortlessly leapt from corrupt monk to aristocrat, becoming the hereditary Commendator of the Abbey, with his family taking over former Church property in a move paralleling the post-Soviet rise of the Mafia. My Ladie Laudian's Lilt is a lute piece from the Skene Manuscript of 1625 which stayed in the dance music repertoire for centuries. It was meant for the widow of his son, also Mark Kerr, first Earl of Lothian. The Lothian dynasty ran the mines of the area south-west of Dalkeith up to their nationalization in 1947. They are still the feudal superiors of the former mining village they had built at Newtongrange, including my house.
With few usable mill streams, nearby fuel timber exhausted, and fitful wind, Edinburgh increasingly depended on coal for energy from the 16th century. By 1600, two-thirds of Scotland's coal exports were mined in the Lothians and shipped from Leith, with vast amounts used locally to heat the saltpans needed for the salt meat trade. A severe fuel shortage across Scotland in 1621, caused by a year of heavy rain waterlogging the peatfields, gave coal its final push as Edinburgh's main energy source, and the later industries of distilling, iron, limeburning and town gas demanded ever more of it.
From 1617 until the end of the 18th century most Scottish miners were serfs, owned outright by the mine operators, with their children invariably sold by a token payment ("arled") into the same status from birth, with not even the chance of emancipation that a Roman slave had. And compulsion could be yet more extreme: when Cromwell besieged the Castle in 1650, they were forced at gunpoint to work as sappers under enemy fire. The mine owners did not just have to depend on hereditary serfs; an act of 1672 permitted owners of coal mines or salt workings to take vagabonds prisoner in a land-bound version of the naval press gang. Even after the first emancipation law of 1775, a coal-owner could turn basic freedoms into a legal game of Simon Says. A court warrant of 25 July 1796 issued to the Grange Coal Company of Boness allowed them to arrest and imprison 25 miners who had quit their jobs:
none of these persons have obtained their liberty under the late statute for emancipating the Coaliers and Salters in Scotland nor taken any Measures in compliance with the Statute for that purpose, consequently they remain in the same Situation as Coalliers and Salters were in before the passing of that Act.
This cat-and-mouse game was finally ruled out by a law of 1799. The result was that all the men who could leave did, and more women and children went down the mines than ever before; only the post-Napoleonic War slump got men to go underground again in their former numbers. Women had always been used extensively in the mines around Edinburgh for carrying coal away from the face; they are mentioned as working in his own mines by Sir John Clerk of Penicuik in a letter of 1724 and are depicted in a drawing of the Gilmerton mineworkings in 1786. Women and children were still working underground in Scottish pits until 1843, when they were replaced by pit ponies. Children usually began work at the age of 5 or 6, as "trappers", operating the many trapdoors in the shafts. There is even an account of a child going down a Lothian mine at the age of 3 to hold a candle. The Fife miner-poet Joe Corrie summed it up in 1938 in his poem Slavery:
O, Love, that we were far away
O'er yonder wild and lonely hill,
Away from all this Christless toil
To spend our days at will.
But you will slave, and I will slave,
My wish will go and ne'er return,
And you will wed, sweet love, with me,
That other slaves be born.
Until the middle of the 19th century, a large part of the labour of Midlothian miners was a pointless waste of effort. Robert Bald's A General View of the Coal Trade of Scotland (1808) described a bizarre local belief that "great coal" - enormous lumps, at the limit of what the miners could extract in one piece - was better. Once these enormous lumps had been dragged into the cellars of the Edinburgh houses, they had to be broken up into small pieces anyway. No other coalmines in the world tried to meet such peculiar demands.
The single verse of the Coal-Bearers Lamentation is from the manuscripts of Lady John Scott in the middle of the nineteenth century; she had married into the coal-owning Buccleuch family. The song comes from the Duddingston mine, and according to Margaret Warrender was passed on to Lady Scott by Sophy Johnston of Hilton, who would have heard it late in the 18th century. The tune is a variant of the Air of the Corporation of Tailors. I've left it in Scott's key; this must be the only Scottish song ever transcribed in C sharp minor. The coalbearer of the song would certainly have been a woman. Another song to the same tune is in a manuscript of C.K. Sharpe's; this could well also have a coalbearer as the narrator, with a similar theme to When She Came Ben She Bobbit or The Collier's Daughter. Perhaps these two songs are fragments from a larger lost one, or fragments from a common stock of verses used to make a variety of songs on the plight of women mineworkers.
The miners and the coalowners lived side by side but in entirely separate worlds. The Dundases may have been the most benevolent coalowners of Midlothian, building many community facilities for their workers and not enforcing serfdom; but their apartheid was as rigid as anywhere. Tom Foley's long poem Brushings described growing up in the 1930s at Hunterfield, Gorebridge, a community built around the Dundas family's Arniston mine and only a few miles from their family seat of Arniston House:
"Doon the Glen" we went - a boon from the Dundas,
lost to us now as shares in Arniston Coal are to them.
"It's the birch for ye if ye gan ower the Estate fence"
- parents' immemorial warning to adventurous children.
"It's the Estate" left children pillars of salt
and an errant ball crowbait with no answer
to "Where's your ball?" at the homing.
Look but don't touch - the inviting park
so innocent of our fate if we trod her galliard.
'Twas like my bludgeoned sex education,
"Admire but neither taste nor touch
or it's the Pit for ye!"
These Arniston miners were descendants of 19th century Irish immigrants. Foley describes them listening nostalgically to sentimental songs like The Rose of Tralee, as the Irish everywhere in the diaspora did. Other immigrants were from further afield. By 1907 there were 400 Lithuanians in the eastern Scottish mines, usually called "Poles"; so many that some pits had safety instructions in Russian. I would like to know what they sang.
The Lothian coalfield had few large disasters, though slow death was the norm, with most miners in the early nineteenth century crippled by lung damage at 30, totally disabled by 40, and dead by 50. Sporadic fatal accidents were frequent:
my two sisters were sair horrible crushed by stones falling from the roof; their bowels were forced out, and their legs broken
as a miner testified to the Children's Employment Commission in 1842, or as the Dalkeith Advertiser reported in 1875:
a miner residing at Rosewell, named Thomas Hannan, was killed while employed sinking a shaft in No. 1 Pit, Whitehill Colliery, Lasswade. While he was employed excavating at the bottom of the shaft, a large stone fell from a height of eleven fathoms. Being in a stooping position, it struck him on the neck, and severed his head from his body. The left leg and both the arms of the unfortunate man were also broken. Deceased was 31 years of age. He was unmarried, and was the only support of a widowed mother.
The worst accident was the fire at the Mauricewood pit at Shottstown near Penicuik in September 1889. This mine extracted more iron ore than coal; the iron was thrown away at first until somebody noticed that it was the same rock as one exploited in Sweden. It was operated by the Shotts Iron Company, perhaps the worst employer of any Scottish coalfield. Like the other coalowners, they repeatedly cut the miners' wages throughout the 1880s; more lethally, they saved on safety. The mine was misdesigned, with a single point where a fire could block all escape from the workings. A pumping engine was placed at that point in an airless box so that the only way its firemen could breathe was by cutting a vent in a safety door needed to keep incoming air separate from any smoke or toxic gas produced in the mine. Supervision and inspection were non-existent, so this situation persisted for years. Then the woodwork round that engine caught fire. 58 men were trapped below it, most in a steeply angled seam, later known as "Death's Incline", that went deeper underground than the height of Arthur's Seat. All died, suffocated by smoke, burnt to death trying to climb out through the blazing shafts, or drowned by rising floodwater after the rescuers gave up.
All the commemorations of the Mauricewood disaster were coloured by religion; the Shottstown miners were an intensely religious community, predominantly Presbyterian but with Episcopalian, Catholic and Brethren minorities all represented among the dead. The disaster marked a change in the position of women in the Midlothian mining community; until then, it had been unusual for women to attend funerals, but they were prominent at the funeral for the fire victims. When the Noonday Sun was Shining is a poem from the time of the accident by David Scott of Easthouses, another Midlothian mining village. No tune is given for it, but the issue of the Dalkeith Advertiser where it appeared placed it after an anecdote about the Tynewood disaster of 1877, when the miners sang the Welsh hymn In the deep and mighty water as the flood rose round them. This is Yn y dyfroedd mawr a'r tonnau, the Miner's Hymn, by the 18th century writer Dafydd William, and has the same metre as the ballad; it is usually sung to one of two 19th century tunes, Nantlle by O.W. Francis (here taken from Rhaglen Cymanfaoedd Canu, 1979-80) and Alexander by John Roberts (1806-1879). Alexander seems to me to fit better; it needs the last line of each verse repeated. I've taken it from Richard Mills's Caniadau Seion (1840).
Mauricewood's Braves was written twenty years after the event by "Dalry" (Arthur Wilson, born in 1864), a Scottish miner who emigrated to Australia and published his Lays, Tales and Folk Lore of the Mines there. The three boys who went down into the burning mine to warn the men at the deep levels were Robert Hook Tolmie (14), Mitchel Hamilton (15) and Thomas Foster (17); none came back alive. No tune is named, but the opening verse and metre suggest the hymn True-Hearted by Frances Havergal (1836-1879). I've given both her own tune for it and the limited-range alternative by J. Booth later adopted by the Church of Scotland in its Church Hymnary. I much prefer Havergal's.
Many of the miners' widows or mothers still depended on charity decades later. Widow's Lament is by one of these women, "H.S.", perhaps Helen Stewart from Penicuik. The words are patterned on William Lockhart's My Native Caledonia ("Sair, sair was my heart when I parted frae my Jean") of the early 19th century. I've given this tune from Gall and Inglis's collection. It's similar in metre and pitch outline to Roslin Castle, which also fits.
The Meikle family, all members of the Brethren sect, lost four men in the disaster; Tom Meikle, aged 41 with five children, scratched a farewell message to his wife on his tin flask while trapped at the bottom of the mine. There are two accounts of what he wrote on the flask. One, quoted in the Dalkeith Advertiser at the time, says all that was readable was five words: "For... from... Alexander... God... dying"; Alexander was his son. The other, in a typescript in the Scottish Mining Museum that seems to have been taken from or submitted to a church magazine much later by someone who knew the family, says he scratched this:
Mourn not for me, my dear ones,
Though sad may seem my fate.
Though dark and dim the passage
That leads to Heaven's gate.
The Glory seems to brighten
Even in the darksome mine;
The voice of Jesus whispers,
'Fear not, for I am thine'.
In Him I'm firmly trusting
I'm leaning on his breast;
Though passing through the Jordan
He gives me peace and rest.
I seem to see Heaven open
I hear the angel's song -
Through the valley I am hastening
To join the blessed throng.
Farewell, my loved, my dear ones.
I know we'll meet again.
The five words are more likely, but even if this little hymn is not his own, it expresses what his community felt. The four Meikles were among the last bodies brought up, and were buried together, to the hymn Praise Him, Praise Him.
The Cry from the Mine, by R. Buchanan, comes from a 1903 issue of The Socialist, the Edinburgh party organ of Daniel de Leon and James Connolly's Socialist Labor Party. Its text echoes John Wilson's The Sea-Mew, to the tune of Black Mary, given earlier in this book. Bars 13 and 14 need to be repeated for the first and third verses, which have an extra line.
The text of Midlothian Colliers Song is taken from Billy Kay's collection, Odyssey: Voices of Scotland's Recent Past. An earlier version, The collier lads who labour under ground, which has no local references, was printed in a broadside from Manchester in the middle of the nineteenth century and reprinted in Roy Palmer's collection Poverty Knock (1974). Chronologically the Scottish adaptation doesn't add up, since at the time children were working underground nobody in Scotland worked an eight-hour day and Newtongrange was not a mining village, but it's a good political song regardless. I've given two variants of the tune, the way Kay has it (in 6/8) and the way it's sung at mny local folk club (in cut time).
Until the nineteenth century the oyster beds of the Forth, granted to Edinburgh by James IV, were the most productive in the world, and cellars that sold oysters and porter were hugely popular with all classes and both sexes in Edinburgh in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Frenchman Faujas St Fond described Prestonpans in 1741:
I was in the place where the most famous oysters are taken in abundance; the rocks at the surface of the sea around the coast are covered with them. They are large, plump and of an exquisite taste; and are held in such estimation, that they are exported to the principal cities of England and Holland. Large quantities also are pickled, put into barrels, and sent wherever there is a demand for them.
Oyster wives worked till very late so as to sell to rich customers in pubs; ladies sometimes let them in to dance in ballrooms, as by the end of the evening the usual program had moved away from the more formal minuets and country dances and down-class to Scottish reels. The Oyster Wives Rant is taken from a collection of Robert Bremner's; it was known later from the Highlands as Muillean Dubh and from the Lowlands as The Black Mull or as The Black Mill, with both Lowlanders and Highlanders being confused about whether a snuff mull, snuff mill or flour mill was meant - there are at least three conflicting stories. The scale is slightly unusual, Dorian/Mixolydian hexatonic; it fits the range of the Highland pipes.
The end of the oyster beds was a tragic waste. They had been run as a common resource for centuries, but a private developer bought a monopoly on the rights in the mid-19th century and dredged them clean in a few years; they never recovered.
Fishing was formerly one of the main industries that Edinburgh and its surrounding villages depended on. Pedro de Ayala, Spain's ambassador to James IV, reported around 1500 that salt fish was exported all over Europe. The fisherfolk of the Forth have always been a people apart. Many of them were of Flemish origin, their contacts were with other fishing communities from Shetland to Norfolk and across the North Sea rather than with their compatriots a few miles inland, they had a common bond in facing regular losses from disaster that only the miners could equal, and their religious allegiance was often to sects that few other Scots adopted. All of these factors make for distinctive musical creativity, and the songs that have been preserved from them can only be a small fraction of those that once existed.
The Dreg Song was an improvised rowing shanty whose words were constructed by collective free association like one of the experiments of the Surrealists. David Herd wrote down one of these in the 18th century, and gentrified forms of it became very popular as drinking songs. Fifty years later Andrew Duncan was working the names of his friends into another in the same genre. This version was recorded by Ailie Munro from Jemima Liston of Newhaven in 1964. I have only given the bare tune; each verse was sung slightly differently. The words of the Oyster Dreg Song are from Prestonpans and its Vicinity, by Peter MacNeill, published in Tranent in 1902. The music was transcribed by Francis Collinson from a recording made on a wax cylinder by Kennedy-Fraser in 1906; by the time Collinson found it in the 1950s the wax had deteriorated so badly the words were unintelligible. The Whale was the pub at Cuthill, the milk was the innkeeper Thomson's whisky. The Herring was collected orally by Collinson, though Scott used it in his novel The Antiquary. The Oyster Song is another tune from Kennedy-Fraser's cylinders, again with no intelligible words; the pairs of isolated notes at the end of each half suggest an action like hauling on a rope.
Gosford Beach is a fragment of another of these improvisatory pieces, taken down by the Rymour Club from an old fisherman of Newhaven late in the 19th century, the collector expressing prim relief that the singer couldn't remember any more. The same idea, with every analogy between sex and ships the author could think of, is found in Robert Sempill's satire on Margaret Fleming, The flemyng bark in Endinburt, copied with no hint of a tune in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568. The pun on "Fleming" suggests a link with Newhaven, since the village evolved from the Flemish shipwrights imported by James IV to work on his flagship the Great Michael. Part of it goes:
With evin keill befoir the wind
Scho is richt fairdy with a sail
Bot at ane lufe shoe lyis behind
Gar heiss hir quhill hir howbandis skaill
Draw weill the takill to hir taill
Scho will not miss to lay your mast
To pomp als oft as ye may Haill
Yeill nevir hald hir watterfast
To calfet hir oft can do non ill
And talloun quhair the flud mark flowis
Bot gif sho lekkis gett men of skill
To stop hir hoilis laich in ye howiss
ffor falt of hemp tak hary towis
With stane ballest with owttin uder
In moneless nichtis it is na mowis
Except and stowte man hir ruder
However, the collector didn't realize that the song was in fact the first verse of an English broadside no more than a generation old, set in Gosport on the south coast of England rather than Gosford on the Forth. The story is one of a fallen woman who meets a naval officer; he promises to marry her at the end. The Newhaven fishermen had dropped the whole of the ballad's story to make it a "dreg song".
There was a final dreg song about the end of the industry:
Says Braggie I see boats that look strange to me
They seem as if sailing from o'er the North Sea.
For their mission here, I doubt very much
By the cut of their jibs they look just like Dutch
Then Heave Away lads, Heave away Ho.
They came to the Forth, and sailed in a mass
And dregged the clam beds and oysters galore
For when they had finished and sail-ed away
As our men went out dregging they couldn't find no more.
Then Heave Away lads, Heave away Ho.
Banking is not the stuff of songs. Nonetheless, the city that introduced banknotes to the West produced one: Duncan Ban Macintyre's long Gaelic ode John Campbell of the Bank, probably of the 1760s. Campbell was principal cashier of the Royal Bank of Scotland during the 1745 rebellion The Bank of Scotland's response to the Jacobite occupation was to lock their money in the Castle, where it stayed. Coutts' Bank, which began in Edinburgh, seems to have fled the city. The third major bank in Edinburgh was Campbell's, and they chose to assist the Prince, starting a tradition of funding lost causes that has continued to the present day with loans to a gruesome collection of Third World dictatorships and to the Conservative Party, which ran up an overdraft of £17,000,000 before it vanished into electoral oblivion at the 1997 election. Macintyre's song is far too long to give here; it ends with the hope that Campbell might be King in place of George. According to Keith Norman Macdonald, the tune for it was a march setting of the old Lowland song The Rock and Wee Pickle Tow, later called The Gordons' March. I've given both Macdonald's tune and an earlier version from Angus Mackay's The Piper's Assistant.
The only other tune I have found relating to the financial sector (now by far Edinburgh's largest employer) is The Pawnbroker, also known as Old Nick's Lumber Room, from a music sheet of around 1800. It's a remarkable visual joke: the score is full of groups of three notes like the balls on a pawnbroker's sign. I have only seen two copies of this and neither listed a composer.
Transportation is a rich source of song in many parts of the world, but little about it survives from Edinburgh. One was a music-hall song performed at the old Southminster Theatre late in the nineteenth century, perhaps to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean:
I wish that I never had seen her
For sadly she's been my downfall;
She's awa' wi' the mate of a steamer
That sails on the Union Canal.
and there was an Edinburgh carters' ballad from May 1915 when these workers were beginning to unionize in the Scottish Carters Association, though the tune is not indicated:
Maybe in some future date, no very far tae seek,
We'll a' be jolly cairters earnin' thirty bob a week.
Sae good luck to the cairter, he's a hard workin' chiel,
Frae early morn till late at nicht he works wi' richt guidwill,
An should you meet him on your travels, he aye looks bricht an' gay,
Since he's become a member o' the S.C.A.
The most substantial surviving Edinburgh song about transport and communications is the paean to Victorian progress Hurrah for the Postman, The Great Roland Hill, published in R.W. Hume's broadside periodical The Lyre in Leith in the 1840s, which ran for about 100 issues in the middle of the 19th century, selling for one halfpenny each and later a penny. There is nothing but an occasional Scots turn of phrase to localize this to Edinburgh, but it was never published anywhere else before or after, so Hume probably wrote it himself; he printed it with an illustration showing Leith postmen at work wearing an early type of roller skates. Edinburgh had efficient postal services from the 1760s onwards. One of the innovators of the 1770s was "Indian Peter" Williamson (so-called because he had been sold as a slave to the Americans and only made his way back to Scotland after escaping to live with the Indians for a while), who came up with the brilliant insight that people would send more letters through his postal service if they had a city-wide directory of addresses; his directories are now valuable historical documents. So perhaps Edinburgh was one of the places least affected by Hill's new postal service.
The tune is an appropriate choice: The Telegraph, used for a patriotic song in Charles Dibdin's opera Great News (1794) satirizing the semaphore signalling system set up to cross France shortly before. This may have been a private joke of Hume's; he doesn't name the melody, and Dibdin's words can hardly have been well known in Edinburgh more than 40 years later. Telegraphs were, though: a hummock on the north side of Calton Hill, just above the shipowners' houses in Royal Terrace, was known as Telegraph Knowe at the time, and must have been the site of a telegraph used to communicate with shipping in the Forth. Hume's background in Scottish music must have been thorough, since he was one of the pipers who played for the King in 1822, at a time when there were very few pipers in Edinburgh at all. But his songs differ in emphasis from most other Scottish broadsides, reflecting the cosmopolitanism of Scotland's busiest military and civilian seaport. Much of what The Lyre printed was from England, with many patriotic and naval songs. The editor saw himself as having a mission to bring music education to the working class, and there were often music-theory columns to help the readers understand the notation. A discount at the optician's to help them with his dreadful smudgy type might have been more use, and what it was printed on resembled nothing so much as old-fashioned glossy institutional British toilet paper.
Arctic whaling had been done from Leith for centuries, though only on a small scale in the days of sail; in 1788 the 6 ships involved caught only 9 whales between them. The fishery stopped in the 1840s after a few years of bad catches. Christian Salvesen's shipping firm started sailing from Leith in 1851; they restarted whaling in 1909, this time to South Georgia in the Antarctic Ocean. They instantly became the largest whaling company in the world; in the season of 1910-11 they caught 2,350 whales. They continued whaling until 1961. The men were recruited from Bernard Street and came back there to spend their money at the end of each season's work. Alcohol was forbidden on the ships; the men would take boxes of boot polish and strain it through bread to extract the methylated spirits. The whaling base at "South Leith" on South Georgia was a grim enough place that such desperation was understandable; a cramped cluster of huts on the shore of a barren glacial landscape with the decomposing or skeletal carcasses of thousands of dead whales lining the beach for miles in each direction. The stench of rotting whale flesh was so penetrating and pervasive that a whaler's kitbag was unmistakably identifiable by its smell even months later back in Scotland. A doctor working there in 1951, when production was at full stretch to produce whale oil for margarine, described South Leith as having no pub or social centre and no church, with its cultural resources being a cinema built by the whalers themselves with a stock of 17 films and a library of 1800 books, half in Norwegian. His sarcastic description of the whalers' housing:
I see one house which, at a pinch, might be spared condemnation by a conscientious borough surveyor of a dilapidated suburb, but I can see nothing else which I, as a doctor, would pass as a fit permanent residence for human beings, even in an equable climate. However, I think my standards are probably too high, based as they are on many years' experience of British Army billets and bivouacs in peace and war; and I remind myself that this highly productive island has only been a British colony since the days of Captain Cook, and the chief British settlement on it has only been inhabited for several decades, and may be temporary to the extent that it might have to pack up before the end of the century.
His hospital was a collection of sheds surrounded by decaying whale refuse and trackless mud bubbling like soda with methane from raw sewage. Serious accidents were frequent, but even the worst injured whalers could be kept on the base for months before being sent by sea back to Britain, though Montevideo was only four days' sail away; the company said anything quicker would be uneconomic. Dr Robertson's comment on that was:
I had been on active service in three wars, and I had never seen a wounded man treated with the casual disregard these whalemen were alleged to 'accept'.
The Salvesen Song, from the 1930s, is a composite of two versions, one from an oral history pamphlet researched in the 1980s and the other published in an Aberdeen folk magazine in the 1960s. The tune is the Dundee song popularized by music hall, The Old Maid in her Garret. The South Georgia Whaling Song comes from a collection of bagpipe music published by Iain McCrimmon in Canada in the 1980s. He transcribed it from the Gaelic singing of Norman Maclean, but I have not traced the recording he used.
Salvesen's abandoned the South Leith station in 1965. In 1982 they sold what was left of it to the Argentinian scrap metal dealer Constantino Davidoff, who arrived on a gunboat to claim it and started the Falklands War.
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Embro, Embro Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin