Hushie Ba My Bairnie

songs of mothers, children and school


Children are instinctive internationalists. There are few children's songs and games that are even specific to Scotland, let alone Edinburgh; and many that appear to be unique may have have been sung in many other parts of the British Isles without a collector ever noticing them. Nursery rhymes and lullabies - created by adults - are more often rooted in a specific place, and the products of the school system can be the most local of all, like the late nineteenth century moralizing rhyme The Crust of Bread by the Reverend James Currie for use in Edinburgh infant schools, to the tune of Barbara Allen.

Such attempts at uplift are at least a generation older. The "Ragged School" movement for educating poor children was a product of the newly separated Free Kirk. It was founded in 1847 by the minister Dr. Thomas Guthrie (1803-1873), and had its own book of poems and songs very soon after, Alexander Maclagan's Ragged School Rhymes of 1851. The Mental Working Song, to the old tune of We're A' Noddin' comes from there. Guthrie's schools later took on the role of reformatories and survived into the late 20th century.

The Scottish school system has never treated Scottish traditional music with more than bare toleration. The educationists' aim, from the Education Act of 1872 to the present day, has been to exterminate the Scots language; this has meant that songs in particular - inseparable from that language and asserting its power - have posed a threat. Thomas Carlyle once tried to find the place of Scots song in a Victorian classroom. He found that the pupils all knew the tune of Scots Wha Hae, but not the words; the teacher had them sing multiplication tables to it. Other Scots tunes were forced on generations of kids as mnemonics for lists of placenames. It hasn't got any better since. The music syllabus in Scotland does nothing to teach even the most basic concepts of Scottish idiom at any level in schools, and even now, classrooms in Edinburgh have wall charts giving "correct" alternatives to phrases from William Dunbar's tongue that are still understood in modern Muirhouse.

Mothers are harder to regulate. Sawney, Sawney what's the matter? is a lullaby that the collector William Macmath found in some papers left in St Andrew's Square in the mid-19th century, without a tune:

This "lullaby for a future criminal" genre is much older: Burns and Johnson printed one, Hee, balou, my sweet wee Donald, in their Scots Musical Museum. And Hushie ba my bairnie from C.K. Sharpe's manuscripts even has something to offend the sensibilities of the present day. No tune is indicated, but the words echo Gilderoy and its tune fits with a bit of stretching; I've taken it from Ford's Vagabond Songs.

Fisherrow is on the coast at the eastern edge of Edinburgh,at the mouth of the river Esk; as the name suggests, it has been a fishing village for centuries. Lintie, Lintie on the Wa' is a children's song whose music was first published by Alfred Moffat from a manuscript source of the 19th century. It rhymes if you use the local pronunciation "Fisherraw".

There have been a few systematic efforts at collecting Edinburgh children's folklore. The biggest was Ritchie's collections from the late 1950s, published in books as The Singing Street and The Golden City, and in the documentary film The Singing Street. (These books are in print again. There's no point in reproducing songs already available there, so this section is a lot shorter than it would otherwise have been). He was only just in time. Almost all of the games he recorded died out with the TV generation. Even that most basic tool of 1950s children's culture, a skipping rope, is now a museum piece. Older collections were done by the Rymour Club in the years around 1900 and published in their Miscellanea; with more resources than Ritchie, they were able to compare folklore from elsewhere in Scotland and beyond. Then there is a manuscript from the middle of the nineteenth century used by Alfred Moffat for his 50 Scottish Nursery Rhymes; and everything else is in scattered fragments where it is hardly ever possible to match words and tunes. Nora and William Montgomerie collected masses of these fragments in a series of books from the 1940s and 1950s; but they made no effort to trace tunes, and gave no hint of the sources they got any of their rhymes from, which does nothing to help anyone following after them to do better. Children might be good at losing gloves and house keys, but we adults have managed to lose almost all of their culture for them.

There must once have been much more like The Old Woman and the Pig, an intricate song-story sent to the Rymour Club by Frances Hill Thomas as her mother performed it. There are English and French versions; it has an earlier form as a Jewish Passover song, Chad Gadya (An Only Kid), first printed in the Prague Haggadah of 1590 in a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew and which may be 200 years older than that. Music for that song was first published in 1677; there was once a Folkways record with 25 different versions. It's a theological song setting out the scale of creation; the idea of a chain of being like this goes back to Neoplatonism in the early centuries AD.

Then came the Holy One, Blessed be he,
And destroyed the Angel of Death,
That killed the butcher,
That slew the ox,
That drank the water,
That quenched the fire,
That burned the stick,
That beat the dog,
That bit the cat,
That ate the kid
My father bought for two zuzim,
An only kid, an only kid.

But, in Edinburgh cosmology, cats are at the top.

One children's counting-out rhyme found in Edinburgh by the Rymour Club at the end of the 19th century preserves the old Welsh number system. Forms of this rhyme (some closer to the original language) are found throughout the area of the old Cymric-speaking kingdom of Strathclyde (present-day Cumbria, Galloway, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and the western Borders), used by shepherds for counting sheep or by women to count stitches while knitting. I think it's more likely to have been imported from those regions with the great displacements of farm workers in the 18th century than to be a thousand-year-old survival of the language of the Gododdin before the Gaelic and Saxon invasions, but nobody can tell.

Eeenty, teenty, tethery, methery,
Banful, eetful, over, dover;
Ding, dell, dominel,
Ann, tann, toosh,
Up the causey, down the cross,
There stands a bonny white horse;
It can gallop, it can trot,
It can carry a mustard pot.
Count one, two, three.

Sometimes added:

Out goes the bonnie lassie, out goes she.

The order has been scrambled, with 15 in the place of 5, and the old base-5 system is not obviously apparent.

More meaningfully, supernatural traditions surrounding Halloween have survived all over Scotland to the present day. Three rhymes preserved by Robert Chambers in the early 19th century seem not to have done:

Haly on a cabbage-stalk, haly on a bean,
Haly on a cabbage-stalk, the morn's Halloween!

Halloween, ae nicht at een,
I heard an unco squeaking;
Dolefu Dumps has got a wife,
They ca' her Jenny Aiken.

Hey-how for Halloween,
When a' the witches to be seen;
Some black, and some green,
Hey-how for Halloween!

Cabbage-stalks were often used in Halloween games, and beans have been given magical or religious significance in traditions as old as ancient Greece, but these rhymes aren't decipherable today.

A miniature opera, Janet jo is taken from Chambers' Popular Rhymes of Scotland; I've quoted his description of it in full. This kind of dialogue made up of a series of temporizing excuses ending in a death is found elsewhere in Europe; it's the storyline of the German folkpoem Earthly Life set by Mahler in Das Knaben Wunderhorn. The tune I have given is from John Dow's recorder manuscript of 1722; it adds a lot of purely instrumental variation on top of a simple tune whose outline is easy to see underneath it. Dow gave another variant of the tune with the title Maidens drink no Brandie; it was published as Lasses likes nea Brandy by Robert Bremner around 1760, and occurs in other sources as The Maidens Pisses Brandy. For the last 200 years it has usually been known as Lick the Ladle Sandy; it was first given that name in print by William Marshall in 1780, later by Abraham Mackintosh in the early 1790s, and still later by the Gows in a much more popular collection. Niel Gow was born five years after Dow’s manuscript was compiled; nonetheless the collection claimed that all previous versions of the tune had the order of the parts wrong. The Gows' music history was often like that.

One O' Clock the Gun Went Off has been written down several times in the last century; this version was published by the Rymour Club in 1906. The one-o-clock time gun from Edinburgh Castle was started in 1861. At first it was fired electrically from Calton Hill, where a falling-ball signal at 1pm, aimed at shipping in the Forth, had been dropped off the Nelson Monument since 1852. The gun blast was deafening in the slum districts of the Grassmarket directly below the Castle, which might be where this song comes from.

Water, Water, Well-Flower, Down in the Meadows, and Ding dong, castle bells are also games from the Rymour Club's collection, collected from Minnie Jardine at Gorgie Public School, a working-class school in the west of Edinburgh. Most of the girls' games at that school had a similar form, found elsewhere in the city: there was a line of girls facing a leader, whose song would name a girl from the line, who would come forward, take the leader's hands, swing round a few times and then change places with her.

Dingle dingle dousy is one of the many Scottish variants of Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosie; in West of Scotland versions the dog is going to Hamilton. None of them has the sneezing, posies and falling down of the familiar Kate Greenaway one from the 1880s, which urban legends created in the 1970s claim is a memory of the plague. The first of these older ones was published by Alfred Moffat; a very perverse interpretation might read it as saying something about 19th century cholera epidemics, but I have not heard of bells being used then to warn of infection. The second comes from the Miscellanea of the Rymour Club and is completely unintelligible. A "dingle dousy" was a way for a mother to get a young child to sleep: sitting by the fire, she would pick up a thin twig with a glowing end, and twirl it round forming hypnotic loops of light in the darkness. Probably the English "ring-a-rosy" was the same thing.

Baking Bessie Bell is a boys' game of endurance, played in the Canongate in the middle of the nineteenth century. One boy (either chosen or "counted out") stands against a wall; another, the "table", bends towards him exposing his back. One by one the other players hammer on his back in time to the song; usually the singer of the last verse became the "table" for the next round, if the "table" lasted that long. The tune is The Rose Tree, an 18th century reel once used as the air for The Lea-Rig.

A more outwardly-directed childhood aggression is found in rhymes associated with holidays, like this from Queen Victoria's reign:

The twenty-fourth of May
The Queen's birthday
If you don't gie's a holiday
We'll all run away.

or the early twentieth century Halloween guisers' songs

Tramp, tramp, the boys are marching
We are the guisers at the door
If you dinna let us in, we will bash the do-or in,
And you'll never see the guisers any more.

The Co-Operative movement began in the 1860s, and local co-ops all over Britain set up their first shops at that time; most were amalgamated into larger groupings like the Edinburgh-wide St Cuthbert's Co-operative Society, and ultimately into the British-wide organization run with few signs of competence from a Victorian fantasy palace in Manchester, but there is still a local autonomous Co-Op at Musselburgh and Fisherrow. Not many chain stores get folksongs composed about them, and I Love a Sausage must have been worth a lot of advertising. It goes to the tune of Harry Lauder's I Love a Lassie. It has been noted many times since the early 1950s; this is the longest version I've found. It was printed in, of all places, the songbook of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club in 1955. An "ingin" is an onion; the word 'co-operative" is stressed as CO-op-er-A-tive, or sometimes CAWP-er-A-tive. The first verse is straight from Harry Lauder, the rest was created by Edinburgh children. Another Edinburgh rhyme about the Co-Op is more explicit about its economics:

Eat boys eat, ye're at yer auntie's,
Eat until ye canna bend;
For the Cooperative store belongs to yer auntie
And the mair ye eat, the mair the dividend!

The scone and haggis verses are added from a recording by the Corries. Since there are only three words to find when making a new verse, there must have been many others.

Splodgy was created collectively at a children's event in the 1998 Edinburgh Folk Festival. The tune is known in Scotland as Men of Knoydart; it was previously used for an Irish Republican ballad of the 1920s, Johnson's Motor Car. As it manages to combine two subjects of appeal to children everywhere - snot and space aliens - it deserves a global audience.

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Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin