Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Songs

Bothy ballads

Image of bothy lads from 1927

A bothy is the name for a building on a Scottish farm, especially in the area called Buchan in the North East. The bothy is where the unmarried male farm workers lived in the days when the farms were worked by men with horses. A large farm might have 10 men living in the bothy, where four worked with the cattle and six with the horses. Horsemen were considered superior to 'coo workers', and most of the songs are about the horsemen’s work.  

In their leisure time the men would sing songs. Some of these were about work and life on the farms and the farmers and came to be called bothy ballads. Often the bothy ballads are critical of the farmer’s strictness, but mention the kindness of the 'kitchie deem', the young kitchen maid. The women farm workers lived in the farmhouse, not in the bothy. In songs like 'The Rovin Ploughboy' or 'Plooman Laddies' the farm girls admire the ploughmen. Some of the songs, like 'Bogie's Bonnie Belle', 'When I Was New But Sweet Sixteen' and 'Bonnie Ythanside', tell of happy or unhappy courting on the farm. 

'When I was new but sweet sixteen, bonnie blythe and bloomin oh,
It’s little little did I think that at nineteen I’d be greetin oh.
For the plooboy lads are gey braw lads, but fause and deceivin oh,
They’ll tak aa, and they’ll gang awa, and leave their lassie grieving oh. 
For if I had kenned what I noo ken, and ta'en ma mither's biddin oh,
I wouldn't be sittin at your fireside, singin Heeshie baw, ma bairnie oh.
It's heeshie baw, for ah'm yer maw, but the Lord kens where's your daddie oh,
But I'll tak good care, and I'll be aware o the young men and the gloamin oh.'

Of course, many of the other songs and ballads on this site were also sung in the farm bothies: 'MacPherson's Rant', 'The Bonny Ship The Diamond', 'The Gypsy Laddies', 'Johnnie O' Breadislie' and others. Many of the older bothy ballads were made up by the farm workers themselves, but some later ones were made by singers like Willie Kemp and G S Morris, who both became well known recording artists and performers in music halls. G S Morris wrote the song 'A Pair O' Nicky Tams' and 'The Muckin’ O' Geordie's Byre'. Nicky tams are a pair of leather straps that ploughmen wore around the bottoms of their trousers. 

Willie Kemp wrote the tunes of favourite comic bothy ballads like 'McGinty's Meal and Ale' about a pig who got drunk at a party, and 'McFarlane O' the Sprots O' Burnieboosie', about a man who sends his friend MacFarlane to court a girl on his behalf. The comic bothy ballads in particular are often full of North East dialect words, pronunciations and phrases, which can be hard to show in print. Look at the way G S Thomson spells the words in the first verse and chorus of his famous song 'McGinty's Meal and Ale'. 

'This is nae a sang o' love na', nor yet a sang o' money,
Faith it's naethin' verra peetifu', it's naethin' verra funny;
But there's Hielan' Scotch, Lowland Scotch, Butter Scotch and Honey,
If there's nane o' them for a' there's a mixture o' the three,
An' there's nae a word o' beef, brose, sowens, sauty bannocks na',
Nor pancakes, paes eggs for them wi' dainty stammicks;
But it's a' aboot a meal and ale that happened at Balmannocks,
McGinty's meal and ale, whaur the pig ga'ed on the spree. 
They were howlin' in the kitchen like a caravan o' Tinkies, aye,
And some were playin' ping-pong and tiddely widdley winkies;
For up the howe and down the howe ye niver saw such jinkies,
As McGinty's meal and ale, whaur the pig ga'ed on the spree.'

Related resources

Plooman Laddies

A bothy ballad about a young woman farm worker who admires the handsome young ploughman from afar.

MacPherson's Rant

James MacPherson was an outlaw who composed this tune on the night before he was hanged.

The Bonnie Ship the Diamond

The story of the sailors setting off on a long journey on a whaling ship and waving goodbye to their lassies on the shore.

The Gypsy Laddies

Jeannie Robertson’s wonderful version of a ballad that is sung in many countries, with varying words and varying tunes.

Johnnie O Breadislie

A song about a gallant poacher and his greyhounds who fight the gamekeepers and steal the King’s deer.