Seven Scottish or Irish Folk Songs: Music and History
Enjoyable and Meaningful Songs
I grew up in Wales. In addition to enjoying Welsh music, I heard and loved traditional folk music from Scotland and Ireland. In this article I include a playlist of some of the Scottish and Irish songs that I enjoyed in my childhood and still listen to today. I also include some historical information about the music and some facts about the artists that performed the songs.
The songs are not only significant because of their music. Like many folk songs, their lyrics tell stories from history, discuss matters of the heart, or share information about nature or the culture of a particular population. Folk songs can be meaningful as well as enjoyable.
Loch Lomond: The Water and the Song
Loch Lomond is often thought of as the boundary between the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. A loch is a lake or a sea inlet. Loch Lomond contains freshwater and is the largest loch in Scotland based on surface area. The water and its beautiful surroundings are a major tourist attraction. The lake and part of the area around it form the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.
Like the other songs described in this article, "Loch Lomond" is very popular. An alternate name of the song is "The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond". The song was first published in 1841 in a book called "Vocal Melodies of Scotland". The composer is unknown. It's also unknown whether the song was an original composition or whether it was based on an earlier version.
The lyrics appear to tell a tale of love and loss, but like the title the words and the interpretations of the song vary. In the first verse of a common version of the song, the singer says that they and their loved one have made many happy visits to the banks of Loch Lomond. The second verse says that on a specific visit to the loch the couple separate, for an unexplained reason. In the third verse, the singer expresses their sadness about what has happened. Some people have linked the song to the Jacobite uprising and the escape of Prince Charles to France, events that are described below.
O ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road,
An' I'll be in Scotland afore ye;
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks O' Loch Lomond.— Chorus of the Loch Lomond song
Rosalind McAllister sings songs in the folk and Celtic genres. She has sung with Sarah Moore, who performs in one of the videos below.
Historical Background of the Skye Boat Song
The "Skye Boat Song" is very meaningful for some people. Its lyrics are related to an important event in history. At the start of 1714, England, Scotland, and Ireland were ruled by Queen Anne of the House of Stuart. She had no children. When she died later in 1714, George 1st of the House of Hanover became King. The Jacobites were a Scottish group who wanted to return the House of Stuart to the throne and make James Francis Edward Stuart the king. James Stuart and his son Charles Edward Stuart were living in France at the time.
In 1745, the Jacobites revolted and attempted to put a Stuart on the throne by force. Their leader was Prince Charles, sometimes referred to as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who had travelled to Scotland from France. A Hanoverian army responded to the revolt. On April 16th, 1746, the decisive Battle of Culloden was fought. The Jacobites were defeated and lost many men. Prince Charles was not killed, however, and spent his time moving around the Hebrides trying to escape the Hanoverian soldiers looking him. Eventually, he reached the Isle of Skye and was then able to escape to France. The "Sky Boat Song" refers to the journey to Skye.
The Jacobites got their name from "Jacobus", which is said to be the Latin form of James Stuart's first name. The Latin word started with an I instead of a J, however. The introduction of today's "J" sound to the language is an interesting topic in its own right. The name Jacob is also related to the Latin word.
The Escape to Skye and France
Charles reached France with the aid of Flora MacDonald. He escaped by dressing as a woman. The disguised prince accompanied Flora as her maid during the journey from the Hebridean island where he had been hiding to the Isle of Skye. From Skye, Charles was able to reach France, although according to Historic UK he had to travel to the island of Raasay first. Flora was arrested and taken to the Tower of London. She was soon released to live under supervision, however, and eventually received amnesty. Charles never returned to Scotland.
The lyrics of the Skye Boat Song were written by Sir Harold Boulton and published in 1884. Boulton applied the lyrics to a traditional tune collected by Anne MacLeod. The song talks triumphantly of the escape of Prince Charles and sadly about the many people who died at the Battle of Culloden. The last verse ends with the line "Scotland will rise again!"
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward, the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.— Sir Harold Boulton (Chorus of the Skye Boat Song)
Laura Wright is a British singer who is sometimes classified as a classical-popular crossover artist. In the video above, she is accompanied by the Toki Quartet and Patrick Hawes.
Will Ye No Come Back Again
Like the "Skye Boat Song", "Will Ye No Come Back Again" is related to the escape of Prince Charles to France. It's a sad song that refers to the bravery and loyalty of the Scottish people, expresses love for the prince, and asks him to return to Scotland.
The song was written by Carolina Oliphant (1766 - 1845), who was also known as Lady Nairne. She was a Scottish song writer who wrote the lyrics of many popular pieces. She set some of her lyrics to pre-existing tunes. She could read music, however, and is thought to have created some of the tunes that she used.
Carolina published many of her pieces anonymously. Their true authorship was discovered after her death. Carolina's family had a history of support for the Jacobite cause. Many of her songs indicate this support. Her gender and her political opinions may have encouraged her to keep her authorship of her songs secret.
Will ye no come back again?
Will ye no come back again?
Better loved ye canna be,
Will ye no come back again?— Carolina Oliphant (Chorus of Will Ye No Come Back Again)
Jean Redpath (1937-2014) is the singer in the video above. She was a respected Scottish folk singer and educator who received an MBE award in Britain. She spent some time in the United States as well as in Scotland. I remember my mother mentioning her but wasn't familiar with her music as a child or even—until very recently—as an adult. I intend to make up for that omission.
Wild Mountain Thyme (Will You Go, Lassie, Go?)
"Wild Mountain Thyme" is a lovely song with both a Scottish and an Irish background. Robert Tannahill of Scotland and Francis McPeake of Ireland contributed to the song. Tannahill lived from 1774 to 1810. He was a poet who set some of his poems to traditional tunes. One of his musical creations was called "The Braes of Balquhidder". A brae is a hillside and Balquhidder is a Scottish village. Tannahill's song was the forerunner of "Wild Mountain Thyme", which was created by McPeake in or just before 1955.
In the Scottish and Irish versions of the song, summer is either approaching or has arrived. A man invites the woman that he loves to go to the hills with him. Here they will walk among the wild mountain thyme and heather plants. The man tells the woman that he will build her a tower by a clear fountain and cover the tower with flowers.
I love the version of the song in the video below, which is why I've included it in this article, but the lyrics shown on the screen aren't completely accurate. The person who added them seems to have misheard some of the words. The singer says that she is going to pluck flowers (not plug them). The singer also says that she will "build my love a tower" instead of build my lover tower.
And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather,
Will you go, lassie, go?— Chorus of the Wild Mountain Thyme song
Sarah Calderwood is an Australian singer and composer as well as a flute and whistle player. Her main genre is folk music.
The Salley Gardens
"The Salley Gardens" is also known as Down by the Salley Gardens. The lyrics were written by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet. He published them in 1889 in a book called The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. Yeats said that as he was writing the poem he was trying to reconstruct an old song. He had heard three lines sung by an elderly woman in an Irish village, but she didn't remember all of the words of the song. The lines were about the meeting of a loved one in the Salley Gardens. Yeats' poem was set to an old tune in 1909 by Herbert Hughes.
The derivation of the word "Salley" probably comes from nature. Willow trees belong to the genus Salix. Some UK species have the word sallow in their common name. One of the common names of Salix caprea is great sallow, for example. Salix cinerea is sometimes known as common sallow. The word salley is thought to have been derived from sallow.
The phrase "salley gardens" likely means willow gardens, or a location where willow trees grow. Willows were once planted in groups in order to provide stems for thatched roofs. This might have been the place when the man and woman mentioned in the song met.
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.— William Butler Yeats (First verse of the salley gardens song)
Loreena McKennitt is a singer and song composer who plays multiple instruments. She often sings Celtic songs. She's known for her clear soprano voice.
Star of the County Down
"Star of the County Down" describes a man's admiration for a beautiful girl named Rosie McCann that he sees during a walk. She's the star mentioned in the title. The man admires her looks so much that he wants to marry her, even though he's never met her. He's looking forward to an upcoming harvest fair, where he hopes to impress Rosie.
As is often the case, multiple lyrics exist for the song today. Some say that the man is going to the fair with his hat at the right angle and his shoes shone bright in the hope of getting a smile from Rosie. Others say that he's going to "try sheep's eyes and deludtherin lies on the heart of the nut-brown Rose". We might feel sympathetic for the lovestruck man in the first case, despite his apparent shallowness, but not in the second.
The lyrics were apparently written by Cathal McGarvey (1866 -1927) and were set to music by Herbert Hughes (1882 -1937). Once again, Hughes used a traditional tune for the piece, which he modified slightly to match the words. I say that McGarvey was apparently the writer because his authorship is not as well cited as that of other lyricists in this article.
Two distinctly different versions of the song are performed today. The first video below shows a relatively slow and melodic version that is almost the same as the one that I learned as a child, though it's not quite as fast. The video underneath shows the rapid and less melodic version that seems to be more popular today. I like the second version, but I far prefer the first one.
From Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay
And from Galway to Dublin town
No maid I've seen like the brown colleen
That I met in the County Down— Cathal McGarvey (Chorus of the star of the county down song)
Like Rosalind McAllister, Sarah Moore (the vocalist in the video above) sings songs in the folk and Celtic genres.
The Irish Rovers is a Canadian group composed mostly of people with an Irish background. They have been in existence for over fifty years and are popular in many other countries besides Canada. As might be expected given the group's long existence, the members of the group have gradually changed over the years. One original member is still part of The Irish Rovers, however.
"Molly Malone" is a much-loved song and is often considered to be the unofficial anthem of Dublin. It's also a popular song for spectators to sing at sporting events. Though people have repeatedly tried to prove that Molly was a real person, no one has been able to do this.
In the song, Molly is a fishmonger and is said to be a sweet girl. Like some real fishmongers of the time, she probably obtained her cockles and mussels (types of shellfish) from fisherman at the Dublin quay early in the day. She then wheeled them around in her barrow to sell them, advertising her wares by a call to the public. In the song, her call is "Cockles and Mussels, Alive, alive - oh".
The song tells us that eventually poor Molly develops a fever and that "no one can save her". Her ghost still pushes her wheelbarrow of cockles and mussels around the city, however, and still advertises her wares.
It's believed that the creator of the song was James Yorkston. The first line of the song tells us that the Molly lived in Dublin, but Yorkston was actually Scottish. The song was first published in 1884 under Yorston's name. According to one researcher, it may have been created solely as a comedy piece for music hall performances instead of being based on the tune or lyrics of a traditional song. He does allow for the possibility that it was inspired by an earlier song, however. It will be interesting to see what further research reveals.
The Dubliners was very popular folk group that achieved international recognition. The group formed in 1962 under a different name and retired in 2012 when their last founding member died. Members of the group at that time formed a new band called The Dublin Legends, which still exists.
Exploring Folk Songs
A huge number of folk songs are available for interested people to explore. Steve Roud is a former librarian who has created a database of folk songs from around the world known as the Roud Index. At the moment, the index includes close to 25,000 songs. Each one is numbered, which is why many folk song websites state a Roud number as well as a title of a song. Investigating traditional and modern folk music via the Roud index or one of the other collections that has been created is an interesting activity. Scottish and Irish songs are great examples to explore in the collections.
- Facts about the Loch Lomond song from the Friends of Loch Lomond & the Trossachs website
- Information about Flora Macdonald and the Jacobite Uprising from Historic UK
- The Skye Boat Song from the Scottish Language Centre.
- A brief biography of Carolina Oliphant from the Scottish Language Centre
- History of "Wild Mountain Thyme" from Mainly Norfolk
- Down by the Salley Gardens entry from Mainly Norfolk
- Star of the County Down lyrics and authorship from The Liedernet Archive
- History of Molly Malone from History Ireland Magazine
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton