Earlier this year I attended a singing weekend in and around Stroud, as the guest of Rod and Danny Stradling. One of many good things about the weekend was that I got to meet Pete Shepheard and Arthur Watson, two fine Scottish singers with a store of good songs, and good stories to tell about them. Pete sang this in the Stradling’s kitchen, after hours on the Friday night, then again at the final session on Sunday lunchtime. I was immediately taken with the song, but didn’t at first consider learning it, as it was just so very Scottish. I still think that to really do the song justice you need to have a Scots accent, to be able to roll your Rs, and to pronounce words like “burn” with two syllables (“burran”). But with the song still going round my head days later, I found the words on the internet and decided to give it a go. I’m glad I did, because I just love singing this song (all the same, if you want to hear a really good performance of this song, check out the recording by Shepheard, Spiers & Watson on their CD They Smiled as We Cam In, Springthyme SPRCD 1042).
Pete Shepheard’s notes say
When I was involved in organising the early TMSA festivals in Blairgowrie we set out to bring together traditional singers and musicians from all parts of Scotland. The Mitchell Family of Campbeltown in Kintyre (father, mother, daughter and son-in-law) were invited to the 1968 festival on the recommendation of Hamish Henderson who had come across Campbeltown butcher and amateur folksong collector Willie Mitchell in 1956 during a lecture tour in Argyll organised by the WEA. The Mitchells’ singing of several Kintyre songs provided a most memorable highlight of that gathering in 1968 – two songs in particular – Nancy’s Whisky and the local Kintyre emigration song Ye Boys o Callieburn (Roud 6932) that he had collected from Mr Reid, the farmer at Callieburn. Willie Scott was also a guest that same year and, after a wonderful informal Saturday afternoon ceilidh in the Sun Lounge of the Angus Hotel and with the texts from Willie Mitchell, he quickly took both songs into his repertoire.
The small farming community of Callieburn is in the hills a few miles north of Campbeltown and the song tells of emigration from an area that suffered hardship in the 1830s and 1840s – especially during the ‘hungry 40s’ when the West Highlands had a famine almost as severe as Ireland’s.
Among the riches to be found on the Tobar an Dualchais website, are several recordings of this song, including a 1979 recording made by Hamish Henderson of Agnes Mitchell from Callieburn.
I love the homespun nature of these verses – it really is “a song of our own composing”, and you can well believe that it was put together by a local man on the eve of emigrating. And what a wrench that must have been. The chances of ever seeing one’s friends or family again would have been negligible, hence the importance attached to the hope that “maybe yet we’ll meet in Zion”.
The picture below was painted by William McTaggart (1835–1910), who had a house in Machrihanish, and painted a number of views of the area, as well as a series depicting emigration.
And here is a more modern view (but, one hopes, largely unchanged since McTaggart’s day) of the beach at Machrihanish: “Machrihanish, bright and bonnie, It’s o’er thy beach the waves are rolling”.
Ye Boys o’ Callieburn