Archive for April, 2010

Many people assume that my interest in Scotland and its history must come from my heritage.  The truth is, I have absolutely no ancestral connection to Scotland.  In the strange ways of life’s paths, my interest in Scotland stems from my life as a musician, and a piece known to all trombonists, Blue Bells of Scotland.

Blue Bells of Scotland is an old folk song which, like many, has multiple versions springing from different eras.   Although histories vary, most now say that the song started off as the poetry of a woman named Anne MacVicar Grant, or, in the parlance of another age, Mrs. Grant of Laggan.  Born in Glasgow in February of 1755, to a British soldier stationed alternately in America and Scotland,  Annie MacVicar married a Scottish minister in 1779.  Some 22 years later, she was left widowed and penniless while pregnant with the youngest of 8 surviving children.  (There were 12 altogether.)  In a classic story of pluck, she supported her children by publishing the poems she had written over the years.

One of these was entitled Oh, Where, Tell Me Where?  It was written for the departure of the Marquis of Huntly, with his regiment, to Holland in 1799.  (My research suggests he was a member of the Gordon Highlanders, but not what his connection to Mrs. Grant might have been.)

Oh! where, tell me where, is your Highland laddie gone?
Oh! where, tell me where is your Highland laddie gone?
He’s gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done.
And my sad heart will tremble till he come safely home,
He’s gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done.
And my sad heart will tremble till he come safely home.

Oh! where, tell me where, did your Highland laddie stay?
Oh! where, tell me where, did your Highland laddie stay?
He dwelt among the holly trees, beside the rapid Spey,
And many a blessing followed him the day he went away,
He dwelt beneath the holly trees, beside the river Spey,
And many a blessing followed him the day he went away.

Oh! what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
Oh! what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
A bonnet with a lofty plume, the gallant badge of war.
And a plaid across the manly breast, that yet shall wear a star,
A bonnet with a lofty plume, the gallant badge of war,
And a plaid across the manly breast, that yet shall wear a star.

Suppose, ah, suppose, that some cruel, cruel wound
Should pierce your Highland laddie, and all your hopes confound?
The pipe would play a cheering march, the banners round him fly,
The spirit of a Highland chief would lighten in his eye,
The pipe would play a cheering march, the banners round him fly,
And for his king and country dear, with pleasure would he die.

But I will hope to see him yet in Scotland’s bonnie bounds.
But I will hope to see him yet in Scotland’s bonnie bounds ;
His native land of liberty shall nurse his glorious wounds,
While wide through all our Highland hills his war-like name resounds,
His native land of liberty shall nurse his glorious wounds,
While wide through all our Highland hills his war-like name resounds.

The original words of Mrs. Grant’s poetry have, over the years, been used for the song, and at times replaced with others.  From the Scots Musical Museum, a collection of 600 Scottish folk songs, we get a very different version:

O, fair maid, whose aught that bonny bairn
O, fair maid, whose aught that bonny bairn ;
It is a sodg-er’s son, the said, that’s lately gone to Spain,
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

O, fair maid, what was that Rodger’s name?
O, fair maid, what was that Rodger’s name ?
In troth a’tweel, I never speir’d—the mair I was to blame,
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

 O, fair maid, what had that sodger on?
O, fair maid, what had that sodger on?
A scarlet coat laid o’er wi’ gold, a waistcoat o’ the game.,
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

O, fair maid, what if he should be slain?
O, fair maid, what if he should be slain?
The king would lose a brave sodger, and I a pretty num
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

O, fair maid, what if he should come hame?
O, fair maid, what if he should come hame?
The parish priest should marry us, the clerk should say amen
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

O, fair maid, would ye that sodger ken?
O, fair maid, would ye that sodger ken?
In troth a’tweel, an’ that I wad, among ten thousand men.
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

O, fair maid, what if I be the man?
O, fair maid, what if I be the man?
In troth a’tweel, it may be so; I’se baud ye for the same.
Te dilly dan, te dilly dan, te dilly, dilly dan

The lyrics better known today follow a similar pattern of question and answer, regarding where he’s gone, where he dwells, what he wears, and what if he dies:

Oh where, tell me where is your highland laddie gone?
Oh where, tell me where is your highland laddie gone?
He’s gone with streaming banners where noble deeds are done
And it’s oh! in my heart I wish him safe at home.

Oh where, tell me where did your highland laddie dwell?
Oh where, tell me where did your highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in bonnie Scotland where blooms the sweet bluebell
And it’s oh! in my heart I love my laddie well.

Oh what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
Oh what, tell me what, does your Highland laddie wear?
A bonnet with a lofty plume, and on his breast a plaid
And it’s oh, in my heart I lo’ed my Highland lad

Oh what, tell me what if your highland lad be slain?
Oh what, tell me what if your highland lad be slain?
Oh no, true love will be his guide and bring him safe again
For it’s oh! my heart would break if my highland lad were slain.

There are many slight variations on these lyrics, and some larger ones.  For instance, through the years, the Highland laddie changes his clothes:

O what lassie what does your heelin’ laddie wear?
O what lassie what does your heelin’ laddie wear?
A scarlett coat and bonnet wi’ bonnie yellow hair
And there’s none in the world can wi’ my sweet love compare

What clothes, in what clothes is your Highland laddie clad?
‘His bonnet’s of the Saxon green, his waistcoat’s of the plaid ;
And it’s oh! in my heart, that I love my Highland lad.

But the ending follows the pattern set out in previous incarnations:

Suppose, oh, suppose that your Highland lad should die?
The bagpipes shall play over him, I’ll lay me down and cry;
And it’s oh! in my heart, that I wish he may not die!

O what will you claim for your constancy tae him?
O what will you claim for your constancy tae him?
I’ll claim a priest tae wed us and a clerk tae say amen
And I’ll ne’er part again from my bonnie heelin’ man

A later version references George II and the Napoleonic Wars, which ran from 1803-1815, after the Scots Musical Museum, Mrs. Jordan, and Mrs. Grant versions were printed:

Oh, where, and oh, where is my highland laddie gone,
Oh, where, and oh, where is my highland laddie gone,
He’s gone to fight the French, for King George upon the throne,
And it’s oh in my heart I wish him safe at home.

In addition to the plethora of verses, the title has also changed over the years, being known also as The New Highland Lad; O Where, Tell Me Where, and The Bells of Scotland. 

The source of the lyrics is largely undisputed; there’s a little more controversy over the origins of the melody.  The North Country Chorister,published in 1802 by Ritson (who does not appear, in all my research, to have a first name), printed this song as The New Highland Lad, which started with the words “There was a Highland laddie courted a lowland maid.”  The second verse of this version was “Oh where and oh where does your Highland laddie dwell?”

The song was brought to prominence by a Mrs. Jordan.  She was actually neither a Mrs. nor a Jordan, but Dorothea Bland, born near Waterford in 1762.  She led a colorful life, in ironic contrast to her name, moving from her training as a milliner to life on the stage, and having fourteen children, ten of them with William, Duke of Clarence/ King William IV, although they never married.  But she is often remembered for singing Blue Bells of Scotland, at Drury Lane around 1800, set to what she called her own composition.  Others describe it as a modified version of the original melody.  Ritson later noted on copies of his version that, “The song has lately been introduced upon the stage by Mrs. Jordan, who knew neither the words nor the tune.” 

The 1853 edition of The Scots Musical Museum states that the words were set to a ‘modern’ Scottish air, but gives no indication of which one, or this modern air’s relation to either Ritson’s or Mrs. Jordan’s melody.

In Immortal Songs of Camp and Field, published in 1898,Charles Mackay and Sir Henry Rowley Bishop debate whether it is actually a Scottish air or an older English melody from Sussex, discovered by a Mr. Fitzgerald, which began with the words “Oh, I have been forester this many a long day.”  This Sussex melody has several bars similar to the second half of Blue Bells.  Sir Henry wrote on October 22, 1852, that Mrs. Jordan based her melody on the one discovered by Mr. Fitzgerald, but altered it to accommodate her own vocal range. 

Another history of the melody of Blue Bells of Scotland tells of George Thomson, born in 1757, who directed the first Edinburgh Music Festival.  As a violinist and lover of Scottish music, he disliked the melodies of some of Scotland’s airs.  Seeking better music, he forwarded these airs on to Franz Joseph Haydn, in 1799, who worked on some 200 of them, including Blue Bells of Scotland. 

Blue Bells of Scotlandon youtube: although there are dozens of versions, I have chosen this one as a fairly simple piece that sticks very close to the traditional melody.

The Bluebell of Scotland

The rose, summer’s emblem
’tis England’s chosen tree
And France decks her shield
with the stately Fluer-de-lis
But brighter, fairer far than these
There blooms a flower for me,
Tis the Bluebell, the Bluebell
On Scotland’s grassy lea
Where from the dark, up springs the lark
The rising sun to see!
Where from the dark, up springs the lark
The rising sun to see!My land! native land!

Where afar my steps have been,
Blue skies charm the eyes,
And the earth is ever green.
Yet dwelt my heart ‘mid Scotland’s glens,
Where aye in thought was seen,
The Bluebell, the Bluebell,
Amid the bracken green,
And brighter far than sun or star,
The eyes of bonnie Jean!
And brighter far than sun or star,
The eyes of bonnie Jean!The Thistle, Scotland’s badge

Up from Freedom’s soil it grew,
Her foes aye found it hedg’d round
With rosemarie and rue.
And, emblem that her daughters were modest, leal, and true,
From off the rocks, to deck their locks,
They pluck’d the Bell of Blue!
The Heathbell, the Harehell,
Old Scotland’s Bell of Blue!
The Heathbell, the Harebell,
Old Scotland’s Bell of Blue!
from Rampant Scotland

Tomorrow, the song and Arthur Pryor