|Bawbee from the reign of Queen Mary|
|+MARIA D G REGINA SCOTORV, crowned thistle flanked by M R||(lis)OPPIDVM EDINBVRGI, saltire cross with crown and cinquefoils|
|BI 21mm, 2.35 g, 12h.
First issue, minted circa 1542-1558. Mint: Edinburgh
A bawbee was a Scottish halfpenny. The word means, properly, a debased copper coin, valued at six pence Scots (equal at the time to an English half-penny), issued from the reign of James V of Scotland to the reign of William II of Scotland. They were hammered until 1677, when they were produced upon screw presses.
The bawbee was introduced by James V in 1538 valued at sixpence. These carry his 'I5' monogram flanking a crowned thistle, and a large saltire on the reverse with a central crown. There was also smaller half bawbee and quarter bawbee. Around the year 1544 his widow Mary of Guise minted bawbees at Stirling Castle, with the 'MR' cipher, and the cross potent with crosslets of Lorraine on the reverse. The first bawbees of Mary, Queen of Scots issued by the mint at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh carried the cinquefoil emblems of Regent Arran.
The issue of King Charles II was a coin of copper with the famed reverse inscription nemo me impune lacessit (no one provokes me with impunity), although the last word at this time on the coin is spelled "Lacesset". This motto is still in use today on the edge of the circulating Scottish one Pound Sterling coins. The motto is around a crowned Thistle followed by date. This is the coin mentioned above that was valued at six pence Scots and half an English penny.
- Quoth he, "My goddess, nymph, and queen,
- Your beauty dazzles baith my e'en",
- But deil a beauty had he seen
- But Jennie’s bawbee
Sir Alexander took the hint of his song from a much older one:-
- A' that e'er my Jeanie had,
- My Jeanie had, my Jeanie had,
- A' that e'er my Jeanie had
- Was ae bawbie
- There's your plack, and my plack,
- And your plack, and my plack,
- And Jeanie's bawbie.
Brewer's lists "Jenny's Bawbee" as meaning a "marriage portion".
The term "bawbee" continued to mean a halfpenny after England and Scotland shared a common coinage after 1707, as can be seen in the poem Lament for Ancient Edinburgh by James Ballantine published in 1856 (see Luckenbooths article). It was still current in the 20th century and continues to be used to refer to Bawbee Baps or cakes in Aberdeen (i.e. cheap baps). A popular song, The Crookit Bawbee, was recorded by The Alexander Brothers and Kenneth McKellar amongst others, and the tune remains a staple for Scottish country dance band music. The song has a rich suitor asking why his "bright gowd" and "hame... in bonnie Glenshee" are being turned down, the lady referring to a laddie when she was a young "bairnie", and her heart "Was gi'en him lang-syne, for this crookit bawbee." Inevitably the rich suitor turns out to be the laddie returned to his love.
The bawbee is referred to in the popular Lowland Scots song Coulter's Candy, widely sung as a lullaby:
- Ally Bally Ally Bally Bee
- Sittin on your mammy's knee
- Greetin for a wee bawbee
- Tae buy some Coulter's candy
- Wha'll hire, wha'll hire, whall hire me?
- Three plumps and a wallop for ae bawbee.
The tale is that the people of Kirkmahoe were so poor, they could not afford to put any meat into their broth. A 'cute cobbler invested all his money in buying four sheep-shanks, and when a neighbour wanted to make mutton broth, for the payment of one halfpenny the cobbler would "plump" one of the sheep-shanks into the boiling water, and give it a "wallop" or whisk round. He then wrapped it in a cabbage-leaf and took it home. This was called a gustin bone, and was supposed to give a rich "gust" to the broth. The cobbler found his gustin bone very profitable.
Ma Mam sez that Ah maun go
Wi' ma Daddie's dinner-o
Chappit tatties, beef, and steak
Twa reid herrin' an' a bawbee cake
According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,
- The word "bawbee" is derived from the Laird of Sillebawby, a mint-master. That there was such a laird is quite certain from the Treasurer's account, September 7th, 1541, "In argento receptis a Jacobo Atzinsone, et Alexandro Orok de Sillebawby respective."
This man was responsible for the introduction of a silver coin valued at six, later three, pennies Scots, which was named after his estate. Sillebawby was a farm in the parish of Burntisland in Fife, a moorland portion of the farm of Balbie (locally pronounced 'bawbee'). Its name takes various forms throughout its recorded history: Sybbable (1328), Slebalbe (1328 and 1458), Selybawbey (1517) are some early examples.
Brewer's also gives an alternative etymology, and states its origin from "French, bas billon, (debased copper money)", but this is a kind of speculative folk-etymology.
- Holmes, Nicholas, Scottish Coins, (1998), 30-31, 33-4.
- Simon Taylor with Gilbert Márkus, The Place-Names of Fife, volume 1 (Donington 2006), 201-2
- Holmes, Nicholas. Scottish Coins: A History of Small Change in Scotland. NMS Publishing (1998) ISBN 1-901663-02-7
- MacKay, Charles. A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch (1888)
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable