Bothy ballads are songs sung by farm labourers, specifically in the northeast region of Scotland.
Bothies are outbuildings on a big farm, where unmarried farm labourers used to sleep often in harsh conditions. In the evening, to entertain themselves they sang old songs and often composed their own songs. Several Child Ballads which had died out elsewhere in the UK, survived until the 1920s, still sung by working men. It was a men-only environment, and some songs are obscene. They consider ploughmen to be good lovers ("The Plooman Laddies", "My Darling Ploughman Boy").
Tune for Barnyards of Delgaty
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Although songs of rural delight occur throughout Europe it was in the farmlands around Aberdeen that humorous songs arose, critical of working conditions on farms. The best known is "The Barnyards of Delgaty". Real names of farmers, supervisors and farms are given, and mocked. Other satirical attacks are "Rhynie", "The Guise O Tough" and "Harrowing Time". By contrast "The Bogheid Crew" is a celebration of the fine work done by the labourers, naming each one in turn.
Naturally some songs celebrate the countryside, including "Where The Gadie Rins", "Bonny Udny" and "Arlin's Fine Braes". There are songs in which someone high-born man is matched with a servant. The most famous in "the Knight and the Shepherd' Daughter" (Child Ballad 110), recorded by Steeleye Span as "Royal Forrester". "The Laird o Dainty Doonby" is another. In 1951 Davie Stewart sang this song for the American collector Alan Lomax. It is a version of a song printed by David Herd in 1776, in "Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs".
Soldiers from highland regiments sometimes ended up working in bothies. It is therefore not surprising that some songs concern encounters between soldiers and innocent maids. "The Trooper and the Maid" (Child Ballad 299) is one. Most famous of all is "The Bonnie Lass o' Fyvie" (Pretty Peggy-O), recorded by Simon and Garfunkel and many others. "The Forfar Sodger" relates to the Peninsular War (1808–1856) and was recorded as late as 1951.
In the mid-1960s Grampian Television produced two series of programs re-enacting the kind of songs that were sung in bothies. It was called "Bothy Nichts". A tragic song might be followed by a joke or a story, then a humorous song. Only rarely would a servant girl be present at these events, and musical instruments would also be rare, but they appeared on the shows, for entertainment value.
We must be grateful to Alan Lomax for interviewing John Strachan (singer) (1875–1958), Jimmy MacBeath (1894–1972) and Davie Stewart (1901–1972). Hamish Henderson recorded bothy songs from Willie Scott (singer) (1897–1989). Bill Leader recorded Belle Stewart (1906–1997).
Organisations such as the Traditional Music and Song Association help to maintain the tradition.
- - "Bothy Ballads of Scotland" by Ewan MacColl (1961)
- - "The Five Yokels — Bothy Nichts Volume 1" (c 1966)
- - "The Angus Cronies — Bothy Nichts Volume 2" (c 1966)
- - "Scottish Tradition 1 - Bothy Ballads: Music From the North East" (various artists)
- - "Song From Aberdeenshire" (John Strachan) (2001)
- - "1951 Edinburgh People's Festival Ceilidh" (2006) (various artists)
- - "Go On, Another Song" (Davie Stewart) (c 1970)
- - "Two Gentlemen of the Road" (Jimmy MacBeath and Davie Stewart) (2002)
- - "Wild Rover No More" (Jimmy MacBeath) (1967)
- - "There is a Man Upon a Farm - The Voice of the People vol 20" (1998) (various artists)
- - "In Freenship's Name" (Gorgeanna McCulloch) (1997)