Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

The Band O Shearers

Prob. 18th century

Tune: Johnnie Cope

 Simmer days and heather bells
Come bloomin’ owre yon high, high hills
There’s yellow corn in a the fields
And autumn brings the shearin’.

Bonnie lassie will ye gang
And shear wi me the hale day lang?
And love will cheer us as we gang
Tae join yon band o shearers

Oh if the weather be's owre hot
I'll cast my gravat and my coat
And shear wi ye amang the lot,
When we join yon band o shearers

And if the thistle is owre strang
And pierce your lily milk-white hand
It's wi my hook I'll cut it down
When we gang tae the shearin

And if the weather be's owre dry
They'll say there's love 'twixt you and I,
But we will proudly pass them by,
When we join yon band o shearers

And when the shearin it is done
And slowly sets the evening sun,
We'll hae some rantin roarin fun
And gang nae mair tae the shearin.

Words:
Gravat
: scarf
Hook, heuk : a reaping-hook
Rantin: uproarious

The writer is unknown although it has been ascribed to Robert Hogg, a nephew of the “Ettrick Shepherd”. That would give the song’s date as early 19th century. However, collector Gavin Greig was “pretty strongly inclined to put the original ‘Band O’ Shearers’ back into the 18th century at least.”  After studying the song, Greig doubted that Hogg had written the original because there were so many and such widely differing versions, the sign of a song being really old.

G.W. Lockhart in The Scot and his Oats sheds light on the “ band o’ shearers”: “Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, gangs of blue-bonneted Highland men and Highland lasses moved to the Lowlands every year to take part in the harvest, gradually working their way north again as the harvest progressed. The morals of these Highland workers were of considerable concern to the Church, the Sabbath frequently not being strictly observed by them and the young girls spending their money unwisely on fripperies. Where large gangs were employed, and these gangs could be of sixty or more in strength, the farmer might also engage a piper as an inducement to greater productivity.”

However, Jock Duncan, singer and former farm worker remembers (May 2010) that in his day it would be farms helping each other, or people from the NE going down to the later hairst in Lothian. “It was always people that you knew”, usually the same families every year because the farmers wanted to know they were getting good workers. They tried to keep the men and women apart and because they usually went in families, this was not difficult. He remembers that hairst was the only time in the year that you got a piece in the afternoon with your cold tea, and another at night, and it was always rhubarb jam!

As mechanical means, the reaper and the binder, and eventually the combine harvester were invented to reduce the back-breaking toil of harvesting, fewer workers were needed to bring in the harvest and no doubt some of the fun was lost as well. Harvest had often been a time for courtship as men and women worked together in the fields.

As 19th C. editor Robert Ford says “the days of ‘bands of shearers’ have gone by for ever in Scotland, but so long as the memory of them lasts this song will have a sweet savour.”

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