Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

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

The Bonnie Banks of Airdrie

Three pretty fair maids went oot for a walk
Eek in aye sae bonnie-o
They met a robber on the way
On the bonnie banks o Airdrie-o

He’s ta’en the first ane by the hand
He’s birled her roon an he’s made her stand

“Wid ye be a rank robber’s wife
Or wid ye dee by my penknife?”

“I’ll no be a rank robber’s wife
I’d raither dee by your penknife”

He’s ta’en the second ane by the hand
He’s birled her roon an he’s made her stand

“Wid ye be a rank robber’s wife
Or wid ye dee by my penknife?”

“I’ll no be a rank robber’s wife
I’d raither dee by your penknife”

Then he’s ta’en the third ane by the hand
He’s birled her roon an he’s made her stand

“Wid ye be a rank robber’s wife
Or wid ye dee by my penknife?”

“I’ll no be a rank robber’s wife
An’ I’ll no dee by your penknife”

Words:
Birled:
whirled round
Pen-knife: a small knife used to sharpen quill pens
Rank: strong, violent
Wud: wood
Twined: separated

This version was brought to Sangschule by Gordeanna McCulloch.

In Child's English and Scottish Ballads it appears with 5 variants as number 14, “Babylon”, or “The Bonnie Banks O Fordie.” There when the youngest said her brother’s name was “Baby Lon”, the robber “twyned himself o’ his ain sweet life, / On the bonnie banks o’ Fordie”

Our version is similar to the one in The Scottish Folksinger, where they comment that this ballad is "especially common in Scandinavian tradition." From the singing of Jessie McDonald of MacDuff’, it ends with the robber brother swearing never to go robbing again. Gordeanna’s version takes the harder line - the brother knows he has killed his sisters, not robbed them – and, like “Baby Lon”, takes his own life.

There is a version in The Singing Island compiled by MacColl and Seeger, where three daughters of the Duke of Perth meet a ‘banished man’ with the usual murderous results. Their brother comes into the story, but only as brother John who comes riding by in time to avenge his sisters.  The refrain is ‘Aiken ay sae bonnie, O’. This was taken from the singing of Betsy Henry of Auchterarder, Perthshire.

Greig-Duncan records only one text fragment of this ballad as no.199 in vol.2, from Miss Bell Robertson, one of Greig and Duncan’s frequent contributors, who remembered a verse and a half:
Will ye be a rank robber’s wife? / Aikin ay so bonnie O /
 Or will ye die by my penknife? / On the bonnie banks o’ Airdrie O.
 I winna be a rank robber’s wife, / but I’ll rayther die by your penknife
.

She wrote that she got it from a tinker boy who used to camp beside her house. Her brothers were boys at the same school and used to ask them to sing, but she said they did not really sing – it was a kind of chant. “It was not easy to pick up from them.” Miss Robertson said that when Mr Greig brought Child’s book, he found it “most astonishing”, but here was the same ballad, and it seemed to be an old version the boy had.

 

 

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