Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

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

The Cuckoo's Nest

There is a thorn bush in oor kail yaird
There is a thorn bush in oor kail yaird
At the back o the bush, there stands a lad and lass,
And they’re busy busy herryin at the cuckoo’s nest

Hi the cuck and ho the cuck and hi the cuckoo’s nest
Hi the cuck and ho the cuck and hi the cuckoo’s nest
I’ll gie onybody a shillin and a bottle o the best
If they’ll rumple up the feathers o the cuckoo’s nest

I met him in the morning and I took him there at night
He hadn’t been that way before, I had to keep him right
He never would have found it, he never would have guessed
If I hadn’t shown him where to find the cuckoo’s nest

I showed him where to find it, I showed him where to go
Through the brambles and the prickles where the wee cuckoos go
From the minute that he found it, he wouldn’t let me rest
Till he rumpled up the feathers o the cuckoo’s nest

It is thorned, it is sprinkled, it  is compassed all around
It’s tucked into a corner and it isn’t easy found
I said  “Young man you’re plundering”, he said it wasn’t true
But he left me wi the makins o a young cuckoo

Words:

Herry: rob a bird’s nest; plunder
Kail-yard :    cabbage-plot.  Kail or kale is a coarse, dark-green
                          kind of cabbage capable of surviving
                          winter weather. It can also mean the
                          soup made from it, or just “dinner”
                          because it was a staple of the rural
                          diet at one time. The kail-yard was
                          so much part of the rural scene that
                          the term “Kail-yard” is applied to
                          sentimental 19th and early 20th C.
                          literature of domestic country life.
Wow: exclamation of pleasure and surprise

This song was brought to Sangschule by Aileen Carr. She includes it on her CD Green Yarrow where her notes say “ It was learned in part from Betsy White. Hamish Henderson has described this piece, a favourite of Jeannie Robertson, as ‘a widely known and much sung Lallan port a beul.’ The enduring ornithological ignorance of female traditional singers is only to be wondered at.”

The ignorance Aileen highlights may be the notion of a cuckoo’s nest, since the cuckoo is the only bird that doesn’t make one. The bird’s habit of laying eggs in other bird’s nests is the origin of the word ‘cuckold’, the husband of an adulterous wife.

A shorter version appears in The Scottish Folksinger from the singing of Jeannie Robertson and is described as a “fairly clear piece of erotic symbolism.”
The editor of Lyric Gems of Scotland Series 1 refers on P292 to the “Brier Bush”, an old song “which Burns altered a little for the ‘Museum’. He tells us that Burns “likewise communicated the air, which is now a general favourite.”  (It is not however the tune that Aileen uses and taught us.)

The “Museum” referred to is Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum, the song collection to which Burns contributed and which he helped to edit, and this version appears in vol.2, p.508:

Brier Bush:
There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard,/ There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kail-yard,/ And below the bonnie brier bush there’s a lassie and a lad,/ And they’re busy, busy courting, in our kail-yard

We’ll court nae mair below the bush in our kail-yard/ We’ll court nae mair below the bush in our kail-yard/ We’ll awa tae Athole’s green, and there we’ll no be seen/
Where the trees and the branches will be our safeguard

Will ye go to the dancing in Carlyle’s ha’/ Will ye go to the dancing in Carlyle’s ha?/
Where Sandy and Nancy I’m sure will ding them a’?/ I winna gang to the dance in Carlyle-ha’

What will I do for a lad, when Sandy gangs awa?/ What will I do for a lad when Sandy gangs awa?/ I will awa to Edinburgh, and win a pennie fee,/ And see an (if) onie (any)bonnie lad will fancy me

He’s comin frae the North that’s to fancy me/ He’s comin frae the North that’s to fancy me/ A feather in his bonnet, and a ribbon at his knee/ He’s a bonnie, bonnie laddie, and yon (over there) be he

The following is the later version printed in Lyric Gems of Scotland Series 1, P94 as:
 a modern version of the old song which Burns altered a little for the “Museum”:

There grows a Bonnie Brier Bush
There grows a bonnie brier bush in our kailyard/ And white are the blossoms o’t in our kailyard/ Like wee bit white cockades for our loyal Hieland lads/ And the lasses loe the brier bush in our kailyard.

But were they a’ true that are far awa?/ Oh! Were they a’ true that are far awa?/ They drew up wi glaiket Englishers at Carlisle ha’/ And forgot auld friens when far awa

Ye’ll come nae mair, Jamie, where aft ye hae been/ Ye’ll come nae mair, Jamie, where aft ye hae been /  Ye loed owre weel the dancing at Carlisle ha’/ And forgot the Hieland Hills that were far awa

He’s comin frae the north that’s to fancy me/ He’s comin frae the north that’s to fancy me/ A feather in his bonnet, and a ribbon at his knee/ He’s a bonnie hieland laddie, and you be na he