Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

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

Shift And Spin

by Ewan McVicar

Shift and spin, warp and twine
Making thread coarse and fine
Dreamin o yer valentine
Workin in the mill

Keep yer bobbins runnin easy
Show ye're gallus, bright and breezy
Waitin till Prince Charmin sees ye
Workin in the mill

Oil yer runners, mend yer thread
Do yer best until you're dead
You wish you were a wife instead o
Workin in the mill

You used to dream you'd be the rage
Smilin on the fashion page
Never dreamt you'd be a wage slave
Workin in the mill

You used to think that life was kind
No it isn't, never mind
Maybe some day love will find you
Workin in the mill

He loves you not? So what?
Make the best of what you've got
Win your pay, spin your cotton
Workin in the mill

Words:
Bobbin
: spool or reel holding thread
Shift: change the bobbins on a spinning frame
Twine: twist spun yarn into a thicker thread
Warp: threads on a loom over and under which other threads are passed

This song about work at the Paisley thread mills was brought to Sangschule by singer/songwriter Ewan McVicar who was the group’s first Chair. The noise of the Paisley mill machines made it impossible to talk, and so he imagines a young woman standing at her work dreaming about what might have been but coping with what she’s got.

Ewan wrote the chorus as part of a local history project in Paisley where he was working at the time. Paisley-based folksinger Danny Kyle heard it and suggested that he should add verses and make a full-length song, to be sung in a show on the history of Glasgow. In his book One Singer One Song, Ewan says that this show was “specially written in three languages - German, English and Glesga- to be performed in Glasgow’s twin city of Nurnberg in 1985 as a part of the official twinning events.”

Of the many songs Ewan has written, this is probably sung the most by other singers.
Iyaah Warren of The Linties folk group, has written an extra last verse for it, with Ewan’s approval:

Atween twa mills the Hammils fall          (Hammils – small waterfalls)They wear the dyes o Paisley shawls
Like the women, shiftin, spinnin,
Workin in the mill.

Ray Fisher helped to make Shift and Spin well-known by singing it at her folk club and passing it on to other singers. The tune she popularised is in part a harmony to what Ewan wrote. He has never objected, as this is in the nature of folk song, but finds it a bit hard occasionally to be told he is singing the wrong tune.

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