Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

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

Tatties An Herrin

Noo your hard-workin Scotsman’s gone crazy I fear,
Each day ye maun hae your bit beef and your beer,
But ye dinnae ken, though ye’re maybe nae carin
Your natural food it is tatties an herrin

Tatties an herrin, tatties an herrin,
Your natural food it is tatties an herrin
 
Noo a pound in the week, you maun aye be content,
Ten bob tae lay by for the claes and the rent,
Half a croon ye aye can be sparin,
Ye’ve aye seven an sixpence for tatties an herrin

When the Queen wanted someone tae fecht wi her foes,
It wisnae awa tae the lowlands she goes,
But awa tae the hills, where the brave an the darin
The lads that were fed upon tatties an herrin

On Alma’s Heights noo the Russians said:
“We were forced tae tak wyss for the kilt an the plaid”
But they didnae ken ‘twas the brave an the darin,
The lads that were fed upon tatties an herrin

When the harbour o refuge was first spoken aboot
Aiberdeen an Stonehaven they were fairly pit oot,
For the Queen kent the convicts wid get the best farin
Upon Buchan tatties an Peterheid herrin

Words:
Alma’s Heights: battle site in the Crimean war.
Aye: always
Claes: clothes
Fecht: fight
Half a croon: two shillings and sixpence; currency before decimalisation
Maun: must
Pound: twenty shillings; currency before decimalisation
Seven an sixpence: seven shillings and sixpence; currency before decimalisation
Tak wyss: take care
Ten bob: ten shillings; currency before decimalisation
Your bit: your wee bit; some

This song was taken from The Scottish Folksinger (1973) whose notes say the text came from the singing of Jake Mitchell of Peterhead and the tune from the singing of Isobel Baird of Boddam.

Queen Victoria ruled during the Crimean War (verse 4) and when Peterhead prison and the safe harbour were being built (verse 5).

Verse 4 suggests that the local diet would keep the convict labourers well-fed and fit for their work on the harbour of refuge. The soil of Buchan is known for producing good tatties and plenty herring arrived at the port of Peterhead, but “tatties an herrin” would usually mean salt herring.

The typical Scottish but-and-ben would have had “a spinning-wheel, a barrel of oatmeal and another of salt fish” according to The Scots Kitchen: its traditions and lore with old-time recipes by F Marian McNeill.

She also supplies the recipe:
Tatties an herrin:(Old CottageDish)
 Salt herring, potatoes, water.
Fill a three-legged pot nearly full with peeled or unpeeled potatoes. Half-fill it with water. Wash some salt herring and lay them on top of the potatoes. Cover close, bring to the boil, and hang high on the chain over a peat fire for an hour or till ready.
She added the “modern” method for 1929 when she wrote– “This dish may be allowed to simmer gently in an ordinary pot at the side of an ordinary range.”

The harbour of refuge was a major construction by convicts in the late 19th century at Peterhead whose site on a rocky coast with a breakwater had natural advantages. Nearby towns like Aberdeen and Stonehaven might well envy the benefits such a large, safe harbour might bring in trade – although trade was not the first object. 

Because of the dangerous seas off the North East coast, the government had been petitioned to build the harbour of refuge, big enough to allow shipping to find shelter at need. Engineer David Stevenson (uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson) produced plans in1858. But it was decided to build a prison at Peterhead first in order to employ convict labour in the construction of the harbour. Permission for the prison did not go through until 1886. The harbour was not completely finished until 1958, and by then accurate weather forecasting had largely removed its purpose.
 website:

www. historyshelf.org/secf/danger/links/link2.php

 “Alma’s Heights” refers to the Crimean War battle in1854, when British and French allies on their way to take the port of Sevastopol had to cross the river Alma under the Russian guns on high ground to the south of the river. More than 2000 British soldiers died in the successful attempt to scale the heights under attack from siege guns – the Great Battery – and the regiments of the Highland Brigade played their part. The battle featured in broadsides of the time and one verse says:
The Highland lads wi kilt and hose/ They were not last, you may suppose,  / And boldly faced the Russian foes/ And gained the heights of Alma.
website:
www. britishbattles.com