Sangstories
Stories of Scottish Songs

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

Twa Recruitin Sairgeants

Twa recruitin sairgeants cam frae the Black Watch
To markets and fairs some recruits for to catch
An a’ that they listed was forty and twa
So list, bonnie laddie, and come awa

It is over the mountains and over the main
Through Gibraltar to France and Spain
Get a feather tae your bonnet and a kilt abeen your knee
An list, bonnie laddie, an come awa wi me

Oh laddie, ye dinna ken the danger that ye’re in
If your horses wis tae fleg an your owsen wis tae rin,
This greedy auld fairmer winna pey your fee
So list, bonnie laddie, an come awa wi me

It’s intae the barn an oot o the byre
This auld fairmer thinks ye’ll never tire
For it’s a slavery job of low degree
So list, bonnie laddie, an come awa wi me

Wi your tattie poorins an your meal an kail
Your soor sowen soorins an your ill-brewed ale
Wi your buttermilk an whey an your breid fired raw
So list, bonnie laddie, an come awa

Oh laddie, if ye’ve got a sweetheart an bairn
Ye’ll easily get rid o that ill-spun yairn
Twa rattles of the drum and that’ll pey it a’
So list, bonnie laddie, an come awa

Words:
Abeen: above
Buttermilk – the liquid left when butter has been churned – a slightly sour drink
Fleg: take fright
Kail: kind of cabbage; the soup from which it was made; dinner, the main meal
Listed: enlisted
Meal: oatmeal for porridge or brose
Owsen: oxen, used for ploughing, drawing carts
Soor: sour
Sowen soorins: kind of jellied oatmeal – oatmeal and husks soaked together for a week, strained, and the liquor then fermented and separated, forming solid sowens and liquid swats. It was eaten like porridge, boiled with water and salt
Tatty poorins: water in which potatoes have been boiled
Whey: watery part of milk remaining after the formation of curds, when milk becomes semi-solid

Our version is found in 101 Scottish Songs, the “Wee Red Book” of the Folksong Revival, and it was made popular in that form through the singing of traveller Jeannie Robertson in the 1950s though it appears to have started about 300 years ago in England, in the time of the French wars when Queen Anne was on the English throne.
Jeannie’s version became known again in England and  “over the hills and far away” as it was carried by Scots singers such as Enoch Kent, Nigel Denver and Ian Campbell.

The theme of recruitment for foreign wars is a frequent one in traditional song and two of the entries in Greig-Duncan’s versions link it to “The French Wars.” There is no mention here of “taking the shilling” to bind the unwary young man against his will, but neither is there mention of the real nature and risks of war, just the chance of better conditions and freedom from unwanted responsibilities.

The Black Watch is a Scottish Regiment raised in 1739 from Independent Companies used to keep order in the Highlands after the 1715 Rebellion. Named after their dark green and black tartan – or for their black hearts- according to point of view.            

The list of unappetising food was standard for farm-workers. Ord in his Bothy Songs And Ballads says “ Many bothy songs refer to the food supplied by the farmer to his servants, which, in a great many cases, was of the very poorest quality.”  Ord goes on: “If the breakfast was poor, the dinner was no better:
The breid was thick, the brose was thin, / The broth they were like bree
I chased the barley roun’ the plate, / And a’ I got were three.

  The Greig-Duncan Collection under “The Recruiting Sergeant” vol 1, no.77, quotes a similar chorus from George Farquhar’s play of 1706, The Recruiting Officer:
Over the hills, and o’re the main /To Flanders, Portugal, or Spain / The queen commands, and we’ll obey /Over the hills and far away
. The queen would be Queen Anne (1665 – 1714).

Collector Karl Dallas notes in his songbook The Cruel Wars that “Over the hills and far away” was a rather soulful lyric when printed in Pills To Purge Melancholy(1719-20  ) and John Gay used it in The Beggars’ Opera. “But in Scotland (and especially in Aberdeenshire) they still recall the roistering, boisterous original from Marlborough’s day as sung by the great Jeannie Higgins (nee Robertson) OBE or John Strachan.”

Jeannie Robertson (1908 –1975) was a traveller, living 6 months of the year in Aberdeen, then free to travel the country roads and camp in beautiful places with the family during the other, milder 6 months, when she walked miles with a pack on her back, selling to the country people. Later she settled in Aberdeen. Her parents and extended family of the travelling community kept alive ballads and traditional music that were lost to the rest of the country. Only collectors who sought out travelling communities to record their wealth of song and story were aware of what they had.

 Hamish Henderson, writer and folksong collector, met Jeannie in 1953 in Aberdeen.  He realised at once that she was a singer and tradition bearer of great stature, recorded her singing, and brought her to public notice at the time of the 1953 Edinburgh Festival at his third Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh. From that time, she was recorded, travelled widely to perform and was eventually awarded the OBE.

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