Tune: The Soldier’s Return
As I cam doon yon water side
And by yon Shillin Hill, O
It’s there I spied a bonny lass,
A lass I lo’ed richt weel, O
The mill, mill-O, the kill, kill-O
The coggin O Peggy’s wheel, O
The sack and the sieve, a’ she did leave
An danced the miller’s reel, O
I spier’d at her, gin she cou’d play,
But the lassie had nae skill, O,
An yet she was nae a’ tae blame,
She pit it in my will, O
Then she fell ower, an sae did I,
An we danced the miller’s reel, O,
If e’er that bonny lassie comes again
She shall hae her maut grund weel O
Coggin: using a wedge or support for a wheel, steadying something shaky by wedging it
Reel: whirling dance
She pit it in my will: she made me want it.
Shilling Hill: sheiling hill – winnowing hill where the husk was separated from grain by being thrown up so the wind would blow away the light husk.
This song was brought to Sangschule by Gordeanna McCulloch and more recently by Scott and Anne Murray of Sangsters.
The miller’s privileged place in society figures in many songs. Farm tenants were obliged to have their meal ground at the laird’s mill and sometimes had to give up their own querns to ensure that they could not grind their own. So the miller was always going to be a good provider if not necessarily the most popular man around. He was in a position of power in his community, and power as an aphrodisiac plus the suggestive sounds of the regular thumping of the mill may contribute to the list of songs where girls turn up to get their meal or malt ground, “multure free” - without paying the miller’s fee of part of the meal. Our song is in this tradition and the “miller’s reel” is clearly a horizontal dance.
The tune, “The Soldier’s Return”, is used for no 242 in Johnson, also called “The Mill, Mill O”, and starting ‘Beneath the green shade.’ The song there, credited to Ramsay in the Greig-Duncan notes, describes the rape of a sleeping girl who then cannot explain her pregnancy until the soldier daddy returns from the wars and kindly enlightens her. The last verse has similar lines to our text:
My bonny sweet lass, on the gowany grass, / Beneath the Shilling-hill, O
If I did offence, I’se make ye amends / Before I leave Peggy’s mill O
O the mill, mill O, and the kill, kill O / And the coggin of the wheel O
The sack and the sieve, a’ that ye maun leave / And round with a sodger reel O
This text and our text above are found in The Merry Muses of Caledonia, consisting of bawdy verse, first published about 1800, after the death of Robert Burns and based upon his own collection. It is subtitled “A Collection of Favourite Scots Songs, Ancient and Modern; Selected for use of the Crochallan Fencibles.” The Crochallan Fencibles were the members of the drinking club Burns frequented in Edinburgh and for whom he wrote a verse of “Rattlin Roarin Willie.”
What happened to his notebooks and papers after his death and what were the true sources of the 1800 edition of The Merry Muses are topics of disagreement among scholars.
There is a story that Burns himself, on his deathbed, was offered fifty pounds for the collection and “repelled the offer with horror”, and also that the papers were borrowed from the widowed Jean and were never returned. According to J Delancey Ferguson, in the 1965 WH Allen edition of The Merry Muses who quotes from a preface to the Burns Federation reprint, no evidence is produced for these events. Publisher Robert Chambers was appalled that the songs were ever “allowed the honours of the press.” In 1796 a Dr James Currie received Burns’ papers – “the complete sweepings of his drawers and of his desk” in order to write a biography and edit Burns’ works. But his edition, out in 1800, did not include the bawdy songs, and he died in 1805 without returning the papers, whose fate is not known.