Last time I wrote about how certain songs survived the British diaspora and others, more tied to their homeland, did not. This month’s ballad is one that is not sung much in America, Australia, or even England. It’s peculiarly Scottish and in Scotland it has remained. It’s also a love song (of sorts) and I felt the tenor of my posts had been rather morose as of late. So today it’s something lighthearted and cheery!
“Glasgow Peggie” or “Kilbogie” concerns a Scottish Highlander who rides into the Lowlands to take Peggie, a woman who has caught his fancy, as his bride. Much of Scottish history in the last half millennium has revolved around relations between the Highlands and the Lowlands. I’ve included a map that gives a rough approximation of where one ends and the other begins. There were a number of real and important differences between these regions. The Lowlands (with the large cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh) contained the majority of the population. The people tended to farm and they spoke Scots, a sort of dialect of English with a lot of Gaelic influence. Many of the Child ballads were sung and written in Scots. You’ve probably seen examples of it in the lyrics I’ve quoted: “Mother” becomes “mither”, “make” becomes “mak”, and “from” becomes “frae.” For another example “Auld Lang Syne” – a song most everyone has heard – is Scots for “Old Long Since.” The Lowland Scots were usually viewed as (comparatively) civilized and settled.
The Highlanders, on the other hand, were stereotyped as uncivilized, violent, and backwards. They organized in clans and inhabited the rocky, mountainous areas of Scotland. The terrain was unsuitable for agriculture, thus they tended to herd sheep and cattle. Being more removed from the reach of England and the Lowland Scottish aristocracy, they spoke Scottish Gaelic, an older language not related to English.
The Highlanders were viewed by the Lowlanders (whose views were more likely to survive in written form) with a mix of prejudice, terror, and romanticism. Sort of like cowboys in the American West. The Highlands were the wild frontier, beautiful but dangerous. These attitudes are important to understanding “Glasgow Peggie.” When the Highlander arrives in Glasgow he is leading an armed company and demands Peggie’s father give her up. Her father, furious, at first refuses but is forced to give in. Peggie leaves, sometimes with a warning from her mother about what kind of men Highlanders are, and rides with her suitor into the hills of the North.
After several days riding they lay together in the grass and she bemoans her fate – missing her soft bed back home. But he treats her kindly and reveals himself to be a wealthy Lord (usually wealthier than her own family) and she quickly changes her tune.
Now a’ that Peggy had before
Was a wee cot-house and a little kail-yairdie,
But now she is lady o the whole Isle o Skye,
And now bonny Peggy is ca’d my Lady.
So, despite the abduction and warning from her mother, things work out for Peggie in the end. It reminds me of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where seven women each fall in love with their abductors. Or if you substitute a wealthy Scottish Lord for a handsome prince you get Beauty and the Beast. These stories are recognized as problematic today and perhaps even in their own time but music can serve as a way of coping with and rationalizing problematic things.
Part of the allure of this ballad, I find, is the wonderfully charming tune. The version I’m choosing to highlight is by the Glasgow born singer Alex Campbell who, along with Ewan MacColl, was the seminal figure of the British folk revival of the 50s. Though the two were friends they differed on some key points of theory. MacColl was a bit of a purist who believed folk musicians should only play songs tied to their own regional background. Campbell believed in cultivating an eclectic repertoire (a philosophy I happen to agree with) and sang English and American songs as well as Scottish.
It’s hard to explain why exactly his version of the song resonates with me. It has a warm quality almost like a reminiscence. And there’s just so much feeling and emotion radiating from Cambell’s voice. Listening to it just now was sort of transportive. I had such a vivid image of Peggie and her Highland lover sitting on a wind-blown grassy hilltop. I’m well aware of how silly it sounds but there were tears in my eyes. Sometimes, reading history or listening to these ballads I feel hit with the weight of past lives. So many people saw and felt and did so much. It’s a spooky feeling that makes me feel very small. I don’t know, like I say it’s hard to put into words.
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