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Elphinstone Kist   Music, Bothy Ballad

Bothy Ballads and Cornkisters     by: Wheeler, Les

Anyone who attends traditional music festivals is well aware of the dangers of trying to define, even in a loose way, a bothy ballad or cornkister. I remember well the local ferm servant at the Buchan Heritage Festival at Strichen who, on being told by the judge that the song he had sung was not a bothy ballad, said: Fu can it nae be? I’ve bin singin it in bothies for forty ‘ear! The song in question was Kissin in the Dark and it can be found in published collections of bothy songs. We might settle on the loose definition that bothy ballads are songs that reflect working life, but many of them are about the social and ‘spiritual’ side of life. Perhaps, those pieces not about work should be called bothy songs. Of course, there are those who say that were were no bothies in the North East, but chaumers, and that bothies, where men made their own ‘meals’ (meal being the most common ingredient of the diet!), were found in South Kincardine and Angus, but rarely further North! Thus, confusion.

Cornkisters, songs that were sung by the singer while sitting on the corn kist, were often written to amuse and there are many fine examples. Of course, bothy ballads were also sung while working and while enjoying a welcome respite from the day’s toil, but we’d better nae mak ower muckle o a midden o the hale thing! Cornkisters, by and large, are very much a twentieth century phenomenon, men like Harry Gordon, Willie Kemp and G.S. Morris, author of A Pair o Nicky Tams, were very popular entertainers between the wars and after. An appearance by these men, be it in local community hall or large theatre, was bound to draw a large audience. Robbie Shepherd in his radio programmes and countless appearances at concerts and festivals has done much to preserve the bothy ballad tradition and in comparatively recent years men like Ian Middleton, Charlie Allan and the late Jimmy Wright have added to the richness of the store while traditional singers like Jock Duncan, Tom Reid, Joe Aitken, Gordon Easton, Eric Simpson Geordie Murrison and many others carry on the tradition of performing the bothy songs and cornkisters to eager audiences. It is as well to remind everyone that the ballads and cornkisters should, of course, be sung and many fine recordings are freely available. They are wonderful chorus songs, and it’s a great idea to get groups of children singing them. Don’t worry if you can’t sing. Enjoy the moment and revel in the words!

The bothy ballads and cornkisters are unique and provide a marvellous insight into the social history of the area, but they are also a cornucopia of linguistic delight. James Alison, in his introduction to Poetry of North East Scotland, says that the language is a vital ingredient in the cultural heritage of the North East. The language of the bothy ballads and cornkisters is often difficult, but they are a wonderful way to increase one’s vocabulary and really enjoy onesel at the same time.

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Further Sources

The following are available from Sleepytown Records
(e-mail info.sleepytown@virgin.net)

Bothy Songs and Ballads of North East Scotland: Volume 1: SLPYCD001

Bothy Songs and Ballads of North East Scotland: Volume 2: SLPYCD006

Bothy Songs and Ballads of North East Scotland: Volume 3: SLPYCD00011

The Gaugers: The Fighting Scots: SLPYCD002

The Gaugers: Awa wi the Rovin Sailor: SLPYCD003

The Gaugers: Beware of the Aberdonian: SLPYCD008

The Gaugers: No More Forever: SLPYCD009

Jock Duncan: Tae the Green Woods Gaen: SLPYCD010

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Sleepytown Records,
Woodend Leask, Ellon,
Aberdeenshire, AB41 8JB
Scotland, UK

Tel. 44-(0)1779-841-543
Fax. 01779-841-849



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