Article MT165

The Ballad of Willie Cumming


Willie Cumming. A drawing by Margaret Thomas, based on one that appeared in the Aberdeen Daily Journal, 17th January, 1911.

1. The Murder

The community of Huntly and district was shocked on Tuesday by news of a terrible domestic tragedy that had occurred in the early hours of the morning at a lonely cottage about three miles from the town, and the horror of the people grew as the details developed in sequence.  The victim is Helen Simpson or Cumming, a woman of 33 years of age, and wife of William Cumming, labourer, residing at Inchtammack Cottage, who has been arrested on a charge of murder.  Mrs Cumming, who was a native of the district, was found dead in the kitchen by the police, with her head battered in, and almost beyond recognition, there being ample evidence all round the apartment of a terrible struggle.  Meantime, the husband was found asleep in the next room and, when charged, was perfectly calm, an quietly accompanied the police to Huntly, whence he was removed to Aberdeen later in the day, to be examined in chambers before the Sheriff.

The Huntly Express.  23rd December, 1910.         

'Twas on December 20th,
The year was 1910,
Then Willie Cummin killed his wife
In Cairnie's lonely glen.

O Cummin, Willie Cummin,
You've proved a sad disgrace,
Wi the murderin o yer bonny wife
Afore yer bairnies' face.

O cruel and bloody was the fray
Between that man and wife.
The woman fought in self-defence
But lost her precious life.
So begins the ballad Willie Cumming, sung to the Gaelic tune Ho ró mo nighean donn bhòidheach by Jean Elvin, a housewife of Turriff, Aberdeenshire, to the collector Hamish Henderson in 1952.The recording is now housed in the School of Scottish Studies under their reference SA 1952/13 (B11). I am indebted to Dr Margaret Mackay for allowing me unlimited access to the School's Archive. The recording is also available on the CD Hamish Henderson Collects (Kyloe 107). I also wish to thank David Cato of Old Meldrum who, as Aberdeenshire Archivist, kindly supplied me with copies of The Huntly Express and other local newspapers.1

The Huntly Express article continued with details of what also happened to two of Willie and Helen's children.

First knowledge of the tragedy was conveyed to the police at Huntley about three o'clock in the morning by two of the boys of the family - William, aged eleven, and George, aged nine - who had escaped from the house, clad only in their shirts, and had run all the way to Huntly for assistance.  It was a terrible ordeal for the boys, the younger of whom was suffering from severe wounds to the head.  The tragedy is stated to be the outcome of jealousy, inflamed by drink.

Their twa wee bairnies, panic-struck,
To see their mither lie
Crept oot at a back windae
And for Huntly toon did fly.

Three miles they ran on muddy road
Withoot a hose or shee, [shoe]
Wi' nothing but their sarkies on, [shirts]
Heroic deed tae dee.

When at the Police Station
They tole their gruesome tale,
Nae winner though the lads were faint, [wonder]
And baith looked rather pale.
A Police-Sergeant Scott interviewed the 'mud-bespattered children' at Huntly Police Station, before quickly travelling to the Cumming household with an unnamed constable. 

On arrival at the cottage, which is situated in a lonely spot, and flanked by the Drumdelgie Wood, at once proceeded inside, and no sooner had they opened the door than they realised that something untoward had happened.  There was a large quantity of blood in the passage, and in the kitchen they found the body of the murdered woman, her head being under a table and her feet in the fireplace.  It only required a cursory glance at the mutilated corpse to acquaint the police officers of what had happened and the cause of death.  The spectacle that greeted their gaze was a shocking one, but it was obvious that they could do nothing for the unfortunate woman.

The police men they took the road
To Cairnie wi all speed,
But not to save the woman's life
For she was past remeid.  [remedy/redress]
Proceeding to the bedroom, they found Cumming, fully dressed and besplattered with his wife's blood, asleep in bed.  His slumber appeared to be quite natural and calm, and, on being roused, he offered no violence or opposition.  The police at once took the man into custody, and he proceeded quietly with the officers to Huntly, where he was locked up and subsequently removed to Aberdeen.
O Cummin, Willie Cummin,
A clood o'er-shadows you: [cloud]
The brightest rays o' sunshine
Will never pierce it through.

T'will hover roon your bairnie's heids
Like mist afore a rain;
Think wretched man on your misdeeds
And her whom you have slain.
Willie, unlike his wife, was not native to Cairnie.  He was born, c.1870, in Elgin, and had spent much of his early life in Dufftown and Aberlour before moving to Cairnie to seek work as a labourer.  He met, and married, his wife about fifteen years before killing her, the couple living in the small cottage that had previously been the home of his wife's parents.  At the time of the murder the Cummings' had four sons living with them.  Clearly the marriage was struggling and Willie had previously left his wife for a period of nine months.  Shortly after his return he assaulted Helen, claiming that she had been unfaithful to him.  He was sentenced to thirty days in prison.

Cumming was a heavy drinker and had been on a spree that commenced on the Thursday of the preceding week.  On the Monday night he was in Huntly.  He was acting violently and was overheard to complain about his wife's conduct.  At midnight Cumming arrived outside the home of a Mr Thomson, a mole-catcher who lived close to the Cumming's home.  Mr Thomson was awakened by Cumming singing outside his window.  Invited inside, Cumming continued to sing before showing Thomson a number of presents that he had bought for his wife.  These included a pair of shoes, a piece of cheese and a quantity of biscuits.  Cumming then set off to his cottage.  Helen, in the meantime, had been away from the cottage, looking for Willie with their eldest son, William.  It seems that Willie was upset at Helen's absence and took his anger out on his three other children, then aged two, four and nine years respectively.  George, the eldest of the trio, suffered the worst, receiving a number of deep cuts to the head.  When Helen arrived home Willie killed her by striking her repeatedly with a pair of fire-tongs.

Murder, it has to be said, is often mundane.  Willie and Helen Cumming had lived together in near poverty, struggling to find work and the money needed to raise their young family.  The murder shocked the neighbourhood but seems to have been soon forgotten.  Willie appeared at the Aberdeen High Court on Tuesday, 17th January, 1911, where he pleaded guilty to 'culpable homicide'.  He was sentenced to ten years 'penal servitude'.  His children were then being looked after by a Mrs Stewart of Bleachfield Street, Huntly.

It is now realised to the full how hard has been the lot of these little ones, reared in an atmosphere of perpetual poverty and misery, not unattended by privation and physical suffering.

And that seems to be that.  There was no further mention of the murder in the local press and the Cumming's murder appears to have quickly been forgotten by people in the North-East of Scotland.  But did it?  Let's look at an aspect of the murder that failed to be mentioned in the press.

2.  The Ballad

The ballad Willie Cumming (Roud 9691) is a song rooted deep in the bothy-ballad tradition of the North-East of Scotland.  It may, or may not, have been printed and sold as a local broadside, although I know of no such sheet.  Nor do we know who composed the words to the ballad, although the text does show some similarity to accounts of the murder that appeared in local newspapers.  Consider, for example, how the location of the Cumming's home - a lonely cottage - is echoed in line 4 of verse 1:
'Twas on December 20th,
The year was 1910,
Then Willie Cummin killed his wife
In Cairnie's lonely glen.
Verse 3 describes the fight between Willie and Helen:
O cruel and bloody was the fray
Between that man and wife.
The woman fought in self-defence
But lost her precious life.
This is similar to a description of events that also appeared in the Huntley Express:

Angry words ensued, and Cumming, seizing the tongs from the fireplace, proceeded, it is stated, to aim murderous blows at his wife's head.  The woman, in desperation, seized a poker and a ladle, with which she attempted to protect herself from the onslaught of her now furious husband.  A desperate struggle took place, and William, the oldest boy, tried to interpose on behalf of his mother.  Ceasing the attack for the moment Cumming thrust the two older boys into the other apartment of the house, locking the door upon them.  This accomplished, he renewed the attack and Mrs Cummings, realising that her husband had completely lost control of himself, screamed for assistance and made strenuous effort to ward off the murderous blows aimed at her.  The state of the kitchen when entered by the police showed that the woman had offered strenuous resistance, and also that the assault had been of a most determined and brutal character.

Finally, note the similarity between the newspaper's account of the two children fleeing their home - clad only in their shirts - with that shown in verse 5 of the ballad:

Three miles they ran on muddy road
Withoot a hose or shee,
Wi' nothing but their sarkies on,
Heroic deed tae dee.
The ballad ends with two moralizing verses of a type frequently encountered in broadside ballads of this nature.

Once Hamish Henderson had safely recorded Jean Elvin singing Willie Cumming, he left the tape-recorder running and recorded this conversation between the people who were in the room.  The person designated 'Unknown 2' may have been Jean Elvin's husband.

Unknown 1: I've never heard that song before.
Unknown 2: No, but that's a true song.  At one time o day ye couldnae say that…you would get nicked for that…
H.H. Aye, but who forbad ye tae sing it? Was it the polis?
Unknown 2: Oh, well you see, the chap…got this life sentence, or whatever it was, it was just the same as that song, you know, that Irish song, what is it, McCafferty.  Well, it was the same idea as that.  You wasnae allowed tae sing it in this country.

McCafferty (Roud 1148), mentioned above, is the song that tells of the shooting, on Saturday 14th September, 1861, at Fulwood Barracks, near Preston, of two Army Officers, Colonel Hugh Denis Crofton and Captain John Hanhan, by Private Patrick McCafferry, a soldier later hanged in public for the murders.  It is a well-known song and many of the singers who have provided versions of the song to collectors have added that one was not allowed to sing it in the British Army.  This may not, actually, be true, as there is little evidence to suggest that the singing of the song was officially banned by the Army.  But, the person talking to Hamish Henderson in the dialogue printed above certainly believed this to be the case.  And, as he also thought that the singing of Willie Cumming had been banned, there is perhaps an implication here that this latter song had also, at one time, been well-known in the North-East of Scotland.  Surely, a song can only be banned if it is being sung.

Surprisingly, Jean Elvin is the only source for the ballad of Willie Cumming, a piece that is conspicuous by its absence from the standard North-East song collections.  Perhaps the police did come down on singers, so that they would be afraid to sing the song to 'outsiders', such as Gavin Greig or the Reverend James Duncan.  It may be, of course, that these two major collectors had ceased their collecting work prior to the appearance of the song Willie Cumming.  Duncan seems to have collected his last song in early 1912, whilst Greig noted his final song two years later, in 1914.  But, if the song was partly based on newspaper accounts that date from December, 1910, then it seems likely that the song would have first appeared sometime around 1910-1911, and it could be that, had the collectors heard the song, then they may have omitted it from their collection on account of it being a 'new', as opposed to a 'folk', song.  Nor does the song appear in John Ord's popular collection of Bothy Songs and Ballads (1930), but then, of course, John Ord was a Superintendent of Police!

Jean Elvin told Hamish Henderson that she had learnt the song c.1941 from her elder sister, although she had no idea where the sister had first heard the song.  This means that the song had only been around for some thirty years prior to Jean learning it.  During the 19th century there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of broadside songs written to commemorate murders that had occurred throughout Scotland and England.  And yet, out of all these songs, only a handful seem to have remained within the tradition for any period of time.For details of some of these ballads, see: Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade, No.14 - Tawell the Quaker, and No.15 - Constance Kent and the Road Murder, both by Roly Brown, Musical Traditions - articles 156 & 157.2  Even then, some of these pieces have only surfaced on one or two occasions.  Ballads such as Ruth Butcher (Roud 1439) and The Tooting Murder are, like Willie Cumming, only known from single performances.  Charlie Wills, the Dorset singer, sang a version of Ruth Butcher on his Leader LP album (LEA4041).  There is a facsimile of a local broadside of the event included with the LP's notes.  No broadsides, however, are known for The Tooting Murder, a fragment of which was sung by Pop Maynard of Surrey/Sussex.The short text of The Tooting Murder that I heard 'Pop' sing can be seen in the Footnotes (below).  I am unable to suggest a date for the murder.3  On the other hand, we do know that one of the best-known of the broadside murder ballads, Maria Marten (Roud 215) - which dates back to 1828, was issued by at least six 19th century London printers (Birt, Catnach, Disley, Fortey, Hodges and Such) as well as by three provincial printers (Bennett of Brighton, Forth of Hull and Harkness of Preston).  Even so, the song has not appeared that often on the lips of traditional singers.Freda Palmer's version of Maria Marten is, perhaps, the best-known today (Topic TSCD653).4

If, as I suspect, the song Willie Cumming circulated in North-East Scotland by word of mouth and without benefit of print, then it must surely come as no surprise to find that only one version of the song is known today.  Hamish Henderson met Jean Elvin whilst visiting another singer, Willie Mathieson.  Jean was Willie's favourite singer and may have told Hamish about Jean, although Hamish once said that it could have been Arthur Argo who first mentioned her.  Whatever, we do know that Hamish 'happened to go into the house, and (heard) her singing all by herself'.  (Tocher #43 p.41).  And so a piece of social history - the ballad and story of the Cumming murder - remains with us today.  It could so easily have been otherwise, and we would have been none the wiser about those events that occurred during that cold December night in 1910.  Thank you, Jean.  Thank you, Hamish.

Mike Yates - 22.6.05

Article MT165

Notes:

  1. The recording is now housed in the School of Scottish Studies under their reference SA 1952/13 (B11).  I am indebted to Dr Margaret Mackay for allowing me unlimited access to the School's Archive.  The recording is also available on the CD Hamish Henderson Collects (Kyloe 107. Issued 2005).  I also wish to thank David Cato of Old Meldrum who, as Aberdeenshire Archivist, kindly supplied me with copies of The Huntly Express and other local newspapers.

  2. For details of some of these ballads, see: Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade, No.14 - Tawell the Quaker, and No.15 - Constance Kent and the Road Murder, both by Roly Brown, Musical Traditions - articles 156 & 157.

  3. This is the short text of The Tooting Murder that I heard 'Pop' sing.  I am unable to suggest a date for the murder.
    Once in Tooting did reside,
    With his children by his side,
    Frank Taylor and with him his loving wife.
    But from life they are now gone,
    Little Frankie left forlorn,
    To tell how father robbed them of their life.

    O it was just before the dawn,
    On that fatal Thursday morn.
    It was early there the lad they did behold,
    He was crying there with fear:
    'O come to mother, dear,
    For father's killed them, they are dead and cold.'

    'Then, where is my father?' Frankie cried,
    'With your mother and the baby he has died.'
    'O here I must remain and suffer grief and pain,
    But we'll all meet up in Heaven side by side.'
  4. Freda Palmer's version of Maria Marten is, perhaps, the best-known today (Topic TSCD653).


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