logo Enthusiasms No 75
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Harlaw and Airlie
A response to Letters from Vic Smith and Mike Yates

The problem as far as the Scottish Travellers are concerned is sheer lack of evidence as to their origin, and to the sources of their songs and stories.  The School of Scottish Studies constantly complain, for example, that Gavin Greig and James Bruce Duncan did not collect from the Travellers.  On the other hand Duncan's family are certain that he, for one, certainly did.  Thus the lack of Traveller song in the G/D Collection may simply be that there wasn't a great song tradition amongst them before the Great War, and that what they demonstrated in the '50s was that they had preserved from the widespread songs - the 3,000 known songs that Greig and Duncan had found amongst the general population.


In my Enthusiasm 74, Harlaw Battle and its Ballads, I mentioned that the ballad entitled The Battle of Harlaw (Child 163) which Stanley Robertson sang was a fake, probably a piece of propaganda created in the 18th century to improve the fortune of a North-East member of the Forbes family who had unfortunately supported the losing side in the 1745/6 Jacobite Rebellion.  In his letter of the 14th, Vic Smith wondered if any such reason could be offered for an apparently ahistorical verse that appears in the ballad The Bonny House of Airlie.

For many years I have looked at the ragged and unreliable interface between Scottish balladry and Scottish history with remarkably different results.  The Bonny Lass o' Fyvie, for example, starts life as an English chapbook story and a rather undistinguished song, but crosses the border to morph into a splendidly detailed 'historical' ballad now supposedly set in Aberdeenshire.1  But then I was able to show that one rare version of The Bonny Earl o' Moray ballad refutes the account in the history books that the fleeing Earl met his end on the sea shore, given away by his burning headdress, for this ballad version states that he was ambushed and murdered in his bed, hence the horror and disgust that this generated; historians now refer to this possibility.2  When it comes to the version that Stanley sang of The Battle of Harlaw, the evidence is that from beginning to end it is a pack of lies.  I am afraid that this is not, as Vic writes, 'a supposed inaccuracy'; it is a fakery that has long been suspected, for its versions show little of the variation over time that a truly old ballad displays.  The evidence for this I detail in a Review of Scottish Culture paper, and expand further in a chapter, 'Lord Forbes and his Ballad' in a book, Bludie Harlaw.  Realities, Myths, Ballads.3

That it was a post-Rebellion Forbes family propaganda effort would seem likely, given the circumstances of Alexander Forbes, 4th Lord Pitsligo, who was in hiding on his forfeited estates, having supported the Jacobites in the risings of both 1715 and 1745.  In his letter 'Harlaw and Airlie', Vic Smith wonders if there is some such explanation for an apparently anachronous verse in the ballad The Bonny House o' Airlie, i.e:

This 'Chairlie', however, would not have referred to the yet to be born Charles Edward Stuart, the 'Bonny Prince Charlie', but the king Charles I, whom the Earl of Airlie was away supporting in 1640, giving an opportunity for the Campbell Earl of Argyll to capture and destroy Airlie Castle.4

Mike Yates in his letter of the 11th does not see why I should object to Stanley singing a ballad which is a historically a fake; I must admit that I have not made my objections clear.  Before I do so, I should like to mention a disturbing aspect of the ballad that Stanley sang; in many versions it is racist, mocking the stupid, violent Highlanders which Forbes and his Lowlanders are depicted as routing completely and killing their leader.  This is done by portraying 'Johnnie Heilanmen' as spouting pigeon-Scots, a mockery of the speech of Highland savages:

An origin legend of the Scottish Travellers is that they are descendants of those Highlanders, especially the skilled tinsmiths, dispossessed in the aftermath of the '45 Rebellion, i.e.  the people mocked in Stanley's ballad.

Mike Yates writes:

Mike makes good points in the above ending to his letter, although I worry that he seems to say that because they have been marginalised, Travellers should be free from questioning; that is an exemption Stanley would not have liked.  For as a celebrated storyteller, traditional singer, piper, author, and playwright, the demands for his performances and television and radio appearances in the UK, Europe, and America were many, from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival to the Edinburgh International Festival.  As a renowned storyteller, he taught in schools in Britain, Denmark, and France, and was the guest artist at storytelling festivals from Tennessee to Devon.  He lectured and taught in colleges and universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Utah State, Idaho State, Brigham Young, New Hampshire, East Tennessee, and Brandeis universities in the United States, as well as Napier, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen universities.5  But again I had not made myself clear.  I don't think the ballad he and Jeannie Robertson so well and proudly sang came from longstanding oral Traveller tradition; it came from the generally sold 19th century chapbook which Andy Hunter recalls that Jeannie possessed.  And indeed, why should anyone not sing it?  It is a powerful, vigorous song with a driving tune.  Why then have I raised the matter that historically it is not just valueless, but positively misleading in the false depiction and outcome of the battle that it portrays?

Mike recalls the moving moments where Stanley sang it out proudly beside the Monument raised in 1914 on the plateau of Harlaw to one of the most horrifically bloody battles in Scottish history; a battle which even hardened mediaeval historians had described as 'atrocious'.  Stanley was always proud to take people to the site of the battle, singly or in busloads, to sing his ballad and recount its history.  Traveller lore is firmly taken by them as true; I recall, for example, Lizzie Higgins taking me to the very spot that her father had shown her where Johnnie o' Braidisleys (Johnie Cock, Child 114) fell - although Child's versions alone have him perishing throughout England and Scotland.  Yet in recounting to visitors what was unfortunately a pack of lies on the Harlaw battlefield, I feel a line was inadvertently overstepped, even though Stanley was unaware of the falsehoods he was delivering.  Mike rightly praises the Travellers for preserving 'so much that had been lost by other Scots', but it is one thing to admire and treasure Traveller tradition; it is another to accept it wholly uncritically.

Stanley 'relished scholarly treatments of his ballads'.6  He died, however, three years before I was able to publish the sad facts about his version, for knowing his desire for truth, he would then have taken to singing the original thirty-one stanza ballad, also called The Battle of Harlaw, which was composed close to the time of the battle.  Moving, as well as largely historically accurate, it ends most appropriately:

Ian Olson - 25.  11.  14



Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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