Coulter's Candy

by Robert Coltart (1832 - 1880)

Ally, bally, ally bally bee,
Sittin on yer mammy's knee
Greetin for anither bawbee
Tae buy mair Coulter's candy

Ally, bally, ally, bally bee
When you grow up you’ll go to sea
Makin pennies for your daddy and me
Tae buy mair Coulter’s Candy

Mammy gie me ma thrifty doon
Here’s auld Coulter comin roon
Wi a basket on his croon
Selling Coulter’s Candy

Little Annie’s greetin tae
Sae whit can puir wee Mammy dae
But gie them a penny atween them twae
Tae buy mair Coulter’s Candy

Poor wee Jeannie’s looking affa thin
A rickle o banes covered ower wi skin
Noo she’s getting a double chin
Wi sookin Coulter’s Candy

Thrifty: money-box
Croon: crown, head
Greetin: crying
Rickle o banes: heap of bones - a very thin person

Our lyric for this famous children’s song is taken from 101 Scottish Songs. It began as an early advertising jingle for the homemade candy of Robert Coulter or Coltart and seemed to have been forgotten until about 100 years later when Norman Buchan quoted the two verses he knew in an article he did for The Weekly Scotsman in 1962.

His note on the song says that it “probably produced more correspondence than any other. Robert Coltart – the “Coulter”of the song – made and sold his own candy round all the country fairs and markets in the Borders. Correspondents have described his arrival in a town with his ‘big lum hat’, his candy, and his song.”

Buchan first learned “Coulter’s Candy” from “Scots actor, playwright and folk-singer, Roddy McMillan.” It had two verses and Buchan added a third which became an accepted part of the song – probably the verse about going to sea, as that is missing from an earlier printed version.

When writer and folksinger Ewan McVicar was asked by a Japanese film company to introduce them to Coulter himself for a film on lullabies, he had to disappoint their first expectations but went on to do thorough research on the topic, which takes up a whole chapter of his reference book on Scottish children’s songs and rhymes Doh Ray Me, When Ah Wis Wee.

His research led him first to Melrose as the place where Coulter or Coltart was supposed to have made and sold his candy, finding books but no hard facts. The Scottish Borders Archive and Local History Centre in Selkirk first produced a book on the surname Coulhard, some facts and figures and another verse:

Willie grat baith lang and sair/Till he got a penny to ware/Noo he’s tumbling doon the stair/ to buy Colter’s candy

The real man emerged when “Robert Coltart appeared in the 1870 Galashiels Census, as a weaver, 38 years old and living with his family at 48 Overhaugh St. In the Galashiels trade directory of 1880, he was listed in Henderson’s close under Confectioners and Fruiterers.” By the time of the 1880 census he was dead.

"The Archive Centre found two obituaries for April 1880. The Kelso Chronicle reported that this well-known Borderer had been suddenly cut down, and buried in Galashiels, although he originally came from Rhondhouse or Ronus. “There is not a Border town but will feel the blank on gala or market days, when his whistle or his song seemed to electrify and enliven everyone.”

The Southern Reporter said that a post-mortem found a large brain tumour, “sufficient to account for the eccentricities of conduct” of his later life. It also remarked on his shrewdness: “ It is not everybody that is able to set all the children from Peebles to Berwick, and from Dalkeith to Dumfries, a-singing of a new nursery rhyme, and many of the elder folks made to wonder at ‘candy’ verses which had both sense and sweetness in them; and the author of ‘alli, alli, lalli balli be’ will be missed by thousands.”