Johnnie Sangster

Attributed to William Scott of Fetterangus (1785–?1850)
Air: ‘Johnnie Lad’

O a’ the seasons o the year when we maun work the sairest
The harvest is the foremost time and yet it is the rarest
We rise as seen as mornin licht, nae cratur could be blyther
We buckle on oor fingersteels an follo’ oot the scyther

For you Johnnie, you Johnnie
You my Johnnie Sangster
I’ll trim the gavel o my sheaf
For ye’re the gallant bandster

A mornin piece tae line oor cheeks afore that we gae forther
Wi clouds o blue tobacco reek we then set oot in order
The sheaves are risin thick an fast an Johnnie he maun bind them
The busy group for fear they stick can scarcely look behind them

I’ll gie ye bands that winna slip, I’ll pleat them weel an thraw them
I’m shair they winna tine the grip, however weel ye draw them
I’ll lay my leg oot ower the sheaf an draw the band sae handy
Wi ilka strae as straucht’s a rash an that’ll be the dandy

If e’er it chance tae be my lot tae get a gallant bandster
I’ll gar him wear a gentle coat an bring him gowd in han’fu’s
But Johnnie he can please himsel, I widna weesh him blink o’t
Sae efter he has brewed his ale he can sit doon an drink it

A dainty cowie in the byre for butter an for cheeses
A grumphie feedin in the sty wad keep the hoose in greases
A bonnie ewie in the bucht wad help tae creesh the ladle
An we’ll get ruffs o cannie woo wad help tae theek the cradle

Bandster: person usually a man, who binds sheaves
Blink o’t: (difficult – maybe from blinket as in a Greig-Duncan version)
Blinket: cheated, deceived
Bucht: sheep pen
Cannie: comfortable
Creesh: grease
Finger-steels: finger-stalls, to protect the fingers from thistles
Gavel: gable-end (see Jock Duncan para.1 below)
Grumphie: pig
Gentle: suitable for a gentleman
Ilka: every
Piece: sandwich
Rarest: finest
Rash: reed
Sairest: hardest
Seen: soon
Strae: straw
Theek: thatch, put a thick covering
Thraw: twist
Tine: lose

Gordeanna McCulloch taught Sangschule this song.

Jock Duncan, NE singer and former farm worker said in May 2010 that, in his opinion, to trim the gavel of the sheaf meant to take an armful of the corn to be bound, and holding it up by the grain end, to thump the ends on the ground so that the stalks came out an even length.

G.W. Lockhart in The Scots and Their Oats describes the hard labour involved in harvesting before the invention of machines. The sickle allowed a man or woman to cut a quarter of an acre of oats in a day. The scythe had more need for level ground, was thought to shake out more grain, usually needed a man’s strength to wield, and was less useful for flattened crops. But it was much quicker. “So a division of labour entered the harvest scene, the most competent men with the scythe cutting the corn, the women gathering and making the bands for the sheaves and the other men binding and stooking the sheaves.” The rate of cutting per man rose to over an acre a day.

Gavin Greig contributed this version himself both to the collections of the Rymour Club Vol.1 and to Ord’s Bothy Ballads, where he noted that it is said to be the composition of William Scott of Fetterangus, in the parish of Old Deer, who was born in 1785 and started life as a herd laddie. Scott went to Aberdeen to train as a tailor, then to London, back to Aberdeen and then to America “ but ultimately he returned to spend the evening of his days in his native parish of Old Deer.”

In 1832 Scott published “Poems, chiefly in the Buchan dialect.” This song is not included, but Greig comments “that this does not, of course, destroy Scott’s claim to the song, but leaves it to rest on tradition.” A verse in the Greig-Duncan Collection goes “Foul fa’ me but I maist forgot/ to tell ye that my name was Scott / For things like this I’m forced to trot, I am so silly / The ither half was made by vote, and then ca’d Willy”. The notes also say that the “air to which Johnnie Sangster is sung is an old Strathspey tune known as Johnnie Lad.”

One of Scott’s published songs, no doubt drawing on his own experience, was “The Hirdie” or “The Herd Laddie”. Greig says that it was “perhaps as well known as Johnnie Sangster” – and that Scott’s “ pictures of rural life in some of its rougher and more sordid aspects are often most graphic and convincing.” Here are two verses:

“The bed that I had it was not very meet,/ It seldom afforded but straw an’ a sheet,/An’ lang ere the mornin’ this sheet slid awa’ / An’ left the bare hide to enjoy the straw

The men in the morning thocht they had a coup,/ To tell how the bedstraw had markit my doup, (bottom) / But little cared I when I sleepit as soon (sound) / As though I had lain on the saftest o’ doon”