The Keel Row

As I gaid in by Turra toun
By Turra toun, by Turra toun
As I gaid in by Turra toun
I heard the lassies sing:

“Weel may the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row,
Weel may the keel row
That my laddie's in."

Wha's like ma Johnnie,
Sae neat, sae blithe, sae bonnie?
Wha's like ma Johnnie,
My darlin’ Johnnie boy?

He wears a blue bonnet,
Blue bonnet, blue bonnet,
He wears a blue bonnet
And a dimple on his chin.

Keel: a flat-bottomed boat of a kind formerly used on the rivers Tyne and Wear for loading colliers. (New Oxford Dictonary)

The Keel Row was learned at a song workshop led by Edinburgh group Stairheid Gossip and brought back to Sangschule by members Susan and Jo, complete with harmony. Their version is set in Turra or Turriff, a town in Banffshire, in the North East of Scotland, with no water in sight.

The keelmen had the heavy and sometimes dangerous job of loading and taking coal from the quay out to colliers, boats who fuelled the big ships. Cyril Tawney in Grey Funnel Lines quotes an article about this procedure, in which HMS Prince of Wales was being loaded in 1908 on “coal ship day.”

“Her usual intake was about 2,000 tons. The whole of this coal had to be shovelled from the collier alongside into baskets (sacks in home ports), hoisted up, and the baskets or sacks carried to the shutes down to the bunkers.” Then all hands had to wash down the ship, inside and out, and this could be in the off-duty period.”

“The Keel Row” is claimed both by Scotland and Northern England. One version is recorded in Greig-Duncan Vol. 4, no. 771 and their Scottish informant, Bell Robertson, says “ This is a Tyneside song and has not been understood here. They think where there is a keel there must be a ship, but a keel is a kind of boat that plys on the river. It should be sung not ‘The ship that my love’s in’ but ‘The keel row that my love’s in.’ I got all the information from my brother Charlie who got [it] on the spot.” Here is Miss Robertson’s chorus for her version, set in “the Sandgate” in Newcastle:

It’s weel may the keel row/ The keel row, the keel row/ It’s weel may the keel row/ That my love’s in

A variation from our verse 3 is the 3rd line: A milkwhite rose upon it/ A dimple in his chin. Her last verse is: My lovie’s breath the roses ,/ The roses, the roses / His arms the lily posies / To fauld a lassie in

“The Keel Row” appears also in a 19th century music book, The Songs of Scotland, although the first verse there also places it on Tyneside: Oh, who is like my Johnnie, Sae leish,(agile) sae blyth, sae bonnie/ He’s foremost ‘mang the mony / Keel lads o’ coaly Tyne.

As well as our verse 3, this version has: He has nae mair o learning /Than tells his weekly earning / Yet right frae wrang discerning / Tho’ brave, nae bruiser he./ Tho’ he no worth a plack is / His ain coat on his back is / And nane can say that black is / The white o Johnnie’s ee.

On the English side, there is an entry in the 1882 Northumbrian Minstrelsy:
“The “Keel Row” is the best known and most popular of all Northumbrian lyrics, and, like some others in this collection, has been claimed for the Scottish side of the Border. The evidence, however, in favour of its Northumbrian origin greatly outweighs any that can be produced upon the opposite side. To begin with, the “keel” is a vessel which is only known on the rivers Tyne and Weir. In the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle is a Manuscript Book of Tunes, dated 1774, in which the tune appears exactly as it is now sung and played; and Joseph Ritson, the celebrated antiquary, found it so popular that he included it in his collection of old songs, “The Northumbrian Garland”, published 1793.
These dates are anterior to the appearance of the song in any Scottish collection. Cromek inserted it in his "Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song”,1810……The song has attained great popularity in Scotland, but we have no evidence of such favour being bestowed upon it until comparatively late in the present(19th) century.”

Perhaps this song which seems to have undeniable roots on Tyneside was readily accepted in Scotland because of the shared language in the Border country.