The King’s Shilling

words and music by Ian Sinclair

Oh, my love has left me wi bairnies twa
An that's the last o him I ever saw
He joined the army and he mairched tae war
He took the shilling, he took the shilling,
An he mairched tae war

Come laddies, come
Hear the cannon roar,
Tak the King's Shilling,
An we're aff tae war

Oh, he stood sae proud an sae gallant then
Wi his kilt and sporran and his musket gun
The ladies kissed them as they mairched
And they sailed awa by, they sailed awa
by the Broomielaw

The pipes did play as they marched along
And the soldiers sang out their battle song
"March on, march on," cried the captain gay
For king and country, for king and country
we will fight this day

Well, the battle raged to the sound of guns
And the bayonets flashed in the morning sun
The drums did beat and the cannon roared
And the shilling didn't seem, oh the shilling didn't seem much worth no more

The men they fought and the men did fall
Cut down by bayonet and musket ball
and many of these brave young men
Would never fight for, would never fight for their king again

Come laddies, come
Hear the cannon roar,
Tak the King's Shilling,
An you’ll die in war

Broomielaw: the dockside in Glasgow where soldiers took ship to go to war
King’s Shilling: offered to likely young men by recruiting officers. Its acceptance was regarded as a binding agreement to join up.

Christine Kydd introduced this song to Sangschule. Although it is sometimes paid the compliment of being taken for traditional, the song was written in the 70s by Ian Sinclair, guitarist and fiddler with folkgroup trio Mirk and Christine heard it sung by Ian’s wife, Margie. It was included on Mirk’s album Moddan’s Bower produced by Mother Earth in 1979. Ian Sinclair now plays fiddle with the six-piece instrumental band, Clapshot, based in Caithness.

Ian has taken a traditional folk theme of the young man beguiled by the recruiting officers into joining the army and sealing the deal by his acceptance of money, the King’s Shilling.

According to the BBC website, History Factfiles, War and Conflict: “For many years, the private soldier's daily pay was one shilling, although money was deducted from this to pay for such things as rations, some items of uniform, medical treatment, breakages and barrack damages. It was not until 1847 that it was ordered that all soldiers had to receive at least a penny a day regardless of deductions. One shilling was given to young men who agreed to enlist in the army, and a variety of subterfuges were used by recruiting sergeants to persuade a young man to accept the money.

Often a potential recruit was made dead drunk and the shilling was slipped into his pocket: sometimes a sergeant might give a young man a shilling to run an errand for him, and then declare that he had volunteered. Once a recruit had been attested before a magistrate he received a more substantial bounty, but usually found that this was swiftly consumed in drinks for the recruiting party, ribbons for the sergeant's wife, and items of uniform that had to be purchased.”

In The Cruel Wars: 100 Soldiers’ Songs from Agincourt to Ulster, compiler Karl Dallas says that “the folk community lived in a love-hate relationship with the army….the figure of the recruiting officer looms large over the folk culture of the 18th and 19th centuries in particular; sometimes as a fairy godfather who pressed the magic shilling in your palm and thus absolved you of all your responsibilities, marital and extra-marital, familial and laborial; sometimes as a villain who spirited away young men and returned them, years after, as physically and emotionally shattered mendicant wrecks living on their measly pensions.”

Karl Dallas quoted a verse from a 19th century handbill which sums up the “viewpoint of the canny countrymen to the recruiting officers’ blandishments:
Here, mower, take my shiners bright/ You’ll prove a hero in the fight/ The very man, in strength and size / To mow down all your enemies
I thank you, sergeant, all the same / But no! I hardly like the game / For if I go to fight, you see/ The sword of war may mow down me