Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Stand and Deliver

Daoiri Farrell’s latest CD includes the ballad, Valentine O’Hara, sung here in 1978 by Frank Harte. While doing some research before making a recording I came across this thread linking the song to Allan Tyne of Harrow. To me this sounded like a mystery to be solved, involving highwaymen and possible appropriation of Irish culture by the English. The game is afoot!

Highwaymen are by no means a novel subject of poems, songs and stories. With the antics of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) and Dick Turpin (1705-1739) immortalised in penny dreadful and broadsides and even the great bard himself includes Falstaff as a highwayman in Henry IV Part 1. And of course one cannot forget the Blackadder episode Amy and Amiability.

So to the task at hand, there are at least three different incarnations of this ballad, with different sets of victims and protagonists.

I’ll include the text of one of the ballads for reference, from the Bodleian library:

Daring Highwayman  

I am a daring highwayman likewise a gallant rover,
From London town I surely came since I became a rover,
For a maid who proved with child for England I sailed over,
I left my parents almost wild since I became a rover.

How many battles I’ve been in thro’ France and Spain and Flanders,
And always fought with courage bold under my brave commanders,
But thro’ the usage I received no one shall e’er control me,
Resolved for my liberty strong wall ne’er should hold me.

Back to England’s shores I came as fast as wind could blow me,
Resolved for my liberty, no one should e’er control me,
Back to England’s shores I came and found my name deserted,
My parent’s heart was almost broke and I was much more frightened.

For want of money and a friend, then poverty came on me,
For want of money and a friend it brought destruction on me,
The very first man I ever robbed it was a lord of honour,
The nobleman I did insult all in a roguish manner.

Give me your gold my lord and make no more denial,
If you resist it is my design with powder and ball to fire,
I put my pistol to his breast which made him for to shiver,
Two hundred pounds in bright gold to me he did deliver,

Besides a gold repeating watch to me he did surrender,
I thought I had a noble prize to be thus be-friended,
With a hundred guineas in bright gold I bought a famous gelding,
He could jump over the turnpike gate I bought him of Jem Sheldon.

Now mounted on my gallant steed I looked bold and daring,
Resolved on the road to go no man I e’er did fear him,
The very next man I robbed it was in Covent Garden,
And in two hours after in Newgate I was fasten’d.

I have robbed both lords and dukes of silver plate and money,
All for to maintain myself and my dearest Polly,
But now in Newgate cells I lie until I am convicted,
For my folly I now mercy crave for I am sore afflicted.

This Daring Highwayman appears in several broadsides with the same title and same lyrics, publication dates range from 1819-1844 and 1828-1829.

A Scottish book published in 1826 includes Allan Tine O’Harrow along with Highland Laddie and Bonnie Wood of Craigie lea. While the lyrics are almost identical, several differences are included:

Protagonist: Allan Tine O’Harrow
From: Hills of Tarrow
Horse Bought From: Mr Fielding
Victim(location): Lord Arkinstone (Covent Garden), Earl of Warren, Revenue Collector (Turnham-green)
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

The same version was published in 1825, alongside Jack in his Element and The Beds of Roses.

Here is where the story gets weird, this un-dated broadside has a song titled Valentine O’Harra, with almost exactly the same lyrics and story except for:

Protagonist: Valentine O’Harra
From: Hills of Tarra
Horse Bought From: Mr Shielding
Victim (location): Lord Edgers (near Covent Garden), Attorney Harding
Death: Confined at Newgate, executed at Tyburn Hill

This version, and the Tine O’Harrow, have an additional ‘Robin Hood’ verse about not stealing from the poor and also giving them money. While the broadside is not dated, it is published with a song (play?) about an accident at the Victoria Theatre that occurred in 1859; a gas explosion after a Christmas play that killed 15 people, reported in Australia here.

This would seem to lend itself to the theory that a generic Highwayman song from 1825 was reworked into Allan Tine of Yarrow, and then later re-imagined 30 years later with an Irish protagonist, whose name is based on the Mondegreen Valentine O’Harra with the politically motivated inclusion of a ‘Robin Hood’ verse.

The fly in the ointment here is this entry in the Ulster journal of archaeology, which references the publication in 1802 of a song book featuring A Second Song in Favour of Henry Meade Ogle along with  Adventures of Valentine O’Hara and the Flying Irish Highwayman. This predates both the Daring Highwayman and Allan Tine by 25 years. Unfortunately I cannot find any links to text from 1802.

I made some efforts to search both the list of executions at Tyburn Hill (1196 until 1783) and the proceedings of the Old Bailey (1674-1913). Other than a small-time highwayman called Patrick O’Hara, executed in 1763, there is no mention of either a Valentine O’Hara or an Allan Tine/Tyne.

Correspondingly, the victims named in both later versions of the ballad do not appear to be real people, a Lord Arkinstone/Lord Edgers would have been listed in the peerage, but are absent. This would suggest that the names are fictional and made up for the ballad.

If this particular highwayman is a concoction, were there any real Irish highwaymen? Based on the 1799 book by J. Cosgrave, A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Rogues and Rapparees, yes, there were many to choose from. The life of Redmond O’Hanlon is quite fascinating and bears some similarity to Valentine O’Hara with impoverished origins (thanks to Cromwell) and a stint in the army. However, rather than a mere highwayman, Redmond was the mafia boss of Ulster. Unfortunately he was shot (by his foster brother) rather than hanged and there is no record of him using Valentine as a pseudonym or needing to flee to England after getting a girl pregnant.

William Macquire (alias Irish Teague) has more similarity in that he was an Irish highwayman in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1691. James Butler was born in Kilkenny, but fought in Spain and deserted before briefly becoming a contract killer in Florence. James ended up robbing on the highway in England and was hanged at Tyburn in 1716. Any of these three men could have been the subject of an early 1800s ballad about real Irish highwaymen.

A note of interest made within Cosgrave’s book is that in some cases the real family name of a highway robber was suppressed if they were from a noble family.

So the conclusion here, short of finding a copy of the 1802 text, is that this ballad is probably entirely fanciful, re-made twice, once for English and once for Irish audiences.

Edit: Thanks to the work of Martin Nail (comment below) it looks like the Irish win, with the 1802 ballad supporting Valentine O’Hara as the earliest version of the song.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Poetry

Who was Ossian Macpherson?

When a certain flavour of fundamentalist Christian has a public and pious rant about the satanic evils of Halloween, I cannot help but feel sympathy and sadness. It isn’t fair to blame people for their ignorance, and in most cases a logical argument about the historical evolution of this and other festivals won’t do much to broaden their view. Having grown up under this ideology, I would have made the same public rants at fifteen.

The key sadness is that this is exactly the type of xenophobia and intolerance of mind which eventually escalates into crusades, racism and killings like the tragic incident in Pittsburgh this week.

Why is this worth blogging about? Well, during the course of a short social media discussion, in an effort to show that Halloween wasn’t ‘just something we imported from America in the last few years’ I found this fabulous poem published in the Hamilton Spectator on 12 November 1864, under the name Ossian Macpherson. Here is the full text of the poem:


By Ossian Macpherson.

Bright years, sad years are numbered with the past,
Since, Scotland, I beheld thy green hills last;
My hair is growing grey in manhood's prime,
With painful re-collections, not with time.
But here, once more, if not on Scottish land,
I see around a happy Scottish band.
With hills and dales, till fancy —not in vain.
Has led me back to Scotland's hills again.

Wootong,— I sought upon thy peaceful crest,
For this worn frame, a shelter and a rest.
From many a outstretched hand the welcome kind,
For ever in this heart will be enshrined;
And can I e'er forget, where'er I roam,
Whatever my lot may be, where'er my home,
The hours I passed amid the happy scene;
The mirthful crowd I joined at Halloween.

Tis not for me, too humble is my verse,
The varied fairy mysteries to rehearse;
The varied trials spread before my view,
Each one to seek if some one else was true.
But when I saw the bonny lassies there,
Each for the apple ducking wait her share,
Such laughing faces, rarely to be seen,
Hech! how it thrilled my heart! at Wootong Halloween.

'Tis not for me, else may be I might sing.
Who made the batter, and who found the ring ;
Who found the apples, and whose nuts were cracked,
Who might have stole to where the hay was stacked.
All these and more, perhaps I might unfold.
But they by Scotia's bard have all been told;
Enough for me — the hours were bright and green,
I passed that night at Wootong Halloween.

The poet tried his nuts, with anxious gaze,
And picturing one form amid the blaze;
Perhaps he thought the emblem might be true,
Alas, — his nuts were cracked ere half burnt through.
And when blindfold, before each fairy plate.
He wished— his fond desire— for gentle mate,
His hand thrice grasped the platter that was clean!
No wife for him at Wootong Halloween.

Bard of all coming time, immortal Burns,
When with each coming year that night returns;
That night that thro' all Scotland far and wide,
The midnight fairies still are wont to glide, —
With what bright fire thy spirit would have glowed,
What strains of rapture would have from thee flowed,
Couldst thous have dreamt there ever would have been
Another Scotland here and Halloween.

Thou didst not dream, when burst to life thy strains.
Never to die while Scottish life remains,
That in this land to white men then unknown,
Peopled by hideous barbarism alone,
Thou didst not reck there e'er would come the day
That, distant o'er tie ocean far away.
There, on a lovely hill top, would be seen.
The glorious revelry of Halloween.

Oh! that thy spirit would upon me rest,
And for one lonely moment till my breast;
'Twould be ere from this friendly root I part,
To speak the thanks, warm from the poet's heart
Wootong, farewell! I yet may see the day,
When back my happier footsteps yet may stray,
And treasured up in memory, I ween
'Twill be again to join in Halloween.

Konongwootong, Nov. 1, 1864.

I made a recording of this poem set to my own tune here.

So many questions arise from this find! Who was Ossian Macpherson? What was he doing in a tiny town in the middle of Victoria in 1864? Was there really a Halloween celebration or is this imaginative reverie?

To the first question, Ossian Macpherson, is almost certainly a pseudonym. James Macpherson (1736-1796) was a relatively famous Scottish writer, poet and politician who claimed to have discovered and translated a set of ancient epic poems by the (mythical?) bard Ossian. James was instrumental in the highland clearings and the veracity of his work on the Ossian poems is questioned by scholars. ‘Ossian Macpherson’ would have been a fitting pen name for any aspiring Scottish poet travelling in Australia in the 1860s.

To the second question, we first need to answer “where in the world is Konongwootong?”. I initially assumed this would have been a mining town named by Chinese immigrant miners, but it is a native phrase describing a creek in grassy land. Konongwootong is a place of sadness as the Whyte brothers who owned the pastoral run killed between 55 and 60 men, women and children of the Konongwootong gunditj clan there in April 1840 after they had taken 40 sheep. There is a memorial here. So it is likely that ‘Ossian Macpherson’ was either visiting or working in the Konongwootong on the pastoral property.

A search on Trove shows that the latest poem, A Modest Minister, published in the Hamilton Spectator, March 1874 was a biting piece of political satire directed at a local Minister (political or church?), whose name probably rhymed with Cozey, regarding the way in which he acquired his land. This shows our author remained in the area for at least another ten years and was not afraid to ruffle feathers.

A John A. Macpherson was running for the seat of Dundas in the 1871 election and appears in several Trove articles relating to property issues in the region, his fellow candidates were James Gardner and David Gaunson, possibly one of them was ‘Cozey’.

The first poem that appears by Ossian Macpherson was published on 23 December 1857 in the Kyneton Observer:


Slaking my thirst beside this cooling rill,
Uncertain what my future lot may be ;
Driven about, the sport of fortune's will
Footsore, I've wandered Ballarat to thee.
My breast is fill'd with many an anxious thought.
A stranger—in this giant infant land;
A wanderer—in these fields with riches fraught
Seeking a crust amid a varied band.
Shall I succeed?

Oh! do not droop, my heart,
Tho'all looks dark—yet fate is sometimes kind;
Do not sink now—all wearied as thou art,
For little mayst thou reck what lurks behind -
Yon sun now hid behind the blacken'd cloud,
Methinks ev'n now its voice is speaking loud,
And bids me yet a little longer wait.

For I have traversed many a spot on earth,
And climb'd full many a dreary hill in life ;
Thought that my star was darken'd at my birth,
Foreboding nought but endless care and strife
But hope is strong—and though the past has been
A chain of trials, I would fain forget;
That star would yet shine brightly and serene
And I will not despair—not yet—not yet.



So this John Alexander MacPherson, who arrived in Ballarat around 1857 seems to be a very strong candidate for Ossian Macpherson. John was born in 1833, so would have been just 24 when writing his first poem. Strangely, the Wikipedia page for John makes no mention of his likely ventures as a brilliant poet. John ended up being the Premier of Victoria for just over a year, Sep 1869-April 1870 and died in England at the age of 60 in 1894.

There are around 90 other poems penned by ‘Ossian Macpherson’, many of which look like they have never been published outside the newpaper they appeared in.

Happy Samhain/Halloween to all, I suspect there will be more to this story!

UPDATE: Since writing this post, you will see in the comments that I have been contacted by a relative of Ossian Macpherson. It looks like the John Alexander link was not to be. I have started publishing the poems of Ossian Macpherson (now under the right name) on, you can read all the poems here.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Nine Tailors make a Man

In the New York Times, on 10 December 1904, can be found a letter to the editor arguing over the origins of the phrase ‘Nine Tailors make a Man’, which was obviously in common currency at that time. The correspondent refutes an explanation that a wealthy merchant had nine tailors painted on the door of his wagon in thanks for their work and offers the suggestion that he had heard as a young boy in Scotland that Queen Elizabeth had gathered nine tailors to represent the Tailors’ Guild of the City of London to advise her on a policy issue.

Evidently the New York Times had forgotten its own backlog because it published a letter to the editor of the London Spectator on September 9 in 1882 where the correspondent corrects a review of ‘Harry Erskine and His Times’ by stating that the origin of the saying is ‘Nine Talers (tellers) make a Man’ referencing the custom where the church bell is always rung nine times when a man is buried (one for an infant, three for a girl and six for a women). This incidentally answers a question I had about the lines in The Magpie linking events to numbers.

What started all this? Well the long-form (Nobel Peace Prize nominated) journalist, Ethan Gutmann, chose a recording of Benjamin Bowmaneer to open his new podcast, The Gutmann Report. The ballad, Roud #1514, is also known by The Prancing Tailor or Benjamin Bowman / Bowlabags / Bolibus / Bolderman. The recording chosen was the one made in 1971 by The New Golden Ring, a folk group I had never heard of, but their two albums Five Days Singing Volume I & II are pretty good.

So when I did my own recording of this ballad, I had already heard Kate Rusby’s version, however, as any fans of Kate will know, her voice is so strikingly beautiful that sometimes you forget what she is singing about. When I actually looked at the lyrics I realised that they make no sense. First I thought it was a song about a war with the French, or maybe a reference to Reepicheep from Narnia or Despereaux Tiling with all the thimbles and needles.

Some trawling of the Mudcat threads here and here indicated that the song had something to do with a prevailing view that Tailors were not manly, and thus the butt of several songs and stories making fun of this perception. The Trooper and the Tailor is one example, which reminds me of Alistair Hulett’s Tinker in the Lum. Evidently, cuckholding was a national sport in England. The Butcher and the Tailor’s Wife paints the Tailor with worse cowardice as he gives up his wife at the first threat to his person. This theme reminded me of the excellent story arc of Mr Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) in the psycho-drama disguised as a children’s story, Once Upon a Time.

So is the version of the story in question, Benjamin Bowmaneer, just a case of making fun of Tailors because they pretend that killing a flea (or louse or mouse) is brave sport? There is another interesting aspect to this song, and it is related to the story that Malcom Douglas relays in this Mudcat thread. It could just be one of many fanciful ‘collection’ stories used to justify insertion of songs into books, but the story goes that Mary Spence’ great aunt heard a traveling tailor singing the song around 1804 and memorised it.

This could well be an example of the folk process, with misheard lyrics accounting for the un-intelligible lyrics of the song version in question. Some key phrases that have alternatives in Malcom’s post of The Proud Tailor.

The Proud Tailor                                                       Benjamin Bowmaneer

How the world began                                                   How the war began
Nine Tailors make a man                                         England fought to a man
Low cast away                                                               Castors away

Unfortunately I don’t have a way to decide which is the original and which is the poorly heard copy, except that The Proud Tailor was collected around 1928 and Benjamin Bowmaneer was published in 1959 but probably collected well before that.

From Hester Burton’s 1962 book, Castor’s Away!, about the battle of Trafalgar, and the fact that a beaver is also called a castor, it is likely that the line in the Benjamin Bowmaneer version is probably the correct (original) one. However, if the practice of throwing your beaver hat into the air was particularly nautical, why would the reference appear in a song about a tailor? It seems this ballad just keeps asking more questions than it asks. I haven’t even looked at why there are more than six different surnames starting with B for Benjamin.

In any case, it was a pleasant song to sing and as long as you can get past occupation stereotyping, the lyrics have a certain mysterious quality to them.

(image from the British Museum – Creative Commons)

Tailors Hunting a Louse – 1811

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Lyrics and Chords · Poetry · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Stolen Rhyme

I have always loved the haunting ethereal beauty of Loreena McKennitt’s setting of William Butler Yeat’s poem, The Stolen Child, to music. I tried to practice singing the song before doing this recording for my YouTube channel, but even after 4-5 days I just couldn’t get the verses to flow.

This fired my curiosity, and so I looked a little deeper into the structure of the poem. For reference, here is the complete poem:

The Stolen Child – W.B. Yeats, 1886

    Where dips the rocky highland
    Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
    There lies a leafy island
    Where flapping herons wake
    The drowsy water rats;
    There we’ve hid our faery vats,
    Full of berry
    And of reddest stolen cherries.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand.
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wave of moonlight glosses
    The dim grey sands with light,
    Far off by furthest Rosses
    We foot it all the night,
    Weaving olden dances
    Mingling hands and mingling glances
    Till the moon has taken flight;
    To and fro we leap
    And chase the frothy bubbles,
    While the world is full of troubles
    And is anxious in its sleep.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

   Where the wandering water gushes
    From the hills above Glen-Car,
    In pools among the rushes
    That scarce could bathe a star,
    We seek for slumbering trout
    And whispering in their ears
    Give them unquiet dreams;
    Leaning softly out
    From ferns that drop their tears
    Over the young streams.
    Come away, O human child!
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

    Away with us he’s going,
    The solemn-eyed:
    He’ll hear no more the lowing
    Of the calves on the warm hillside
    Or the kettle on the hob
    Sing peace into his breast,
    Or see the brown mice bob
    Round and round the oatmeal chest.
    For he comes, the human child,
    To the waters and the wild
    With a faery, hand in hand,
    For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

I realised that what was causing me the problem is that the length of verse and rhyming pattern within the last lines of each verse is not consistent. Note the rhyming structure in the first verse:

Where dips the rocky highland, Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island, Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berry, And of reddest stolen cherries.

Yet in the next stanza we have:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses, The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses, We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances, Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight; To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.

There are an extra three half-lines, and their rhyming doesn’t fit the model. Verse three is similarly muddled, yet verse four goes back to the structure of the first verse.

As a ballad singer, I am acutely conscious of the way that repetition in metre and rhyme makes it much easier to memorise and perform songs. I imagine that William B. Yeats would have been very familiar with the work of the Irish Bards and the use of this style of verse.

It could just be that this poem is intended to be read, not sung, and the discontinuity was intended as part of the work. However, the confusion goes beyond just the rhyme structure. The third verse is about gushing water, which seems to align with the ‘frothy bubbles’ in verse two. This phrase appears to be out of place in verse two, which is about pagan dances in the moonlight.

Yeats purists will probably chide me, but in my ballad version I have restructured the verses so that they are all four line stanzas with a repeated rhyming structure. So verses two and three become:

Where the wave of moonlight glosses the dim grey sands with light
By far off furthest rosses we foot it all the night
Weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight To and fro we leap

Where the wandering water gushes from the hills above Glen-Car         
In pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star            
We seek for slumbering trout, leaning softly out 
Hoping to find Fintan, knowledge for to gain

From ferns that drop their tears, over the young streams
And whisper in their ears, giving them unquiet dreams
And stir the frothy bubbles, whilst the world is full of troubles
Eyes blind but open, and anxious in their sleep.

The bold lines are my own additions. As students of Irish mythology will know, Fintan is the Salmon of Knowledge. I immediately thought of this on first reading of the verse about tickling trout. I have moved the ‘frothy bubbles’ to the line about streams. Interestingly, there was a note with the published version of this poem, indicating that there is a place in The Rosses where those who lay down to sleep may have their souls stolen by the fairies.

This site has a beautiful photo of the waterfall at Glen-Car. It is definitely the type of place in which one could imagine the fairy folk coming to visit. Yeats would have visited this site in his childhood.

On this lovely site there is a story about using the starlight reflected in forests pools to create powerful wands.

A review of the huge tome of work that Yeats has left us here, will show that he was both very well read and from his work A Vision, he was no stranger to the mystic arts. I wonder what other messages he hid in this and other works.

Ballad Analysis

William’s Razor – Yass History

Razor – Yass Museum

As a lover of ballads it is always exciting when you can pair a particular place and time with a ballad that has been circulating for 100 years or more. I had been singing Mary from Dungloe for many years without realising that Mary was a real person, who had left Ireland for New Zealand just as my ancestors had in the 1800s.

In this particular instance the reverse has occurred. I was inspired to write this ballad after reading the story in a local newspaper from 9th January 1864. The full story is available here, which is actually a re-print of the story in the Melbourne Leader. The original story from the Yass Courier was syndicated all over the country (maybe even back to England).

To summarise,  William Williams, a plasterer who had only been in the town of Yass for ‘some months’, attempted to kill a seventeen year old girl and, failing this, attempted to cut his own throat. The incident was triggered, it seems, by the refusal or postponement of a marriage proposal. To me, this story had all the required components for a great folk ballad, and knowing the incident had occurred less than 1 kilometre from our house, along the river which we walk by every few days, made it all the more fascinating.

As a person who likes a puzzle, I was also intrigued to learn the identity of the young girl and the final fate of William William’s.

The area around Yass was first settled in 1830 and the town itself was gazetted in 1837. In 1848 there were 55 houses and 274 people living in the town. The Australian Handbook, printed in 1888, indicates that the population had risen to 2370 by that time. In any case, there cannot have been more than a handful of 17 year old girls in the town in 1846.

The following clues are found in the primary article about the incident:

  • On Sunday (3 Jan) William and the girl walked by the Yass River, where on discussion about the postponement of the engagement, William produces a razor and threatens to harm himself. The girl grabs the razor from him and throws it in the river.
  • On Monday (4 Jan) the two talk at the girl’s married sister’s house. William leaves to go to his lodging at a nearby public house.
  • The girl retires in a room at the back of her sister’s house which has a half-glass door. William comes to her room after she is asleep, claiming he cannot get into his room at the public house. She refuses entry but gives him a blanket and key to the kitchen (a detached building).
  • William leaves (in his work clothes), towards the river, saying he will drown himself.
  • William returns when the girl and her sister have gone back to sleep in his Sunday clothes with a new razor. He breaks into the room, wakening the girl.
  • William says he has come to murder her first and then kill himself.
  • The girl screams for her sister, who is in a parallel bedroom.
  • William grabs her by the neck, with the razor in his other hand.
  • The girl’s sister opens the door to the parlour and she twists free.
  • The girl’s sister flees through the front door to fetch their father who lives across the road.
  • The girl flees into the parlour and gets to the other side of a large table.
  • William cuts his own throat (evidently missing the carotid arteries) and bleeds all over the kitchen.
  • The girl runs into the street.
  • The girl’s sister and father re-enter the house to find William lying on the girl’s bed, still bleeding profusely.
  • Sub-inspector Brennan and Constable Smith arrive in a few seconds.
  • Dr O’Connor is sent for and eventually sutures the wound after a struggle.
  • After hospitalisation, Williams claims to have left a sum of £70 or £80 pounds hidden under a stone by the Yass Bridge.

Initial Deductions

Yass – Town Map, 1898

The Yass Police residence has always been on Rossi Street, next to the Court House. The Rose Inn was built by Isaac Moses in 1837 on Comur Street (also next to the Court House) and is situated between the River and the houses on Rossi Street. The only places close to the Police Station, where there could be two residences across the road from each other would be 3-4 blocks within the intersection of Rossi and Dutton Streets.

It could be concluded that William Williams was staying at the Rose Inn, and that the girl and her sister were staying in a house on Rossi or Dutton Street.

I went through genealogy pages to look for girls who were born in Yass in 1845 or 1846 (would have been 17 in 1864) and cross referenced them with the property owners on Dutton and Rossi Street in 1898.

The only name that stands out is Margaret Carter, born 1846 to Eliza Bowra and James Carter. James was a policeman and owned a property on Rossi Street. Margaret had a sister, Sarah, born in 1843. It is a stretch, but Benjamin Warton, husband of Sarah Warton passed away in 1915 and there is a W. Warton property across the road from the Carter residence in Rossi Street.

House now on Rossi Street.

I have lived in this town for over ten years, but hadn’t visited the Yass and District Museum. On the weekend I went there to look at some of the paintings and pictures of the town in the 1800s and also look at the build dates of various key buildings in the town. I was also able to take a photo of a razor from the period.


I still need to visit the local archives to make 100% sure, but I am reasonably confident that if any 17 year old girl of Yass in 1864 was going to have the presence of mind to wrestle a razor from a bigger, stronger, man, it is likely to be the daughter of a local policeman, Margaret Carter.

I haven’t been able to track down what happened to her afterwards with any certainty, but now with a name and a birth date, I think it should be possible.


Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Whose Thyme is it Anyway?

I have been singing the song commonly known as ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’ or ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ or ‘Purple Heather’ for many years as it was one of my favourite songs on an Irish Music compilation that I picked up back in 2001 (The Ultimate Irish Ballads, here on ebay for $50!). When I went to make this recording for my YouTube channel, I found out some interesting and annoying things.

This song was first published as a poem by Robert Tannahill, The Braes of Balquither (also Balquidder), in Henry Longfellow’s Poems of Place in 1876. Robert’s life fitted the tragic archetype of the poet, just without all the women and drinking. He gave up his working life as a traveling weaver to care for his elderly parents while all six of his siblings departed. He burned a large portion of his work before drowning himself in 1810.

Thanks to the wonders of copyright lapses, the full text of The Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill, published in 1874 with notes by David Semple, is available here. Including the Braes of Balquither. In the notes by the editor, it is mentioned that Robert probably grew up hearing this song sung by his nurse, Mary McIntyre, who had been born in the parish of Balquither. Balquither is around 60 miles from Paisley (yes, where the pattern comes from), near Glasgow, where Robert spent most of his life. So it isn’t really clear whether Robert just heard this song and wrote it down, or whether he developed it from what Mary had sung to him.

The discussion at Mainly Norfolk talks about the fact that when the industrial revolution started to destroy the towns, it was common for lovers to flee the cities to the cleaner air and prettier skylines of the highland heather in the Summer.

So this is a beautiful song that has been popular for over 200 years at least. Here is a rare version by the Dubliners.

Now to why I am annoyed.

Wikipedia says that Wild Mountain Thyme is “a Scottish folk song that was collected by Francis McPeake the First, who wrote the song himself for his wife”. If I was Francis’ wife I would be asking for my money back.

Some would say, “but if I take someone’s idea and put it to my own tune, then it is a new song”. I say rubbish. I couldn’t find a YouTube recording that claimed to be the original, but fortunately this book (Songs of Scotland, 1854) is available and I transcribed the tune into MuseScore to confirm the direct similarity between the original tune and the new tune claimed by the McPeakes. While it isn’t 100% the same, the McPeake’s wouldn’t be winning any lawsuits.

There is a Bob Dylan connection in all of this, as he recorded the song himself. Here are Bob and Joan Baez playing to a rowdy crowd using a melody which relates to neither song. This book, discussing the copyright of Dylan’s songs, notes the McPeake family (Francis McPeake the Third) claimed copyright under all three song names in 1996. It also suggests that there are versions as early as 1742. As the industrial revolution didn’t really kick off in Scotland until 1790, this date would question the whole basis of the song.

I have to say that this makes me very annoyed, when people three generations on are claiming money for work that their great grandfather borrowed (or if you are less generous, plagiarised) from a poet from the 1800s, who himself was probably only writing down what he had heard.

Bodleian also comes to the rescue with this broadsheet from the early 1800s with the Braes o’ Birniebouzle suggesting that at least the theme and some of the lyrics were in common circulation as a song when Robert was writing his poem.

I guess that back in the 1950’s, before the advent of the internet, instantly searchable databases of 1700-1800’s broadsheets and freely available copies of tunes, poems and songs from the 1800s were not a thing. It was much easier to find a copy of a rare old book, steal a few lines, match them up with an equally obscure tune and pass the whole lot off to your wife as your own song. Then your nephew can record it and start charging copyright royalties for the next 60 years.

To be honest, I like my recording of Tannahill’s original words much better. And don’t even get me started on people who misplace ‘tower’ for ‘bower’. Who has time to build a tower in the summer?

Errata: Thanks to Jack Campin for pointing me to this mudcat post where it is mentioned that a shorter version was published by John Hamilton in 1792. To be honest, I don’t think the Hamilton song resembles the Tannahill song enough to claim direct decent via the folk-process, but the subject matter is the same. 1876 was not the first published version of Tannahill’s song, just the one I referenced.



Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

Faery Exodus in 1530

I have been reading Rudyard Kipling’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, after being prompted to look at his poetry after hearing some of Leslie Fish’s recordings (Oak and Ash and Thorn in particular). Earlier in the book I read Sir Richard’s Song and this melody immediately sprung into my mind while reading.

I am usually sceptical by nature, but it felt like some hidden magic in Kipling’s words carried inherit music that was just waiting to be sung. I had sadly assumed that the Disney version of Jungle Book and a ‘mildly offensive in current times’ poem about Mandalay was the extent of his work.

How mistaken I was. The story of Dymchurch Flit appears at the end of the book and tells the tale of how the Faery Folk departed England for France in the 1530’s. The story largely stands on its own, but this guide from the Kipling Society provides some useful context. I had always assumed that Henry VIII’s fight was with the Catholic Church over his penchant for new wives. After seeing the ruins of the Glastonbury Abbey firsthand, it seemed clear that he was also after some of the wealth that the Monasteries had amassed. Kipling’s story implies that a big part of Henry’s purge was actually against the remnants of the Old Religion (Druidry?) in England. This article goes into some detail on the scale of the vandalism of Henry.

I have written a song to summarise the story of how the Widow Whitgift is approached by Robin (a spokesperson for the Faery Folk, Robin Goodfellow or Puck) to ask if her mute and blind sons will take the Faery Folk who have gathered in Romney Marsh across to France, where the old religion is still tolerated. As the sons are blind and mute they can either not speak of what they have seen or not see at all. The sons return safely, but the family is blessed (?) in future generations with second-sight. I have read enough fairy-tale allegory to know that pairs of sons with unusual disabilities is archetype territory, and Kipling is most likely drawing on, or implying a deeper meeting here.

The connection with bees in the story, and in the song which precedes the story, is telling. Bees have significant meaning in Occult traditions, this blog provides a good summary. This idea is far more clumsily included in the terrible Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man.

So how is it that Kipling slipped this monumental revelation into his collection of stories and songs roughly framed around the history of England? I can find no other references to a Faery exodus in 1530, or any other information about Widow Whitgift. Whit or hwita is Old English for white, but that doesn’t help much.

Kipling was clearly trying to draw attention to the terrible way in which Christianity, especially the new Protestant Christianity, dealt with those who followed the old ways. The references in the story to the Canterbury Bells related to the fact that they would ring at the burning of ‘heretics’, mostly common folk or monks who had fallen foul of Henry.

Kipling was writing around 1906, the Catholic Church had only been reinstated in England in 1850, and even then it met with much hostility. I hope this story isn’t just a thinly veiled political statement about Catholics going back to France with their paganism (where they belong).

I am baffled that the pagan revival community has not picked up on this story, or sought to find its origins, or at least write about it in detail. Maybe this post will prompt some consideration. If the Faery Folk are living happily in France, I would be interested to know where.

I have included a picture by Arthur Rackham, included in the 1906 US edition of Puck, who I discovered has drawn/painted some of my favourite illustrations for stories of English mythology.

Dymchurch Flit by Arthur Rackham, 1908

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Cain en-Abeling

History is always a fickle beast, told by the victors one way, then revised by the victims and then revised again when it suits some future generation. I recorded a version of The Bonnie Hoose o’ Airlie, sung with the same lyrics as those Kate Rusby uses.

While looking at the Wikipedia entry for this song, I noticed that the last two verses in one version detail a rape of the Lady of Airlie and subsequent hunting down and burning of the perpetrators:

But poor Lady Margaret was forced to come doun
And O but she sighed sairly
For their in front o’ all his men
She was ravished on the bowlin’ green o’ Airlie.

“Draw your dirks, draw your dirks,” cried the brave Locheil.
“Unsheath your sword,” cried Chairlie,
“We’ll kindle sic a lowe roond the false Argyle,
And licht it wi’ a spark oot o’ Airlie.”

On this, and other, historical websites, it seems that the song relates to the 1640 sacking of Airlie Castle by Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll. The sacking occurred in the context of a power struggle within Scotland between the King and power brokers within the gentry. Theoretically a religious struggle between Presbyterians and the Catholic King, Charles I, it was much more about power within Scotland.

While the newly made Earl of Airlie, James Ogilvy, was away aiding the king, Archibald procured a Commission of fire and sword from the parliament and raised a small army to sack Airlie Castle. Importantly, the historical sources show that James’ son, Lord Ogilvy was present at the time and that Lady Ogilvy was turn out of her castle, but not raped in the way described in the version above.

The Electric Scotland page on this story goes into detail of the subsequent retaliation by the Ogilvy family. It would seem that this particular incident was part of an ongoing feud between the Campbells and the Ogilvys.

The Wikipedia page for the song implies that the song may have been re-written in part around the 1745 Jacobite rebellion as a propaganda piece. Certainly, the numerous versions of this ballad collected by Child, don’t seem to include the inflammatory verses above.

This tactic of dredging up a past wrong and re-painting it in the colours necessary for fanning the flames of a new conflict is not uncommon. One could wonder whether Cain ever really killed Abel in a jealous rage over his inadequate vegetables, or if some of Abel’s descendants later re-framed a minor conflict in order to justify brutality against some of Cain’s descendants for their own personal gain.

Personally, I find it repulsive that fanciful horrors from the past are used to birth real horrors in the future. It seems as though the human race is in an escalating spiral of brutality driven by carefully constructed propaganda.

Here in Australia, we are witnessing precisely this type of manufactured outrage against Muslims and, more generally, immigrants. It is also a key foundation of the Trump campaign in the US. I guess the philosophical lesson is that if you read, see or listen to something and start to feel outrage rather than compassion, then look beneath the surface to see who is pushing your button and ask why.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

No Politics Please, We’re Folk Singers

A large number of the folk songs I collect and record for YouTube are political in nature. Whether they are bemoaning the unfair life of a coal miner in the 1800s, a dam builder in Scotland in the 1950’s or a conscripted soldier in the Napoleonic wars, the political theme is clear. There are others that take a more philosophical approach and advocate or denounce a particular political view, Alastair Hulett’s, Dictatorship of Capital is a good example, as was the thieving of My Love’s in Germany by Robert Burns to make a point about Jacobites.

I knew about Bob Dylan from a young age, mostly because my parents followed him into his Pentecostal Christian phase. I think the 2007 biographical movie I’m Not There did a fantastic job of showing Dylan’s immense capacity to change his image to fit the times, and probably fit his interests as an artist. As I looked into Dylan later in life, I noticed his distinct move from folk Messiah to electric narcissist rocker. When I was in New York in 2014, I spent some time walking through Greenwich village pondering what went down there in the 1960’s. I tried to imagine what was going through the minds of Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk as they witnessed Dylan’s chameleon act.

Someone who was every bit the 60’s folk musician that Dylan was, but never made it through the 1970’s was Phil Ochs. It took me much longer to learn about Phil as he died the year I was born and his work largely fell from view as Dylan’s flourished. I mention Ochs and Dylan in the context of this article because I wonder whether these two can be looked at in terms of the true believer and the salesman. Was it Ochs’ status as a true believer that caused his breakdown when the perceived wave of socialism, freedom and equality fell flat? And is there an argument to be made about the quality of each as a person? Do we care if our artists genuinely believe what they sing, write or paint?

I write songs about things that I care about. I have written about the treatment of refugees by Australia, the horse racing industry, a local road that claims a few lives each year and the lack gender equality in our society. I have also written a number of songs about the banning and subsequent imprisonment, torture and execution of Falun Gong adherents in China since 1999. This subject is close to me as I learned this peaceful meditation and exercise system myself in 1998. I knew first hand that the global propaganda campaign run by the Chinese Communist Party was a lie. It has taken 16 years, but most governments of the western world have now acknowledged this. My most recently published song, Spring Comes, highlights the stories of a handful of people caught up in this saga.

For me, folk music is a way to share what we have seen and experienced with other humans. In sharing we seek a mirror, a nod of understanding, a smile or even a tear. It is disconcerting to think that some on the other side of the microphone might not necessarily be sincere in their sentiment.

I do know, and have met, many folk musicians who are sincere about what they sing. They sing not just to record, but also to influence. The story of Alistair Hulett’s efforts to keep a local swimming pool in Glasgow open, as documented here by Gavin Livingstone is just one example. I’m sure we have lost many like Phil Ochs when advocacy fails, but I cannot resign myself to the idea that we should stop trying to change the world for the better through song.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Who Gets a Song?

What is the relationship between a folk song and its genesis? How important is it to the worth of a song that there is a personal connection of some sort between the author, subject and audience? It could be argued that ever since the popularisation of the broadsheet, around 1712, this connection has been broken. With songs copied from one region and spread all over the country (and globe) to be sung by singers to audiences, neither of whom have any tangible connection to the subject matter.

Thinking back to the time of the bards, their songs were closely linked to the living memory of a specific region, clan or tribe. The audience could often trace their lineage to the heroes of a song, or even have eyewitnesses to the events amongst the living population.

We could be sceptical and assume that the bard was the equivalent of Fox News or a Murdoch tabloid, with truth in reporting highly dependent on who is paying their salary (or threatening to kill them). A brief research into the Fili of Ireland would suggest otherwise. It is because of the Fili and Bards of Wales and Scotland that such well preserved stories as those retold in Coll the Storyteller’s Tales of Enchantment or in Padrig Colum’s Treasury of Irish Folklore are still available to us, much as they would have been performed and told 500 years ago. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, the storyteller held a very high place in Celtic society, even at the same level as the chief or king.

This ramble was prompted by my reading of a book that details close to 300 years of linen manufacture in Maghera, Ireland. The book, Linen on the Green, was written by Wallace Clark, my great-great uncle. In the book is a story of one Jackson Clark (1762-1788), who had married the daughter of a local General (James Patterson). Jackson dies after falling from a horse while racing back from work to try and catch his young wife in bed with his uncle. To me, this had the makings of a good folk song, so I wrote one.

This got me thinking, why does the story of a young girl pushed into the river by her elder sister (Twa Sisters), or the tale of a young girl dying for her criminal lover (The Highwayman) warrant selection and perpetuation by society through immortalisation in song. Any folk researcher will know the process of evolution these songs go through, where the town, villain, trade or names get changed for whatever will better connect with a local culture, or serve a particular political agenda. A good example being the Recruited Ploughboy who becomes a Recruited Collier in the time when ploughing has been given over to machines. In some cases we know that the song (or poem), as for The Highwayman, has no link to real events and is purely from the imagination of the author.

So why was it that the death of my great-great-great-great-grandfather was never made into a popular song? Someone who died after riding to his love across the river Annan got a song. Could we assume, like Carl Jung, that there are archetypes of human existence that are frames upon which a particular folk song will stick because they align with these sub-conscious memes? Is this why many millions of other stories and the songs written about them fade into oblivion? Or instead, is it the writers of songs and poems that shape new archetypes from human experience which rise of fall on their merits.

This capturing of snapshots of human existence is one of the many reasons why I love folk music. There is a local singer/songwriter here in Australia, John Warner, who wrote about the experience of a group of convicts in Victoria. Anderson’s Coast, performed here by Nancy and James Fagan, captures the story of people that would otherwise never have been told. Hearing John sing the song himself is an experience worth tracking down, unfortunately there isn’t one on YouTube.