Scottish Folk Music – alive and well if you know where to look!

Scottish folk music includes both Gaelic and Lowland Scots heritage. Folk music is popular in Scotland today, if you know where to go to hear it.

Folk Song In Scotland

Scottish folk music here means the traditional songs of Scotland. These reflect the story of the Gael and the Lowland Scot, the nation’s story in war and peace and its industry from farming to mill-working.

Best of all, the songs of the ordinary folk are still sung today – in fact, they are still being written!

The Music Of The Gael

The native peoples of the north and west of Scotland have always placed a strong emphasis on oral transmission of their music, partly because, centuries ago, there was no tradition of literacy.

Music and poetry, in short, had to be learned by heart and sung from memory. Before the end of the 18th century, when the first collectors came to set down this body of Scottish folk music, they were astonished by the literary quality.

Broadly speaking, Gaelic traditional song often has a greater ‘poetic’ content that some other kinds of Scottish traditional songs, such as, say, the ‘bothy ballads’ of the eastern farming traditions. Both are branches of Scottish folk music in its broadest sense.

The distinguished American folksong collector Alan Lomax once described the Gaelic song tradition as the “Flower of Western Europe”.

Scottish Folk Music in the Lowlands

There are many strands to the story of Scottish folk music and Scottish traditional song. These songs are sung in Scots (that is, the language of Lowland Scotland, akin to, but different from, English). 

For example, it is sometimes forgotten that Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, was an important collector and arranger of Scottish music.

He made major contributions to ‘The Scots Musical Museum’ which includes about 200 songs and fragments written, amended or collected by Burns; also ‘A Select Collection of Scottish Airs for the Voice’ includes more than 70 songs by Burns.

Though many today are in the repertoire of ‘folk-singers’, some would argue that these arranged pieces were not folk songs at all, but ‘drawing room songs’, tidied up – or even cleaned up – to take their place in a sanitised version of Scottish music.

By the time Scotland’s folk song was seriously studied by 20th-century collectors, ‘real’ folk-song was only being sung by particular parts of society, for example, Scotland’s travelling people or by agricultural workers.

Sandy Bell's in Edinburgh - known to generations of Scottish folk music enthusiasts
The great Sandy Bell’s in Edinburgh – folk enthusiast and performers’ meeting and session place for Scottish folk music for more than half a century.

Scottish Folk Music Revival

However, matters were changed by the folk music revival, notably in the early 1960s (or even earlier). Folk clubs boomed all across Scotland.

This popularised at least some of the Scottish music collected and set down by such agencies as, for example, the School of Scottish Studies, part of Edinburgh University.

Folk musicians, solo or otherwise, suddenly discovered the wealth of folk-song in all its diversity, just at a time when both the agricultural and the industrial society which had generated the songs were changing forever.

The Border Ballads

The centuries of feuding along the border with England are recalled in a body of song and important aspect of Scottish music usually called the Border ballads. Sometimes both English and Scottish versions exist.


It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound them ride
Into England to drive a prey:

He chose the Gordons and the Graemes,
The Lindsays licht and gay;
But the Jardines would not wi him ride,
And they rue it to this day.

This is the first verse or so of the long ballad sometimes called ‘The Battle of Otterburn’, which was based on a real 14th-century incident when the Scottish Earl of Douglas crossed the Border and confronted the English noble Henry Percy in Northumberland.

The names of a number of prominent Border families appear in the first verse. The ballad was printed in the 16th century and later appears in the famous Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, the Scottish music collection edited and collected by Sir Walter Scott.

Work Songs Of Scotland

Songs originated in town and country. The Scottish city of Dundee, for example, has had dozens of local songs recorded, many connected to the mill and jute trade which once flourished there.

Whaling, another now-vanished activity, was once important to the city.


There’s a noble fleet of whalers, a-sailing from Dundee
Well-manned by Scottish sailors to sail upon the sea
On the western ocean passage none with them can compare
And the fastest ship to make the trip is the Balaena, I declare


When the wind is on the quarter and the engine’s working free
There’s not another whaler a-sailing frae Dundee
Can beat the old Balaena and you needna try her on
For we’ll challenge all both great and small from Dundee to St John’s

This song – with just verse one and chorus given here – about a Dundee-based whaler is typical of folk-song in that it exists as a number of different versions.

Certainly, there actually was a Balaena, originally built in Norway and joining the Dundee fleet in 1891.

However, the reference to St John’s, Newfoundland, links with another version of the song when the ship is called the Polina, which really refers to another earlier vessel which went to the winter seal fishery off the Canadian coast!

Folk songs were often adapted, or the same tune is fitted to various sets of verses.

No to be outdone, the 19th-century whaling fleet which sailed from another east coast port, Peterhead, had its own set of whaling songs.

These included ‘The Bonnie Ship the Diamond’, and ‘Fareweel to Tarwathie’, – the latter the name of a farm in Buchan (North-East Scotland) still in existence today.

All these songs are in the traditional repertoire still heard at Scotland’s folk-clubs today.

Bothy Ballads

As part of the diversity of Scottish music, the bothy ballads are characterised by their down-to-earth directness.

They also evoke the atmosphere of the struggle of old-time farming, as well as the simplicity of love and passion in the rural Scotland of old.

For the farmworkers of 19th-century Lowland Scotland (and well into the 20th century) life was hard and the diet of oatmeal (mostly) monotonous.

Usually, the single men lived in primitive ‘bothies’ or ‘chaumers’ (single-room farm accommodation, the word related to French ‘chambre’).

In remote and rural areas the farm-hands found some inspiration in the composing of songs, often about farming incidents and the farmers themselves.

The bothy ballad became a way of letting other workers know which employers were good farmers or which farms to avoid.

Farmlands around Huntly, Aberdeenshire - the 'branch' of Scottish folk music known as bothy ballads once thrived in the area.
Farmlands around Huntly, Aberdeenshire – bothy ballad country, a distinctive element of Scottish folk music


As I gaed in by Huntly toon, one morning for to fee
I fell in wi Bogie o Cairnie and wi him I did agree
Tae caa his twa best horses and cairt and herry and ploo
And dae onything aboot fermwork I very well could do

Noo Bogie had a daughter and her name was Isabelle
She was the flooer o the valley and the primrose of the dell
And when we gaed oot walkin she chose me for her guide
Doon by the banks o Cairnie, to watch small fishes glide…

(Tae caa – to drive; gaed in – went in; fell in wi – met up with; cairt and herry or ploo – cart or rake or plough

In the above ballad, known as ‘Bogie’s Bonnie Belle’, the farmer known as Bogie o Cairnie has a daughter who soon catches the eye of the new hand.

As it turns out, if they’d just watched ‘small fishes glide’ on the banks of the Burn (Stream) of Cairnie and left it at that, then the song would never have been written.

But, oh no, fish-spotting soon loses its novelty, the inevitable consequences follow on but the farmer will not let the young man marry his daughter, hoping for a better match.

It all goes wrong and the song ends:

But noo she’s mairrit tae a tinkler chiel wha bides in Huntly toon
He mends pots and pans and paraffin lamps and he scours the country roon
Aye and maybe she’s gotten a better man, auld Bogie canna tell
So farewell you lads o Huntly side and Bogie’s Bonnie Belle.

(mairrit tae a tinkler chiel – married to a tinker-man {chiel is Scots for man, from Anglo Saxon ceorl, a countryman, cf English ‘churlish’}).

Scottish Music And The Celebration Of Place

Perhaps the best-known Scottish song which celebrates place is the well-known ‘Banks of Loch Lomond‘ but many traditional songs have a strong sense of a particular location or have place-names easily found in Scotland.

The old song ‘Tramps and Hawkers’ in some verses sounds like a Scottish gazetteer!

I’ve seen the high Ben Lomond a-towering to the moon
I’ve been by Crieff and Callander and roon by Bonnie Doune
And by Loch Ness‘s silvery tides and places ill tae ken
Far up into the snowy north lies Urquhart’s bonny glen

(places ill tae ken – places not easily known)

Amongst Scottish music, other songs have a special association with one area:


Busk, busk bonnie lassie
Aye, and come awa wi me
And I’ll tak ye tae Glen Isla
Near Bonnie Glen Shee

Do you see yon bonnie shepherds
As they walk along
With their plaids on their shoulders
And their ewes runnin on

Do you see yon bonnie soldiers
As they march through the toun
Wi their muskets on their shoulders
And their broadswords hangin doun

Do you see yon bonnie high hills
All covered wi snaw
They hae pairted mony’s the true love
And they’ll soon pairt us twa

This brief and haunting little song is still sung at Scottish folk clubs. It asks more questions than it answers. ‘Busk’ means to pack up and get ready. Why is the singer asking his true love to prepare to leave? Why will the winter hills, silent with snow, cause the lovers to part?

Pictured here are the lonely hills near Glenshee, photographed late in a winter day, looking north.

Looing north towards Glenshee
Grampian hills towards Glenshee, from north of Alyth
Scottish folk music – songs with connections and variations

Folk-songs learned by the oral traditional move across the globe, with the people who travel. This is one of the best-known songs in Scottish folk music.


There once was a troop o Irish dragoons
Came marching doon through Fyvie
And the captain’s fall’n in love wi a very bonnie lass
And her name it is cried ‘Pretty Peggy-o

Note how in old Scots to call (or name) is to cry. Fyvie lies north of Aberdeen. The love-struck captain is so bereft at parting that:

Lang ere we came tae Oldmeldrum toon
Our captain we had to carry-o
And lang ere we came to the toon o Aiberdeen
Oor captain we had to bury-o

‘The Lass o Fyvie’, well-known in Scotland even beyond the folk clubs, was noted originally by the great Scottish music collector Gavin Greig in the Lowlands of Scotland.

However, it also turns up on the other side of the Atlantic, in the Appalachians, and noted there by the prominent English collector Cecil Sharp. There it was known as ‘Pretty Peggy-o’. (And it even exists as an early Simon and Garfunkel recording!)

There are many more instances. The old song ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ which appears in many collections of Scottish music turns up in Virginia as well.

And the whaling song ‘Fareweel tae Tarwathie’ (mentioned above – first verse below) has its tune borrowed for the old cowboy song ‘The Railroad Corral’.

Fareweel to Tarwathie, adieu Mormond Hill,
And the dear land of Crimond I bid you fareweel
For we’re bound out for Greenland and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches in hunting the whale.

Far from the sea in the wide-open cattle trails, the inheritors of the Scottish cattle-droving traditions who, after emigration to the New World, became the cowboys of the West sang different words to the same tune:

Come take up your cinches and shake out your reins,
Come wake your old bronco and break for the plains.
Come roust out your steers from the long chaparral,
For the outfit is off to the railroad corral.

Emigration, battles of old, treachery, love, work – life in Scotland past and present comes alive in Scottish music and song.

The tradition is alive and thriving, with new songs and tunes reflecting contemporary concerns. Try the Traditional Music & Song Association for folk music venues and events.

Well, this has been a long one, hasn’t it? Lots more to say about Scotland’s music. Perhaps another day…..