Friday, August 5, 2011

Origins of the song Wild Mountain Thyme

This is another of those songs which many people believe to be a traditional Scottish song, but like so many songs popularised during the 1960’s folk boom, is actually quite modern, having been copyrighted in 1957! It was also not written by Robert Burns, although this error seems to be becoming more frequent since Eddi Reader included an unrelated song (also not written by Burns) called “Wild Mountainside” on her album Eddi Reader sings the Songs of Robert Burns.

Wild Mountain Thyme (also known as "Purple Heather" and "Will You Go Lassie, Go") is not even a Scottish song. It was written by the Northern Irish singer Francis McPeake, who first recorded it for the BBC series "As I Roved Out" in 1957. As he had already taught it to others by this point it must have been written some time prior to 1957. There are two versions of how it came to be written. According to “Ireland the Songs, Volume 2, pub. 1993, Walton Music Inc.” he learned it from his uncle and wrote it down, but according to Eric Winter, in the liner notes of the 1995 re-release of The Corries: In Concert/Scottish Love Songs,
"Francis wrote this version … and dedicated it to his first wife. Long after she died, he married again and his son, Francis II, wrote an extra verse to celebrate the marriage."
Both stories are probably true as the song is based on an earlier Scottish Song The Braes of Balquhidder by Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). This earlier song includes the lines "Let us go, lassie, go" and "And the wild mountain thyme". It is entirely possible (probable even) that McPeake learned this earlier song from his uncle and turned it onto the new song. The tune of Wild Mountain Thyme is completely different and unrelated to the older song.

Wild Moutain Thyme Lyrics:
Oh, the summertime is comin',
And the trees are sweetly blooming,
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather

Will ye go, lassie, will ye go?
And we'll all go together to pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.
Will ye go, lassie, will ye go?

I will build my love a bower
By yon pure crystal fountain
And around it I will place
All the flowers of the mountain.

If my true love e'er should leave me
I would surely find another
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.

Oh, the autumn-time is comin',
And the leaves are gently falling,
Where the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather

The Braes of Balquhidder by Robert Tannahill
The Braes of Balquhidder was written by Robert Tannahill (1774-1810). The earliest record of it is in Robert Archibald Smith's, "The Scottish Minstrel, a selection from the Vocal melodies of Scotland, ancient and modern", 6 Volumes, Edinburgh 1820-1824. This publication has two versions in Vol I, p. 49 and Vol. IV, p. 89. The latter is the same words, but to a different tune called "The Three Carles o' Buchanan". Smith knew Tannahill’s work well, having published an edition of his works separately.

Here are the lyrics:
Let us go, lassie, go,
Tae the braes o' Balquhidder,
Whar the blueberries grow
'Mang the bonnie Hielan heather
Whar the deer and the rae
Lichtly bounding thegither,
Sport the lang summer days
On the braes o' Balquhidder.

I will twin thee a bow'r
By the clear silver fountain,
And I'll cover it o'er
Wi' the flooers o' the mountain
I will range through the wilds
And the deep glens sae dreary,
And return wi' their spoils
Tae the bow'r o' my dearie.

When the rude wintry win'
Idly waves roun' oor dwellin'
And the roar o' the linn
On the night breeze is swellin'
So merrily we'll sing
As the storm rattles o'er us
Till the dear sheilin' ring
Wi' the light liltin chorus.

Noo the summers in prime
Wi' the flooers richly bloomin'
Wi' the wild mountain thyme
A' the moorlan's perfumin'
Tae oor dear native scenes
Let us journey thegither,
Whar glad innocence reigns,
Mang the braes o' Balquhidder.


The Braes o' Balquhidder by Robert Tannahill sung to the original tune by Soprano Alma Gluck in 1914:

Wild Mountain Thyme by Francis McPeake sung to his tune by The Corries: