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Busk, Busk
The traveller legacy in scottish song

Bill Scott takes another look at radical song in Scotland.

Busk, Busk

“Dae ye see yon bonnie high hills,
A’ covered ower wi snaw?
They hae pairted mony’s a true love,
And they’ll soon pairt us twa.
Busk, busk bonnie lassie and come awa wi me,
And I’ll tak ye tae Glen Isla near bonnie Glen Shee.”

“Dae ye see yon bonnie shepherds,
As they cam fae ayont,
Wi their plaidies pu’d roun aboot them,
And their sheep grazin’ on?”
Busk, busk bonnie lassie and come awa wi me,
And I’ll tak ye tae Glen Isla near bonnie Glen Shee.”

“Dae ye see yon bonnie sodgers,
As they marched alang,
Wi their muskets on their shoulders,
And their broadswords hingin doun?”
Busk, busk bonnie lassie and come awa wi me,
And I’ll tak ye tae Glen Isla near bonnie Glen Shee.”

“Dae ye see yon bonnie high hills,
Aa covered ower wi snaw?
They hae pairted mony’s a true love,
And they’ll soon pairt us twa.
Busk, busk bonnie lassie and come awa wi me,
And I’ll tak ye tae Glen Isla near bonnie Glen Shee.”

Scotland’s Travellers have over centuries been amongst the most important custodians of Scotland’s Gaelic, and Scots, oral tradition. Not one homogenous group but several, each with their own customs and languages, the Scottish Travellers have passed down to us many songs and stories that would otherwise have been lost.

Many people no doubt believe that Scotland’s travelling communities date back to the arrival of the Romany (actually of Indian origin but referred to as “Egyptians” later shortened to Gypsies) in Scotland during the 15th century. These “Egyptians” were first mentioned in 1505, when court records show a payment of £7 to them by James IV. But Highland Travellers date back to at least the 11th Century and they are separate from both Scottish Lowland Travellers and Romany groups both in customs and language.


Though today many Highland Travellers trace their origins to the landless clansmen who were forced to wander following the ‘45 Rebellion they actually pre-date this by several hundred years. The great Scottish folklorist Hamish Henderson believed that Highland Travellers were originally the armourers and silversmiths of the Gaelic north. Far from being outsiders these Travellers were known and valued in Gaelic as the Ceardannan (“the Craftsmen). The term “Tinkers”, originates from the Gaelic ‘tinceard’, a tinsmith. At first this was applied only to Highland Travellers but mistakenly the settled Scottish population, often abusively, calls all travelling and Romany groups, “tinks”.

Highland Travellers spoke ‘Beurla-reagaird’ which is related to the Irish Traveller language, Shelta. Both are dialects of Gaelic. Conversely Lowland Travellers spoke Scots and the ‘Gypsies’ they inter-married with spoke Roma. Later the Roma, Shelta, Scots and Gaelic word-use fused into the Scottish Travellers’ common language of “Cant” though its dialect varies from place to place.

In the past the Travellers nomadic lifestyle uniquely qualified them as news-gatherers (and distributors). In the mainly non-literate and static society (feudal labourers were not allowed to leave their lords’ estates), that Scotland then was, news had to be conveyed orally via ballads. Scotland’s Travellers not only carried these around the country but often honed them and composed their own. Travellers sometimes “busked” to supplement their income performing on the pipes as well as singing.

As the need for Travellers’ smithie skills died out, following the industrial revolution, Travellers turned to new occupations as itinerant labourers. They travelled around Scotland offering their services at planting and harvesting times as ploughmen, berry-pickers and tattie-howkers (though a few Travellers retain their folk’s original smithie skills).

Once again they were uniquely placed to capture and conserve the different song and story traditions of various parts of Scotland - Border & Bothy Ballads, work and waulking songs. However as they clung on to their traditional lifestyle the settled Scottish population came to despise a freedom from religious and state authority that they could never aspire to. The Travellers were condemned as uneducated, dirty and morally licentious when in fact it was settled society that denied their children an education or even Travellers’ marriage in church.

Hamish Henderson

Due to his illegitimate birth Hamish Henderson’s mother moved to Highland Perthshire in 1919. There Hamish played as a child with Travellers’ children and was allowed to participate in their ceilidhs. When Hamish co-founded the School of Scottish Studies he knew that the Scottish Travellers would be an invaluable fount of source material and decided to seek them out.

In 1953, Hamish visited Aberdeen, looking for traditional singers. He was pointed in the direction of Jeannie Robertson’s home. Jeannie was at first suspicious and reluctant to let Hamish in. She only relented after he correctly answered the question “What is the first line of the “Battle of Harlaw” ?

Jeannie Robertson

Regina (Jeannie) Christina Robertson was born into a traveller family in 1908. Her father, Donald was a piper and her mother, Maria, a singer. Jeannie grew up in the traditional North East traveller life, spending six months a year in Aberdeen and spring and summer on the roads of Deeside and Donside. Her mother sang at Travellers’ musical gatherings, delivering the ballads in the traditional manner, reciting their background story before singing them. Jeannie retained this traditional method making her an incredible source of oral material dating back hundreds of years.

Amongst many songs collected from Jeannie are the fullest recorded versions we have of the “Battle of Harlaw”, “Son David” and the “Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie”. Jeannie went on to appear at the third Edinburgh People’s Festival and through her recordings became famous internationally for the beauty of her singing. She gave her songs added realism by visualising the events related in them as she sang.

In 1968, Jeannie was given an MBE for services to folk music, the first Traveller to receive this honour. Jeannie died in March 1975. Her family’s singing tradition is carried on by her daughter Lizzie Higgins and nephew Stanley Robertson.

Nowadays Jeannie Roberson’s most performed song is probably “I’m a man you don’t meet every day” which leads us neatly to another Traveller family - the Stewarts of Blairgowrie. The Stewart family’s younger members were first “discovered” by Ewan McColl and sang at his Singer’s Club in London. This led to Hamish Henderson seeking out their mother Belle Stewart in 1954.

Belle Stewart (nee MacGregor) was born in 1906 in a bow tent on the banks of the Tay, into a family of tinkers and pearlfishers. When she was seven months old, her father died, and the family was no longer able to travel full-time. They settled in Blairgowrie and scraped a living picking fruit and tatties. Like Jeannie Robertson, Belle was surrounded by stories and songs that had been passed down through the centuries by generations of Scottish travellers.

Belle married her piper husband Alec Stewart in 1925 and travelled around Scotland and Ireland with him (Alex’s father Jock was an award winning piper himself and may have been the subject of new verses of the song “I’m a Man...” otherwise known as “Jock Stewart”).

Hamish tracked down Belle as the writer of the song, “The Berryfields o’ Blair” and began to record the songs and stories of her family, consisting of Belle, Alex, their daughters Sheila and Cathie (also great singers) and sons, Andy and John. Both Jeannie and Belle not only preserved traditional songs but added to the folk tradition with their own compositions.

The Stewarts became stars of the Scottish folk revival. Belle’s warmth and elegant performances won her many fans. There was a healthy rivalry between Belle and Jeannie Robertson and both brought out albums called the “Queen Amang the Heather”. However even daughter Sheila admits that Jeannie may just have edged her mother out as the more passionate and “true” singer. Belle was awarded a British Empire Medal in 1981 for her contributions to folk music. She died in 1997. Sheila, the last of the Blair Stewarts, continues the family tradition.


In “Queen of the Heather”, Sheila tells the moving story of her mother’s life.The biography shows the settled population’s continued strong prejudice against Travellers. Travellers camps were often attacked by police wielding batons to force them to move on. When Shiela’s father Alex died the minister in Blairgowrie refused to perform a “tink’s” funeral service. A Dundee minister had to come forward before Alex could be given a decent burial.

“Busk, Busk” is one of the songs collected from Belle by Hamish Henderson. She learnt it from her daughter Cathie’s mother-in-law, Charlotte Higgins. It is one of our most beautiful love songs but like many Travellers’ songs it also includes social commentary.

In the 19th Century the British army was not averse to press-ganging recruits who either found the Queen’s Shilling at the bottom of their pints or were simply knocked unconscious and taken off to serve abroad (for example, see Neil Gunn’s “The Silver Darlings”). Hence the implored chorus to “Cam awa’ wi’ me”, to safety in, “Glen Isla near bonnie Glen Shee” - a traditional Travellers’ campsite.

Scotland owes its Travelling folk - not only Highland but also Irish, Lowland, Romanichal and Showmen - a great debt for preserving so much of our rich folk tradition. A pity then that they have vile racial hatred stirred up against them by the press and are still being told to “Move Along, Shift Along” by the police and local authorities.