> Folk Music > Songs > MacPherson's Farewell/Lament/Rant

MacPherson's Farewell/Lament/Rant

[ Roud 2160 ; G/D 3:697 ; Ballad Index K348 , Ord444 ; Macpherson's Rant at A Puckle Mucke Sangs ; Bodleian Roud 2160 ; Mudcat 27441 ; trad.]

Jimmy McBeath sang MacPherson's Lament to Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson in Turiff, Scotland, on 17 July 1951. This recording was included in ca. 1955 on the Columbia anthology The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music - Volume VI: Scotland and in 2002 on McBeath's Rounder anthology Tramps and Hawkers He also sang MacPherson's Rant / MacPherson's Lament in a 1966 or 1967 Sean Davies recording made at Cecil Sharp House that was released in 1967 on his Topic album Wild Rover No More. Peter Hall commented in the liner notes:

Thomas Carlyle found this “a wild stormful song, that dwells in ear and mind with strange tenacity” and the folk seem to have shared his opinion, if its popularity is anything to go by. Tradition has it that James McPherson, son of a Highland gentleman and a gypsy woman who attracted his attention while in his cups, was arrested for bearing arms at Keith market and although others equally guilty were pardoned he was convicted for being “by repute an Egyptian and Vagabond and oppressor of His Majesty's Free Lieges, in a bangstrie manner, and going up and down the country around and keeping markets in a hostile manner”. Great haste was shown in carrying out the sentence and McPherson was executed on 16 November 1700, a mere 8 days after sentence was passed. He is reputed to have composed the tune of the song and played it on the fiddle before mounting the scaffold. Similar legends are attached to hanged musicians in many parts of Europe. Robert Burns composed new words modelled on the old ballad and Jimmy uses two of these verses to end his performance.

Davie Stewart sang MacPherson's Lament to Peter Kennedy in Dundee in 1956. This recording was included in 1994 on the Saydisc CD Songs of the Travelling People. Another recording made by Alan Lomax probably in 1957 was released on the 1961 Tradition album of “folk songs and folk music from Aberdeenshire and the Hebrides”, Heather and Glen.

Jeannie Robertson sang McPherson's Farewell on her 1959 Collector EP I Ken Where I'm Going. Norman Buchan commented:

This is a version of one of the great outlaw ballads of Scotland. The hero, James McPherson, was reputed to be the illegitimate son of a member of the great family of Inverseie and a gipsy woman. When his father died he joined his mother's people and commenced his career of banditry. He was captured at Keith Market and executed at the Cross of Banff in 1700. McPherson was a famous fiddler, and was said to have composed and played this Rant at his gallows and then offered his fiddle to anyone in the crowd who would say a word in praise of him. No one having the courage to speak, he broke his fiddle and threw it into the open grave before mounting the scaffold.

Jock Higgins sang MacPherson's Farewell to Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger in 1963. They printed this version in their 1977 book Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland, and they commented:

Tradition has it that James MacPherson was the son of a Highland gentleman and a “beautiful gypsy woman”. During his lifetime, he achieved considerable notoriety as the leader of a gang of cattle-lifters operating in the province of Moray. On 7 November 1700, MacPherson, two men named Brown and a Gordon, were brought before the Sheriff of Banffshire, charged with being “Egyptian rogues and vagabonds, of keeping the markets in their ordinary manner of thieving and purse-cutting, also being guilty of masterful bangstrie [violence against a person or property] and oppression”. Part of the evidence against them was that “they spoke a peculiar gypsy language and spent their nights in dancing, singing and debauchery”.

MacPherson and Gordon were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged at the Market Cross next market day. It is said that MacPherson spent his last hours composing his famous rant, the song which inspired Burns's Farewell, Ye Dungeons Dark and Strong. There is a persistent legend that the Banff authorities, anticipating a royal pardon for MacPherson, hanged him before the appointed time.

Nigel Denver sang MacPherson's Lament in 1965 on his Decca album Moving On.

Maggie McPhee sang MacPherson's Lament to Bill Leader in 1967. This recording was released in the following year on the Topic album of Traveller families, The Travelling Stewarts. Carl MacDougall commented in the sleeve notes:

There are, of course, many versions of this song and many accounts of MacPherson, but in the circumstances, Robert Ford's note is very revealing: “This rare old rant … is said to have been written by the notorious freebooter … while he lay under sentence of death in the fall of the year 1700. After holding the counties of Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray in fear for a number of years, MacPherson was seized by Duff of Braco, ancestor of the Earl of Fife, and along with certain gypsies who had been taken in his company, was tried before the Sheriff of Banffshire, and convicted of being “repute an Egyptian and vagabond, and oppressor of His Majesty's free lieges, in bangstrie manner.” When brought to the place of execution, on the Gallows Hill of Banff, on 16 November, in the year named, he played on his violin, says report, the stirring tune he had composed for these words in the condemned cell, and then asked if any friend “was present who would accept the instrument as a gift at his hands. No one coming forward, he indignantly broke the violin on his knee and threw away the fragments, after which he submitted to his fate.

The Union Folk sang MacPherson's Lament on their 1969 Traditional Sound album A Basketful of Oysters.

The Clancy Brothers with Louis Killen sang MacPherson's Lament in 1973 on their Vanguard album Greatest Hits.

Danny Spooner sang MacPherson's Rant on his 1978 album Danny Spooner and Friends. He noted:

James MacPherson was the illegitimate son of a laird and a gypsy girl. He joined his mother's people and became a freebooter plundering rich farms. He was hung in the village of Banff in 1700 after being cornered at a fair by a posse led by Duff of Braco. It is believed that he composed the Rant while awaiting his execution. The words of the song are dead accurate, and the broken fiddle said to have belonged to MacPherson is on display at the MacPherson Museum at Newtonmore, Inverness.

Old Blind Dogs sang MacPherson's Rant on their 1993 album Close to the Bone. Ian Benzie noted:

Being for the benefit of Mr George Hardie, D.A., House of News, Strathdon, Aberdxeenshire, who cajoled me with a dram or two, to sing this song, and then sent his “loon” Jonny, to compound the request with threads of playing nothing but Irish tunes on this recording.

The MacPherson referred to in this song was one James MacPherson, hanged at Banff in the year 1700. The story is true and well documented.

Battlefield Band sang MacPherson's Lament on their 1995 Temple album Threads. They noted:

The tune of this song is said to have been composed by James MacPherson, the night before his execution on November 1700. Born of an aristocratic father and beautiful gypsy mother, MacPherson was an outlaw of the Robin Hood mould taking only from the rich and acting as the champion of the poor. It is said that he played the tune on his gallows and when none of his clan took up his offer on the fiddle if they would play it at his wake, he broke it and jumped to his death.

Tradition has it that the authorities in Banff, where he was hanged, were fearful that a reprieve was on its way and put the town clock on by 20 minutes so MacPherson was executed before the time specified. To this day jokes are still made about the right time in Banff. Again Alan [Reid] suggests this as another great movie story. The words, by the way, were by Robert Burns. Alison Kinnaird plays cello with us on this song.

Ed Miller sang MacPherson's Farewell on his 2009 CD of “songs written or collected by Robert Burns”, Lyrics of Gold.

Danny Couper and Carol Anderson sang MacPherson's Fareweel at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2010. This recording was released in the following year on the festival's anthology Hurrah Boys Hurrah! (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 7).


Jimmy McBeath sings MacPherson's Rant / MacPherson's Lament

Fareweel ye dungeons dark an' strong
Farewell, farewell to thee;
McPherson's time will no be long
Below than gallows tree I'll hing

Chorus (after each verse):
So rantinly, sae wantonly and sae dauntinly went he
He played a tune then he danced aroon below the gallows tree.

There's some cam' here to see me hang't
An' some to buy my fiddle
But before 'at I do part wi' her
l'll break her through the middle.

He took the ddle into both of his hands An' he broke it over a stone,
Says he, “There's no anither han'll play on thee
When I am dead and gone.”

It wis by a woman's treacherous hand
'at I wis condemned to dee
Below a ledge a windoe she stood
Then a blanket she threw ower me

The laird o' Grant, the Highland sa'nt
'at first laid hands on me
He played the cause on Peter Broon
Tee let McPherson dee

Untie these bands from off my hands
An' gae bring to me my sword
For there's no a man in all Scotland
But'|l brave him at his word.

The reprieve wis comin' o'er the Brig o' Banff
For tae let McPherson free
When they put the clock a quarter before
Then hanged him to the tree.

I've lived a life o' sturt an' strife
I die by treachery
O it breaks my heart, I must depart
An' live in slavery

Fareweel you life, you sunshine bright
And all beneath the skies
For in this place I'm ready to
McPherson's time tae die

Jock Higgins sings MacPherson's Lament

Farewell, ye dungeons dark and strong,
Farewell, farewell to thee;
MacPherson's time will nae be lang
In yonders gallows tree.

Chorus (after each verse):
Sae rantonly, sae wantonly,
Sae dauntonly gaed he -
For he played a tune and he danced aroond
Below the gallows tree.

O, it was by a woman's treacherous hand
That I was condemned to dee;
Below a ledge o' a window she stood
A blanket she threw o'er me.

O, the Laird o' Grant, that Hieland saint,
That first laid hands on me -
He placed the cause on Peter Broon
To let MacPherson dee.

O, come tie these bands from off my hands
And gie to me my fiddle -
There's nae a man in a' Scotland
But brave's me at my word.

O, there's some come here to see me hung
And some to buy my fiddle,
Before I would pairt wi' her
I'd brak her through the middle.

Verse sung instead of the chorus:
I took my fiddle in both my hands
And broke her ower a stone;
There's nae anither will play on thee
When I am dead and gone.

O, it's little did my mither think
When first she cradled me,
That I would turn a rovin' boy
And die on a gallows tree.

O, his reprieve was comin' o'er the brig o' Banff
To set MacPherson free
They put the clock a quarter afore
And they hung him tae the tree.