> Folk Music > Songs > Nicky Tams

Nicky Tams

[ Roud 1875 ; Ballad Index McCST107 ; DT NICKYTAM ; Mudcat 35113 ; George S. Morris]

Travellers’ Songs From England and Scotland

Davie Stewart sang Nicky Tams to Alan Lomax in the latter’s London apartment in December 1957. This recording was included in 2002 on Stewart’s Rounder anthology Go On, Sing Another Song.

Jimmy McBeath sang Nicky Tams on his 1960 Collector EP Come A’ Ye Tramps and Hawkers and on his 1967 Topic album Wild Rover No More. This track was also include in 1998 on the Topic anthology Come All My Lads That Follow the Plough (The Voice of the People Volume 5). The 1967 album’s sleeve notes commented:

This song originates from the turn of the century when the term nicky tams came into use. The phrase derives from the fact that when the farm servants trousers were tied up with straps or cords (taums) below the knee they looked similar to the then fashionable knickerbockers. The tune, a variant of a Gaelic air common both in Scotland and Ireland, is very popular, probably because it adapts so readily to many different types of song.

The ‘gripping word’ (verse two) is the authoritative command of the fully-fledged horseman, obtained, allegedly, by gaining initiation in “The Horseman’s Word”. This society, a primitive form of union, had ceremonies with witchcraft hangovers (e.g. “Shakin hands wi’ the Devil” was an initiation ritual as was “gya thro’ the calf-hoose”).

Robin Hood and Jimmie Macgregor with The Galliards sang Nicky Tams on their 1961 Decca album Scottish Choice.

Ewan MacColl sang Nicky Tams in 1962 on his Folkways album with Peggy Seeger, Popular Scottish Songs.

Dave Campbell from Aberdeen sang Nicky Tams in 1965 on the Campbell Family’s Topic album The Singing Campbells. Peter A. Hall and Arthur Argo noted:

The title of this song refers to the leather straps or twine the North-East farm workers tie below their knees to keep their trouser ends out of the muck. The farm workers spent virtually all their non-working hours in the bothy and this close social contact is probably responsible for the wealth of songs from this background. The tune for the song is usually associated in Aberdeenshire with The Banks o’ Sweet Dundee, and the words are attributed to the late George Morris, Oldmeldrum, who was often called “the king of the cornkisters”.

Charlie Allan sang A Pair o’ Nicky Tams on his 1979 cassette of bothy ballads, Blue Grey Coo.

Sheena Wellington sang Nicky Tams in 1986 on her Dunkeld album Kerelaw. She noted:

On of the many songs, of all kinds, that I learned from my father.

Tam Reid sang A Pair o’ Nicky Tams in a 1988 recording made at Towie Barclay Castle that was first released on a cassette and in 2003 on his anthology Behind the Bothy Door, Volume 2.

Ray Fisher sang Nicky Tams, accompanied by John Kirkpatrick on button accordion, in 1991 on her Saydisc CD Traditional Songs of Scotland. This track was also included in 2004 on the anthology of folk songs and fiddle music from North East Scotland, Where the Laverock Sings. Ray noted:

Nicky Tams where thongs of leather, or lenghts of string, that were tied round the trouser, just below the knees, of farm workers to keep the upper part of their legs clean in muddy conditions. Thus, if you wore a “pair of nicky tams”, you were immediately recognisable as a simple, country yokel and perhaps, a figure of fun. This classic cornkister was written by G.S. Morris.

Isla St Clair sang Nicky Tams on her 1997 soundtrack album Tatties & Herrin’: The Land.

Susie Allan sang Nicky Tams on her 1998 album Tipsy Courting. She noted:

Nicky tams are ties that keep trousers out of the glaur on a farm, but this song is really about Freemasonry.

John Valentine sang Nicky Tams at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2011. This recording was published in the following year on the festival anthology The Little Ball of Yarn (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 8).

Natalie Chalmers sang Nicky Tams in 2016 on the DVD celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the TMSA, 101 Scottish Songs: The Wee Red Book.


Jimmy McBeath sings Nicky Tams

When I wis only ten ’ears aul’ I left the pairish squeel,
Ma father fee’d me tae the mains tae chow his milk an’ meal.
I first pit on ma nerra breeks tae hap ma spin’le trams,
Then bucklet room ma k-nappin’ k-nees a pair o’ nicky tams.

First I got on for bailie loon an then I got on for third,
An’ yen, of course, I hid tae get the horseman’s gripping word.
A loaf o’ breid tae be ma piece, a bo le for drinkin’ drams,
Bit ye conna gae throw the calf-hoose door without yer nicky tams.

The fairmer I am wi’ the noo, he’s wealthy but he’s mean;
Though corn’s cheap, his horse is thin, his hairness fairly deen.
He gars us load wir cairts aye fu’, his conscience has noe qualms,
When breist-straps brak there’s neething like a pair o’ nicky tams

I’m coortin’ bonnie Annie noo, Rob Tamson’s kitchie-deem,
She is five-and-forty on’ I am seiventeen.
She clorts a muckle piece tae me wi’ different kin’s o’ jam
An’ tells me ilke nicht that she admires ma nicky tams.

I startit oot ae Sunday till the kirkie for tae gang.
Ma collar it was unco ticht, ma breeks were nane ower lang.
l had ma Bible in ma pooch, likewise ma book o’ Psalms,
Fon Annie roart: “Ye muckle gype, tak’ aff yer nicky tams!”

Though unco sweir, I took them aff, the lassie for tae please,
But aye ma breeks they lirket up aroon aboot ma knees.
A wasp gaed crawlin’ up ma leg in the middle o’ the Psalms
An’ nivir again will I rig the kirk withoot ma nicky tams.

l aggen thocht I’d like tae be a bobby on the Force,
Bit maybe I’ll get on the cars tae drive a pair o’ horse.
Wherever it’s my lot tae be, the bobbies or the trams,
l’ll never forget the happy days I wore ma nicky tams

Ray Fisher sings Nicky Tams

When I wis barely twelve years auld I left the pairish school.
My faither fee’d me tae the mains tae cchaw his milk and meal.
First I pit on my narra breeks tae hap my spinnel trams,
Syne happit roon my knappin knees a pair o’ nicky tams.

Well, first I gaed on for baillie’s loon and syne I gaed on for third,
And syne, of coorse, I had to get the horseman’s grip and word,
A loaf of breid tae be my piece and a bottle for drinking drams,
Ye daurna gang thro’ thecalf-hoose door withouut your nicky tams.

The fairmer I am wi’ the noo, he’s wealthy but he’s mean.
The corn is cheap, his horse is thin, and his harness fairly deen.
He gars us load oor cairts ower fu’, his conscience has nae qualms,
When breist straps brak there’ naethin’ like a pair o’ nicky tams.

I’m oortin’ bonnie Annie noo, Rab Tamson’s kitchie deem,
O she is five and forty and I’m but seventeen.
She clorts a mickle piece tae me wi’ different kinds o’ jams,
And tells me ilka nicht that she admires my nicky tams.

Ae Sunday mornin’ I gaed oot, the kirkie for to gang,
My collar it was unco ticht, my brreks were nane ower lang.
I had my Bible in my pooch, likewise my book o’ psalms,
When Annie roars, “Ye muckle gype, tak aff yer nicky tams!”

So, unco sweer, I took them aff, the lassie for to please,
But aye my breeks they lurkit up aroon aboot my knees.
An a wasp gaed crawlin’ up my leg in the middle o’ the Psalms.
O never again will I rade the Kirk withoot my nicky tams.

Noo, I’ve aften thocht I’d like tae be a bobby on the Force,
Or mebbe be a tramwayman and drive a pair o’ horse.
Whatever it’s my fate tae be, the bobbies or the trams,
I’ll ne’er forget the happy days I wore my nicky tams.