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The Rovin’ Ploughboy

[ Roud 2138 ; G/D 3:547 ; Ballad Index K260 ; Mudcat 69590 ; trad.]

Norman Buchan: 101 Scottish Songs

John MacDonald of Pitfaveney, Morayshire, sang The Roving Ploughboy to Peter Kennedy in 1953. This recording was included on the anthology Jack of All Trades (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 3, Caedmon 1961, Topic 1968).

Hamish Henderson also collected The Roving Ploughboy from John Macdonald; this recording was included, together with Jeannie Robertson singing The Gypsy Laddies, in 1975 on the Tangent anthology The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition 5). Hamish Henderson noted:

In the Spring of 1952, while on a collecting tour in the Turriff area of Aberdeenshire, I was given the name of John MacDonald of Pitgaveny, Elgin, my informant assuring me that he knew many old songs. Not long after, I met Mr MacDonald for the first time. He is a mole-catcher and rat-catcher by profession: in addition. he runs a flourishing local concert party, and is well known as a performer on the melodeon.

Among the first of his songs to be tape-recorded for the School’s sound archive was The Rovin’ Ploughboy, which he had listed among his favourites—he declared that it had “a lovely air”, which indeed it has.

When I asked him about the origin of this song, John told me: “I learned it off a ploughman my father had when I was a laddie—it was his father composed it, he said. His name was Donald MacLeod.”

Now it was immediately apparent to me that the first part of the song is nothing more nor less than a displaced fragment of a version of The Gypsy Laddies. Here are a few specimens of the ‘parent’ verses, as they appear in versions of the ballad printed by Child:

“Come saddle for me the brown,” he said,
“For the black was ne’er so speedy,
And I will travel night and day
Till I find out my ladie.”

“Yestreen I lay in a fine feather-bed:
And my gude lord beyond me;
But this nicht I maun lye in some cauld tenant’s barn
A wheen blackguards waiting on me.”

The remaining two verses of The Rovin Ploughboy had obviously been added at a later stage. Was this where Donald MacLeod’s father came in? My instinctive feeling was that the Aberdeenshire place names were quite recent importations into the song—Drumdelgie, the famous ‘fairm-toun by the Cairnie’, is now known far beyond the North-East because of the bothy song which bears its name—and I had an idea that the singer could enlighten me on this point. a tentative question brought a perfectly plain and straightforward answer: the song, as he had heard it, was ‘a bittie short’, and needed a better ending,so he had provided it himself.

So much for the words—but what of the tune? Was it related to any previously recorded tune for The Gypsy Laddie? Looking into Gavin Greig’s Last Leaves, I found that he had collected two tunes for the ballad, the first of which seemed clearly related to the Rovin’ Ploughboy tune.

Alexander Keith, editor of Last Leaves, appends the following note to the airs he prints for The Gypsy Laddie: “Tune 1, which does not appear to have been printed before, is the usual, almost the only, air used in the north with this ballad”.

We have therefore a fascinating example before our eyes of the evolution of a bothy song. A fragment of Child 200 goes its own way and becomes a lyric song, some ploughman chiel or other following a time-honoured practice by substituting ‘ploughman’ for ‘gipsy”. (It seems a fair guess that this was Donald MacLeod’s father’s principal contribution). And when it reaches John MacDonald (himself a folk poet, with a number of songs to his credit), it acquires the local touches which give it its characteristic stamp—in effect, make it a North-East bothy song.

Interestingly enough, the process did not stop there, for when Jeannie Robertson heard The Rovin’ Ploughboy on tape, she at once spotted the connection between it and The Gypsy Laddie, and when I paid her a visit in Aberdeen only a very short time after she had first heard the tape, I found that she had already set a long version of the Child ballad, got orally from her own folk, to the Ploughboy tune. It only remains for somebody to use her re-created Gypsy Laddies as the starting point for a new lyric song, and the wheel will have come full circle.

The careful listener may notice that Jeannie’s version differs in the first and fourth lines of John Macdonald’s Ploughboy tune. He takes this at a faster tempo and with more regular pulse, and in the refrain he repeats the rousing octave leap at the word ‘follow’

The Corrie Folk Trio and Paddy Bell sang The Roving Ploughboy at Leith Town Hall, Edinburgh, in 1963. This recording was released in 1964 on The Hoot’nanny Show Vol. 2. The liner noted commented:

An uncomplicated but lovely romantic ballad from the north-cost of Scotland—that great storehouse of much that is best in Scottish folk music.

Robin Hall and Jimmie Macgregor with The Galliards sang The Rovin’ Ploughboy in 1961 on their Decca album Scottish Choice.

Jane Turriff sang The Rovin Ploughboy on 13 September 1974 at Kinross Town Hall. This recording by Peter Shepheard was included in 1996 on her Springthyme anthology Singing Is Ma Life. Peter Shepheard noted:

The Rovin Ploughboy was probably adapted from a version of The Gypsy Laddies (Child 200) by a Donald MacLeod, ploughman to the father of local poet John MacDonald—‘the singing molecatcher’—of Pitgaveny, near Elgin. It is probably MacDonald who added, or at least adapted, the localised last verse (Henderson 1975:4-5). Jane always sings ‘Drumdelgatie’ in the last line for the extra syllable, whereas others sing ‘Drumdelgie-o”. She learned the song from her mother, although her husband Cameron also sang it.

Archie Fisher sang The Rovin’ Ploughboy in 1976 on his Topic album Will Ye Gang, Love. Arthur Argo noted:

John MacDonald, the singing mole-catcher from Pitgaveny near Lossiemouth, first heard part of this text (which is to a version of The Three Gypsy Laddies tune) from a ploughman friend. Because it was rather short, he added verses of his own to make a lively song which is totally in the Bothy ballad tradition.

Charlie Allan sang The Roving Ploughboy on his 1980 album It’s Lonely in the Bothy.

Malinky sang The Rovin’ Ploughboy in 2002 on their Greentrax album 3 Ravens.

Shona Donaldson sang The Rovin’ Ploughboy in 2010 on her Deveron Projects album Short Nichts and Lang Kisses. She noted:

In 1953, Peter Kennedy recorded this song from singer John MacDonald and he mentions that this is a reworking of a traditional fragment by the singer. It certainly has similar verses and a tune to The Three Gypsies. It is a well-known Huntly song and I have heard it sung at many places including local festivals and English folk clubs.

The Spiers Family sang The Rovin Ploughboy on their 2012 album Oh, Gin I Were There….

Ella Munro sang Ploughboy O on her 2018 EP The Final Trawl.


John MacDonald sings The Rovin Ploughboy

Come saddle tae me my aul’ gray mare,
Come saddle tae me my pony O,
An I’ll tak the road and I’ll go far away
After ma rovin ploughboy O.

Chorus (after each verse):
Ploughboy O,ploughboy O,
I’ll follow the rovin ploughboy O.

Last night I lay on a fine feather-bed.
Sheets and blankets sae cosy O;
This night I maun lie on a cold barn-shed,
Wrappit in the arms of ma ploughboy O.

A champion ploughman ma Geordie O,
Cups an medals an prizes O,
On bonnie Deveronside there are none to compare
With ma jolly rovin ploughboy O.

So fare ye well tae aul Huntly toon.
Fare ye well Drumdelgie O.
For noo I’m on the road an I’m goin far away
After ma rovin ploughboy O.

Jane Turriff sings The Rovin Ploughboy

Come saddle tae me ma aul grey mare,
Come saddle tae me my pony-o,
For I’m gan on the road an I’m gan far awa,
I’m gan wi the rovin ploughboy-o.

Chorus (after each verse):
He’s ma ploughboy-o, ma ploughboy-o,
An I’ll follow the rovin ploughboy-o.

Oh last night as I lay on ma fine feather bed,
Wi sheets an blankets sae cozy-o,
Bit tonight I will lie in an aul shaky doon
Rowed in the airms o ma ploughboy-o.

He’s ma champion Geordie, ma ploughboy-o,
Cups an medals an prizes-o.
On bonnie Deveronside there’s nae een can compare
Wi ma jolly rovin ploughboy-o.

So fare-ye-well toe aul Hundy toon,
Fare-ye-well Drumdelgatie,
For I’m gan on the road an I’m gan far awa,
An I’m gan wi ma rovin ploughboy-o.

Shona Donaldson sings The Rovin’ Ploughboy

Come saddle tae me my auld grey mare,
Come saddle tae me my pony-o.
For I’m on the road and I’m going far awa’,
Awa’ wi’ my rovin’ ploughboy-o.

Chorus (after each verse):
Ploughboy-o, ploughboy-o,
I’ll follow my rovin ploughboy-o.

Last nicht I slept in a fine feather bed,
Sheets and blankets sae cosy-o,
The nicht I maun lie on a cauld barn fleer
Row’d in the airms o my ploughboy-o.

What care I for the auld Laird himsel’?
What care I for his siller-o?
For I’m on the road and I’m going far awa’
Awa’ wi’ my rovin ploughboy-o.

Champion ploughboy my Geordie lad,
Cups and prizes and medals-o
In bonnie Deveronside there’s nane can compare
Wi’ my jolly rovin’ ploughboy-o.

So fare ye weel tae auld Huntly toon,
Fare ye weel Drumdelgie-o
For I’m on the road and I’m going far awa’
Awa’ wi’ my rovin’ ploughboy-o.