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The Broom of Cowdenknowes / Bonny May

[ Roud 92 ; Child 217 ; G/D 4:838 ; Ballad Index C217 ; Bodleian Roud 92 ; trad.]

The Oxford Book of Ballads Songs from North-East Scotland

The Broom of Cowdenknowes was printed in 1925 in Alexander Keith's book of ballads collected in Aberdeenshire by Gavin Greig, Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs.

Ethel Findlater of Dounby, Orkney Islands sang The Maid of the Cowdie and Knowes to Peter Kennedy on 12 July 1955. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of ballads sung by British and Irish Traditional Singers, Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23).

Ewan MacColl sang The Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd's anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume II and in 1964 on his Folkways album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. 3 Child Ballads. The latter album's booklet commented:

Child printed 15 texts of this ballad, none of which go back beyond the 18th century. The song is considered older than this, however, and an English song published in the reign of James Ist, The Lovely Northerne Lasse, has for its air “a pleasant Scotch tune called The Broom of Cowdenknowes.” An earlier reference is to be found in the fifth edition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy 1538: “The very rusticks and hog rubbers … have their ballads, country tunes, O, the broome, the bonny, bonny broome.”

Learned in a fragmentary form from the singer's father, additional stanzas from Greig and Keith.

The Watersons sang a very short version The Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1965 on New Voices. This track was also included a year later on Folk Songs: An Anthology (Topic Sampler No 2). Like all Watersons tracks from the original album, it was also reissued in 1994 on their CD Early Days. A.L. Lloyd commented in the original sleeve notes:

In the “Symptoms of Love” section of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1652) we read: “The very rusticks and hog-rubbers have their wakes, Whitsun ales, shepherds' feasts, country dances, roundelays. They have their ballads, country tunes, O the broom, the bonny, bonny broom.” This is the song that the gipsy Alice Boyce is said to have sung before Queen Elizabeth, and it has remained a favourite ever since. It was originally a Scots song though we can't be sure if the old tune to it (the one the Watersons use here) isn't in fact English. It was published in London, in Playford's Dancing Master in 1650, whereas the first Scottish publication of Cowdenknowes (to another, more modern tune) wasn't till 75 years later, in the Tea-Table Miscellany. Anyway, English or Scots, it's a good old tune.

According to the liner note of Cherish the Ladies' album The Girls Won't Leave the Boys Alone, “Cowdenknowes was a mansion and estate near Earlston, a small market and woollen mill town halfway between Edinburgh and the English border.”

Jimmy McBeath sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes on the 1975 Tangent album The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition 5).

Archie Fisher sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes in 1976 on his Topic album Will Ye Gang, Love. Arthur Argo commented in the sleeve notes:

Originally from the Borders—Cowdenknowes mansion and estate is just south of Earlston in Berwickshire—versions of this song were popular in both Scotland and England by the middle of the 17th century. The tune was, in fact, published in London in l651, in John Playford’s The Dancing Master, and was subsequently used in The Beggar’s Opera. Kinloch observes that “each district has its own version”. The Ewe-Buchts was another popular title for songs from the same family tree.

June Tabor sang Bonny May in 1976 on her first solo album Airs and Graces. This recording was also included in her anthologies Aspects and Always and on the Topic compilation The Folk Collection. She commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

Child No. 217, The Broom of Cowdenknowes; a compilation of several texts, anglicised with the aid and inspiration of Maddy Prior. It was with great regret that the following verse had to be abandoned:

Whan twenty weeks war past and gane
Twenty weeks and three
The lassie began to spit and spue
And thought lang for blinkin' ee

June Tabor also sang Broom of Cowdenknowes in 1996 on her CD with Savourna Stevenson and Danny Thompson, Singing the Storm.

The Clutha sang Ochiltree Walls on their 1977 Topic album The Bonnie Mill Dams. Don Martin commented in the liner notes:

Otherwise known as The Broom of Cowdenknowes (Child 217), this ballad seemingly enjoyed a widespread vogue in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire when Andrew Crawfurd was collecting songs and ballads there during the 1820s. Two versions were published in E.B. Lyle's recent edition of Andrew Crawfurd's Collection of Ballads and Songs (Vol. 1, Scottish Text Society, 1975). One of Crawfurd's versions, collected from Meg Walker of Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, extended to 31 verses. The late Jimmy McBeath, on the other hand, managed to get through most of the story in five verses. Jimmy sang the ballad to substantially the same tune as that published in the appendix to William Motherwell's Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern (1827).

The Wassailers sang The Bonny Briar in 1978 on their eponymous Fellside album Wassailers. They noted:

The earliest version of this song can be found in The Roxburghe Ballads of 1640 under the title of The Bonny Northern Lassie. It is probably better known in the form of The Broom of Cowdenknowes.

Silly Wizard sang The Broom o' the Cowden Knowes live at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, in October 1983. This recording was included in 1986 on their REL (UK) and Green Linnet (USA) album Golden, Golden, in 1988 on their Green Linnet CD Live Wizardry, and in 2012 on their CD ‘Live’ Again.

Bram Taylor sang The Broom o' the Cowdenknowes in 1989 on his Fellside album Taylor Made.

The Cast sang Broom o the Cowdenknowes to the tune Tha mi tinn in 1996 on their Culburnie CD Colours of Lichen. They noted:

This song and tune were already old when, in the early 1700s, Allan Ramsay included it in The Gentle Shepherd and guaranteed its popularity. A few years after its appearance there it became a fad among ‘trained’ fiddlers to try and add second sections on to old traditional tunes. There's a story that the celebrated Italian composer Geminiani, then living in Dublin, had a go and gave up in frustration after ‘blotting several quires of paper’. We didn't attempt to take up where he left off, but we did discover that the old Gaelic air Tha mi tinn (I am sick with love) wove in well.

Ian Giles sang Broom of the Cowdenknowes in 1997 on his WildGoose CD The Amber Triangle. He noted:

A particularly fine example of the universal two lovers parted against their will theme.

Concerto Caledonia performed The Broom of Cowdenknowes in the Winter 2002/3 in Crichton Collegiate Church, Pathhead, Scotland in a programme of songs and tunes from 18th-century Scotland. This concert was released in 2008 on their CD The Red Red Rose.

Ivan Drever sang Broom o' the Cowdenknowes on his 2004 album Tradition.

Stanley Robertson sang The Yowe Buchts on his 2009 Elphinstone Institute anthology The College Boy.

Damien Barber and Mike Wilson sang Bonny May in 2011 on their CD The Old Songs, commenting in their liner notes:

From the singing of June Tabor. Mike has since had some additional words provided by close family friend, Steve Black, some of which have been used in our version.

Offa Rex (Olivia Chaney and the Decemberists) sang Bonny May on their 2017 CD The Queen of Hearts.


Ewan MacColl sings The Broom of Cowdenknowes

O, the broom, and the bonnie, bonnie broom,
The broom o' the Cowdenknowes,
And aye sae sweet the lassie sang,
In the ewe-buchts milkin' her ewes, her ewes,
In the ewe-buchts milkin' her ewes.

The lassie sang ower a‘ the hills,
And sae street a voice had she.
She caught the ear o' a gentleman
As he cam‘ ridin' by.

He's ta‘en his leave o' a' his men,
And doon to the bucht rode he,
Said, “Misty, misty is the nicht,
Will ye show us the way?”

“0, ye hae plenty o' men,” she said,
“That work for meat and fee.
I dinna think that I'd be safe
To guide ye on the way, the way.

“For I ken ye by the cla'es ye wear,
And by your blinkin' e'e,
That ye are the laird o‘ Lochnagar
And so ye seem to be.”

“I'm no‘ the laird o' Lochnagar,
I never expect to be,
For I am but ane o' his best men,
I ride in his company.

“But I ken ye by your middle sma',
And by your grass-green sleeve,
That ye are the lass o' the Cowdenknowes,
And so ye seem to be.”

“It's I'm no‘ the lass o‘ the Cowdenknowes,
It's no‘ her that ye see,
For I am but ane o' her faither's maids,
And aye will ever be.”

He's catched her by the lily hand,
Below the grass—green sleeve,
And laid her on the mossy bank,
And speired na' for her leave.

Then he's ta'en oot a hantle o‘ gowd,
And kaimed her yellow hair,
Says, “Here's your fee, ye weel-faur'd maid,
Frae me ye'll no‘ get mair.”

He's lowped on to his milk-white steed,
And he's o'erta'en his men,
And ane an‘ a' cried oot to him,
“0, master, ye've tarried lang.”

“I hae been East, I hae been West.
And I've been among the knowes,
But the bonniest lass that ever I saw,
She was milking her daddy's ewes.”

She set the milk pail on her heid,
And she's gane liltin' hame,
And syne her faither said to her,
“It's ye hae tarried lang.”

“O, wae be to your shepherd man,
And some ill death may be dee,
He's biggit the ewe-buchts so far awa'
And they've trysted a man to me.”

When fifteen weeks was come and gane,
Sae pale and sae wan grew she,
She began to sigh and long for sicht
O' his bonnie, blinkin' e'e.

It fell on a day, a bonnie simmer day,
She was ca'in' oot her faither's kye,
There cam‘ a troop o' gentlemen,
And they were ridin' by.

He's ta'en the leave o' a‘ his men,
And doon to the lass gaed he;
Says, “Wha's the faither o' that baim,
The bairn that gangs wi' ye?”

She's turned awa' and hung her heid,
For she thocht muckle shame,
But ne'er a word could the bonnie lass say
But “The hairn's faither's at hame.”

Ye lee, ye lee, ye bonnie lass,
Sae loud's I hear ye lee:
For dinna ye mind that misty night
Ye were in the ewe-buchts wi' me?”

Then he's ca'd ane o' his best men,
To come and set her on,
“Ye may ca’ your kye yoursel', goodman.
But she'll never ca‘ them again.

“I am the laird o' Lochnagar,
I've thirty ploughs and three,
And I hae chose the bonniest lads,
In a‘ the North countrie.”

The Watersons sing The Broom of Cowdenknowes

Oh the broom, the bonnie, bonnie broom
The broom of Cowdenknowes
Fain would I be in the north country
To milk my daddy's ewes

All the maids that ever were deceived
Bear part of these my woes
For once I was a bonny lass
When I milked my daddy's ewes

Oh the broom, the bonnie, bonnie broom
The broom of Cowdenknowes
Fain would I be in the north country
To milk my daddy's ewes

The Wassailers sing The Bonny Briar

Oh the briar, the bonny, bonny briar,
The briar that smells so sweet,
Fain would I be in my ain country
To milk my daddy's neat.

Of all the maids that ever were deceived
Bear part but ease my woe,
For once I was a bonny lass
As I milked my daddy's ewes.

My shepherd love he came to me
When daddy was at home,
With honeyed breath and words so sweet
He caused my sense to roam.

In Danby Forest I was born
My beauty none could excel,
My parents dearly lovèd me
Till my waist began to swell.

And when my belly began to swell
No longer might I bide,
My mother threw me out of doors
And she beat me, back and side.

I might have been a prince's peer
When I first came o'er the knowes
Till a shepherd lad beguiled me
As I milked my daddy's ewes.

Of all the maids that ever were deceived
Bear part but ease my woe,
For once I was a bonny lass
As I milked my daddy's ewes.

Oh the briar, the bonny, bonny briar,
The briar that smells so sweet,
Fain would I be in my ain country
To milk my daddy's neat.

The Cast sing Broom o the Cowdenknowes

How blithe was I each mom to see
My lass come o'er the hill,
She skipped the burn and ran to me,
I met her wi good will.

Chorus (after each verse):
O the broom! the bonny, bonny broom,
The broom o the Cowdenknowes,
Fain would I be in my ain country
Herdin my faither's ewes.

We neither wanted ewe nor lamb
While the flock near us lay,
She gaithered in the sheep ae nicht,
Cheered me a’ the day.

Hard fate that I should banished be,
Gang wearily and mourn,
Because I lo'ed the fairest lass
That ever yet was born.

Adieu, ye Cowdenknowes, adieu,
Fareweel a' pleasures there,
To wander by her side again
Is a‘ I hope or care.

June Tabor sings Bonny May

Bonny May a-shepherding has gone
To call the sheep to the fold
And as she sang, her bonny voice it rang
Right over the tops of the downs, downs,
Right over the tops of the downs.

There came a troop of gentlemen
As they were riding by
And one of them has lighted down
And he's asked of her the way, way,
And he's asked of her the way.

”Ride on, ride on, you rank riders,
Your steeds are stout and strong,
For it's out of the fold I will not go
For fear you do me wrong, wrong,
For fear you do me wrong.”

Now he's taken her by the middle jimp
And by the green gown sleeve,
And there he's had his will of her
And he's asked of her no leave, leave,
And he's asked of her no leave.

Now he's mounted on his berry brown steed,
He soon o'erta'en his men
And one and all cried out to him,
”Oh, master, you tarried long, long,
Oh, master, you tarried long.”

”Oh, I've ridden East and I've ridden West,
And I've ridden o'er the downs,
But the bonniest lass that ever I saw
She was calling her sheep to the fold, fold.”

She's taken the milk pail on her head
And she's gone lingering home.
And all her father said to her
Was, ”Daughter, you tarried long, long,
Oh, daughter, you tarried long.”

”Oh, woe betide your shepherd, father,
He takes no care of the sheep,
For he's builded the fold at the back of the down
And the fox has frightened me, me,
And the fox has frightened me.”

”Oh, there came a fox to the fold door
With twinkling eye so bold,
And ere he'd taken the lamb that he did
I'd rather he'd taken them all, all.”

Now twenty weeks were gone and past,
Twenty weeks and three,
The lassie began to fret and to frown
And to long for the twinkling eye, bright eye,
And to long for the twinkling eye.

Now it fell on a day, on a bonnie summer's day
That she walked out alone.
That self-same troop of gentlemen
Come a-riding over the down, down,
Come a-riding over the down.

”Who got the babe with thee, Bonny May,
Who got the babe in thy arms?”
For shame, she blushed, and aye, she said,
Was ”I've a good man of my own, own.”

”You lie, you lie, you Bonny, Bonny May,
So loud I hear you lie.
Remember the misty murky night
I lay in the fold with thee, thee,
I lay in the fold with thee.

Now he's mounted off his berry brown steed,
He's sat the fair May on.
”Go call out your kye, father, yourself,
She'll ne'er call them again, again,
She'll ne'er call them again.”

Oh, he's Lord of twenty plough of land,
Twenty plough and three,
And he's taken away the bonniest lass
In all the South country, country,
In all the South country.

Acknowledgements and Links

The Watersons' lyrics were transcribed by Garry Gillard.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Lyr Req: Bonny May (from June Tabor).