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When First I Came to Caledonia


This song is not about Caledonia as Scotland. It is a song from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and refers to the Caledonia coal mines in Glace Bay with #3 being one of the pits. The last verse seems to have been borrowed from Peggy Gordon, which is another song from Nova Scotia.

Tony Cuffe sang When First I Went to Caledonia in 1998 as the title track of his solo album When First I Went to Caledonia.

Norma Waterson sang When First I Came to Caledonia in 1994 on Waterson:Carthy's eponymous debut album Waterson:Carthy. This track was also included on several Topic Records anthologies: The Voice of Folk (1996), The Folk Collection (1999), and on The Acoustic Folk Box (2002). A live recording from 2001 at the Folk Festival Sidmouth was published in 2004. Here, Norma is accompanied by Martin Carthy playing the guitar and Chris Parkinson playing the accordion. Another track on that compilation recorded at the same gig is There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears.

Martin Carthy commented in the original recording's sleeve notes:

Norma learned When First I Came to Caledonia from the estimable collection called Songs and Stories of Deep Cove, Cape Breton [by Amby Thomas]. Caledonia is the name of a pit, number three seam. Scatarie is an island abandoned by people whose fishing has dried up and is still uninhabited today. Boularderie is the name of that part of the community where all the rich people live and whence comes the woman with whom the character in the song falls blazingly in love at first sight. All he needed.

And The Folk Collection's sleeve notes commented:

Norma Waterson sings a soulful ballad of love at first sight related through the eyes of a coal-pit worker during the last century. There's a hymn-like quality in the melody, but it is washed through with something more intimate, reminiscent of the bittersweet love songs more recently written by the Quebecois singers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Martin Simpson sang When First I Came to Caledonia on his 2005 Topic CD Kind Letters. He commented in his liner notes:

When First I Came to Caledonia was played to me after a gig in the Gower by Joy Toole. She thought I would like Chris Wood & Andy Cutting's performance—I did. Later, I heard the Waterson:Carthy version and eventually found the song in Songs and Stories of Deep Cove, Cape Breton. It was collected from Amby Thomas, whose version starts with three, floating verses from a woman's point of view, seemingly unconcerned to the body of the text. The theme of young people forced away from home by poverty and the need to work, in often difficult and dangerous jobs, is very common in traditional song, as this collection demonstrates.

Jon Boden learned When First I Came to Caledonia from Norma Waterson's singing and sang it as the February 6, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Sarah Hayes learned When First I Came to Caledonia from Norma Waterson's CD too and recorded it in 2013 for her EP Mainspring.


Norma Waterson sings When First I Came to Caledonia

When first I came to Caledonia
And I got loading at number three
And I got lodging with Donald Norman
He had a daughter could make good tea

And it was me and me brother Charlie
Two bigger shavers you ne'er did see
We're spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scatarie

I went to Norman to buy some brochan
A cake of soap and a pound of tea
But Norman said that I could not have them
Till fish got plenty on Scatarie

So I went over to the big harbour
I only went for to see the spray
I saw a maid from Boularderie over
She looked to me like the queen of May

If I had pen from Pennsylvania
And I had paper so snowy white
And I had ink of rosy morning
A true love letter to you I'd write

I put my foot on the deepest ocean
As far from land as once I could be
A-sailing over the deepest water
A woman's love'd never bother me

I set my head to a cask of brandy
And it's a dandy I do declare
For when I'm drinking I'm sad and thinking
How I could gain that young lady fair

(Repeat first verse)


Transcribed from the fine singing of Norma Waterson by Garry Gillard, with a bit of help (not much) from the Digital Tradition, which has a slightly different version. Thanks also to a thread in the rec.music.folk newsgroup for help with what the ‘singer’ bought from Donald Norman. Timothy Jaqcues wrote: “This is allegedly a Cape Breton song, and the reference to Caledonia and Scatarie Island would indicate this. Scatarie Island is near the town of Louisburg, where the French had a fortress, blown up by the British when they were on one of their Canadian tours, and rebuilt in the last thirty years, bit by bit, as a make-work project. The missing word is allegedly ‘broadseye’, others have it as ‘brochans’. Don't ask me what either of those are supposed to be.” And Nigel Sellars suggested: “Shoes or boots, similar to the Irish ‘brogan,’ which I think also means feet. ‘Broadseye,’ if I recall correctly, is a kind of boot with large eyelets for snapping closed or lacing.” Thanks also to Jim Lawton.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: When First I Went to Caledonia.