A recent discussion on the facebook page concerning 17th century pipe music led us to re-visit a core repertoire tune

AT FIRST SIGHT THIS TUNE DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE A PIPE TUNE; none of the earlyversions that carry the title of the song stay within the nine note range, all of them requiring a fourth below the tonic. Gordon Mooney, in his collection, prints what he describes as ‘The traditional Linlithgow Piper’s version’, and says that it is also known as the Linlithgow March and is played annually in that town at the riding of the Marches’, a fact that can be confirmed by searching for online videos of the Marches. In more recent years the tune, it seems, has become known as ‘The Roke’ or ‘The Roke and the Row’. The version played by the flutes and by the reed band is a little different, closer, indeed to the song tune as published in The Sacots musical Museum. All these can be heard on Youtube.
Gordon Mooney mentions the tune’s first appearance in Playford’s Musick’s Hand-maid[e]’of 1663, where Playford calls it ‘Scotish March’. Gordon gives a date of 1652 for this publication. In fact, Playford did publish this tune in 1652, in A Book of New Lessons for the Cithern and Gittern, where he called it ‘The Irish Rant’;

irish rant

irish rant notation

The Irish Rant (Playford’s original tablature and transcribed into A,
from Benson and Playford, A Book of New Lessons for the Cithern and Gittern, 1652)

Playford’s early association of the tune with Ireland may imply an Irish origin ; it was published in O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland as O’Sullivan’s March. Two different versions are now in circulation, as recorded by The Chieftains. Andrew Scahill has suggest that the tune ‘known by the fuller title ‘O’Sullivan’s March to Leitrim’, appears to be named after Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, ‘the leader of that astonishing retreat in which with a great price on his head, he in January 1603 literally hewed his way from Glengariff, Co. Cork into O’Rourke’s country’.

osullivans march

Playford went on to publish a number of versions of the tune, either as ‘Scotish March, (1662) or The Scots March (1669) and once as Montrosses March (though he has a different tune with this name in 1662 publication)

scotish march

The setting in Playford's  Musick’s Hand-maide, 1663

As for the title by which it is known today, that first appears in the music for Joseph Mitchell’s play ‘Highland Fair’ in 1731

highlan fiar version

From Joseph Mitchell’s Highland Fair, 1731 (as transcribed by Jack Campin)

Oswalds version

James Oswald produced a much elaborated setting in his Curious Collection Of Scotch Tunes (1740), of which these are the opening strains:

The words of the song that give this title were written by Alexander Ross (1699-1784), first published in 1768, though probably written some time before 1766. They were included, along with another setting of the tune, in The Scots Musical Museum, Vol V. Ross’s original, however, was much .longer, and though the old woman had set fire to her rock by busking it up ‘at the cheek o’ the low’ [flame, fire] and advised her daughters to avoid the spinning o’t, her youngest resolves to master the art, by which she hopes to win a man:

I’ve naething to mind but my rock and my reel
When I gang to try the spinning o’t
The fouk’ll say that young Nancy spin weel,
And is chief o’ kin frae the beginning o’t
Sae I’ll hae a man, fatever betide,
The weather is cauld an’ I canna abide
For I’ve siller eneugh now ot make me a bride
That I hae got by the spinnng o’t.

The full poem can be read online; Ross was also the author of ‘Woo’d and married and a’, (online in the same publication)

smm version


The tune crops up again in nursery rhymes with versions in Ayrshire and in many parts of England including Oxfordshire, where it is used for a Morris dance. The earliest date for the rhyme is 1784 (Gammar Gurton's Garland), which would make it older than the above version. The Scottish words were collected by Alexander Crawfurd around 1820 and published in A Collection of Ballads and Songs.

Tha was a wee wyfie row’t up in a blanket
Nyneteen tymes as hie as the mune
And quhat she did there I canna declare
For under her airm she bure the sin

Wee wyfir wee wyfie wee wyfie quo I
O quhat are ye doand up there sae hie?
I’m blowand the cauld cluds out o the lift
Oh, weil done, wil done, wee wyfie, quo I

Here is 'Montrosses March', from Playford's Musick’s Delight on the Cithren, 1666 together with a transcription from the Cithern tablature transposed from C. Note that the accidental at bar 9 is also in the 1663 version and that the odd number of bars in the 2nd strain appear in all Playford’s version that I have seen. With the exception of the rhythm of second half of bar 9, this is identical to his ‘Scotish March’.

montosses march

 montrosses march cithren 1666

NB: this recording ignores the D# accidental!

And finally, a transcription of a performance in Linlithgow in 2001, ‘The Roke and the Row (and the Wee Pickle Tow)’. It has some slight differences from the setting printed by Gordon Mooney, but may well be played differently 16 years later.

the roke