page 10

PETER COOKE on a tune which is well known to both fiddler and piper as well as carrying a song or two

IN Donald Macdonald's Collection of Quicksteps, Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs (first edition published in 1828) are a small number of tunes that are of Lowland origin judging by their titles. One of these is a setting of that fine old dance song Jenny Dang the Weaver, known in numerous settings for fiddle or bagpipe. The song's history is obscure. In his Songs of Scotland, 1825 (vol. 2, p. 91) Cunningham refers to the title as "The name of a favourite Lowland air, and a line of an ancient song of the same title, which is now, I fear, for ever lost. I never heard more of it than the following lines:-

                                               Jenny dang and Jenny flang,
                                               Jenny dang the weaver:
                                              The piper played an' Jenny sprang
,                                              An' auld men sang to see her.

There are some other verses, collected by David Herd early in the previous century, which though prescribed to be sung to Jenny Dang the Weaver don't seem to lie well with the above text, even if they fit the tune well enough. It's a text which Allan Ramsay used as a basis for one of his songs in ‘ The Tea Table miscellany, beginning “O Mither dear, I ‘gin to fear..". Ramsay even thought it necessary to change the title of the air itself, turning it into the supremely effete Jenny Beguil'd the Webster! Herd's version runs:-

                                                As I came in by Fisherrow,
                                               Musselburgh was near me:
                                                I threw off my mussle-pock     
                                               And courted with my dearie.

                                               O had her apron bidden doun,
                                               The kirk would ne'er a kend it,    
                                               But since the word's gane thro' the toun,  
                                               My dear, I canna mend it.

                                                But ye maun mount the cutty-stool,
                                               And I maun mount the pillar,
                                               And that's the way that poor folks do,
                                               Because they hae nae sillar.


                                               Up stairs, doun stairs,
                                               Timber stairs fears me,
                                               I thought it lang to ly my lane
,                                               When I'm sae near my dearie!

The cutty-stool is, of course, a reference to the stool of repentance and Hans Hecht, who edited Herd's manuscripts suggests that the "timber stairs" refer to the pillory. But it's just possible that the refrain, which fits the second half of the tune well enough, belongs to quite another dance song, for a few years ago I collected quite a different tune called Timber Stairs from the late Andrew Poleson of the island of Whalsay. Andrew was a superb exponent of Whalsay fiddle style and his large repertory contained a fair number of old Scotish dancing springs. He played Jenny Dang the Weaver also.

Donald MacDonald's setting has a nice flow to it, but when one compares it with modern pipe settings of the tune one finds obvious differences. He does not use the high G grace note so often as in later settings and he uses two types of low-hand grip on low A (the heavier three note grip found in the taorludhs in 19th century collections and a lighter one with only two notes), One or the other appears at points where old style fiddlers, including Andrew Poleson, would commonly insert "shivers" on the open A string. Of course, we should not forget that such differences only point to changes in the Highland bagpipe tradition - we still know next to nothing about how Lowland Pipers might have graced such tunes.


Allan Ramsay: A Tea-table Miscellany Edinburgh (1776)

Hans Hecht: Songs from David Herd's Manuscripts (1904), R/1960.

David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs (p. 58 and p. 181). Glasgow 1776 R/1869. Cunningham: The Songs of Scotland vol. 2, p- 91 (1825).

jenny dang the weaver macdonald setting 45ee2