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In this weeks Friday Gem, we have a very special treat courtesy of the National Library of Scotland (NLS). “The Battle of Sherramuir” is a song written by Robert Burns about the Battle of Sheriffmuir which occurred in Scotland in 1715 at the height of the Jacobite rebellion in England and Scotland. It was written when Burns toured the Highlands in 1787 and first published in The Scots Musical Museum, 1790.

The Battle of Sheriff-muir was so closely fought that it was difficult to establish who, if anyone, had actually won, and so Robert Burns writes from the point of view of two shepherds who, despite having watched the same series of events, each form a wildly different interpretation of what they have seen.

One of Burns’s speakers believes that ‘The red-coat lads wi’ black cockauds’ routed the rebels, painting a fearful picture of how they ‘hough’d the Clans like nine-pin kyles’. The other is just as convinced that the Jacobites ‘did pursue / The horse-men back to Forth, man’ with the eventual result that ‘… mony a huntit, poor Red-coat / For fear amaist did swarf, man’. A contemporary parallel might be the varying accounts of two opposing football fans on a game they have both just watched.

The song was adapted by Robert Burns from a broadside by John Barclay entitled ‘Dialogue between Will Lick-Ladle and Tom Clean-Cogue’. Burns wrote it around 1790, during or after his tour of the Highlands which inspired his interest in Jacobite history. The manuscript acquired by NLS dates from after the poem’s initial publication in Volume III of the ‘Scots Musical Museum’ in 1790 and shows changes which were made for the 1800 edition of the ‘Works of Robert Burns’ by his editor, James Currie.

The manuscript has been in private hands for many years in Switzerland and the United States, and NLS Director of Collections and Research Cate Newton said: ‘We are delighted to acquire the only known manuscript of ‘The Battle of Sherra-moor’. The poem itself is of interest because of its unusual form and the historical subject matter, and this manuscript includes textual variants from the published versions of the poem. It also throws light on Burns’s views on the Jacobites, an aspect of his life which remains the subject of considerable debate and interest.

Here is the full text of the song:

“O cam ye here the fight to shun,
Or herd the sheep wi’ me, man?
Or were ye at the Sherra-moor,
Or did the battle see, man?”
I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran mony a sheugh ;
My heart, for fear, gaed sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods, in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.

But had ye seen the philibegs,The red-coat lads, wi’ black cockauds,
To meet them were na slaw, man;
They rush’d and push’d, and blude outgush’d
And mony a bouk did fa’, man:
The great Argyle led on his files,
I wat they glanc’d for twenty miles;
They hough’d the clans like nine-pin kyles,
They hack’d and hash’d, while braid-swords, clash’d,
And thro’ they dash’d, and hew’d and smash’d,
Till fey men di’d awa, man.

And skyrin tartan trews, man;
When in the teeth they dar’d our Whigs,
And covenant True-blues, man:
In lines extended lang and large,
When baiginets o’erpower’d the targe,
And thousands hasten’d to the charge;
Wi’ Highland wrath they frae the sheath
Drew blades o’ death, till, out o’ breath,
They fled like frighted dows, man!

“O how deil, Tam, can that be true?

The chase gaed frae the north, man;
I saw mysel, they did pursue,
The horsemen back to Forth, man;
And at Dunblane, in my ain sight,
They took the brig wi’ a’ their might,
And straught to Stirling wing’d their flight;
But, cursed lot! the gates were shut;
And mony a huntit poor red-coat,
For fear amaist did swarf, man!”

My sister Kate cam up the gate
Wi’ crowdie unto me, man;
She swoor she saw some rebels run

To Perth and to Dundee, man;
Their left-hand general had nae skill;
The Angus lads had nae gude will
That day their neibors’ blude to spill;
For fear, for foes, that they should lose
Their cogs o’ brose ; they scar’d at blows,
And hameward fast did flee, man.

Amang the Highland clans, man!
I fear my Lord Panmure is slain,
Or fallen in Whiggish hands, man,
Now wad ye sing this double flight,
Some fell for wrang, and some for right;
But mony bade the world gude-night ;
Then ye may tell, how pell and mell,
By red claymores, and muskets knell,
Wi′ dying yell, the Tories fell,
And Whigs to hell did flee, man.

Creative Commons Licence

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 UK: Scotland License.