The North-East o Scotland was aince thrang wi thoosans o young warkin loons, straviagin fae fairm tae fairm an daein sax- or twal- month fees, or contracts. They wad traivel lang gaits tae find a berth intae a fairm that suited them, or tae lea ahint them a bad reputation. Generally young, these laddies wad pass the lang nichts in fairm bothies an in the dub an peat o the field wi sang, verse an crack.
Sangs fae auld deys were carriet forrit tae be pairt o the modern tradition through this incubation, an mony new sangs were created by these fairmin chiels. There are hunners o sangs that gied grippit fairmers a guid slagging, or else lingered owre the delichts o a servant lassie that wis warkin intae the big hoose. There’s a wheen guid singers wha aye tak the tradition forrit, performin the auld sangs at gigs an ceilidhs aroon the warld. But there isnae sae mony loons an quines that are addin their ain stanes tae the cairn o tradition. Pete Coutts is ae notable exception.
Pete Coutts o Aiberdeen screives sangs that are mair nor guid eneuch tae rank alangside the aulder bothy ballads. The sang includit here is cried Belhelvie, aff Pete’s album Northern Sky. It is aboot the deeth o Pete’s ain great-great-great-granfaither, the story o which has been gied doon through his faimly fir twa centuries.
The tale is o an auld fairmer – Jim Calder – an his saxteen year auld loon. They are gingin doon the road atween Aiberdeen an Newburgh, nae far fae Belhelvie in rural Aiberdeenshire. They are ridin atap their traction engine. The young loon is in chairge o the machine, wi his auld faither there tae keep an ee on him. But when the loon gings aff tae luik fir a missing pin, the puir auld faither decides tae tak the wheel fir a wee minitie. Suddenly then the hail machine jouks aff the brig an is cowpit heilster gowdie, wi auld Calder pinned unnerneath.
Lug in tae the sang tae finn oot the true an sad tale mindit on in the lyrics.
The ‘feeing’ system of farm work in the rural North-East of the past centuries incubated a vibrant culture of song, poetry and jokes. The young men that worked in fields, contracted by ‘fee’s tended to be employed on six or twelve month contracts, and would travel widely around the hundreds of farms seeking the best pay and conditions in exchange for their labour.
They created many ballads at this time, as well as carrying forward older songs. The bothy ballads they created served many purposes. They entertained the men at night, transmitted folklore and legends, wooed young servant lassies that worked in the Big House and warned fellow workers about particularly pugnacious or greedy farmers. This rich heritage is one carried forward by a good number of folk singers today, but very few modern practitioners add their own songs to the stream of tradition. Pete Coutts is a notable exception.
The Aberdonian Coutts is more than capable of producing songs worthy of ranking alongside the traditional ballads. Below, you’ll find the lyrics and recording of Pete’s Belhelvie, taken from his album Northern Sky. It relates a piece of Coutts’ family history: the tragic, sudden and sensationally painful death of his great-great-great grandfather.
The song tells the story of old Calder and his son controlling a steam-powered traction engine along the road towards Newburgh. At Millden Brig outside Belhelvie in rural Aberdeenshire, the son notices a piece has gone missing from the traction engine. He halts the machine and hops down to look for the missing piece. The old father, left alone, sees another engine approach along the road. He tries to move off to one side, but fatally loses control and drives over the edge of the bridge…
Listen to the song to find out more, and hear this memorial to an ancestral passing.
- Pete Coutts
- Publication Date:
A fine Octobers morning fan the season’s slawin doon
Jim Calder and his youngest mak their wye tae Ellon toon
Auld Aberdeen ahin them, and the weather lookin’ fair
Their lorry teen alang the road, they were nearly half way there…
© Pete Coutts