Week 550: Will Ye Go Lassie Go, by Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

I had always thought of ‘Will Ye Go Lassie Go’, aka ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, as a quintessential folksong, possessed of anonymous purity, a little mysterious, a little magical, never dating but instead, as it recedes into the mists of time, accruing to itself an ever-increasing charge of power from all those who have performed it, listened to it and loved it over the years. It seems, however, that this particular song has a definite origin: the lyrics and melody are based on the song ‘The Braes of Balquhither’ by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but in their present form, as covered by countless folk artists, were adapted by the Irish musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.

Anonymous or not, I feel that the second stanza in particular manages to tap into some resonant stratum of Celtic myth, having for me faint echoes of the Fourth Branch of the Welsh ‘Mabinogion’ where the wizard Gwydion and Math fab Mathonwy conjure up a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes: ‘and they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and made from them the fairest maiden that was ever seen by man’. It seems possible that Alan Garner made the same association when he chose it as an epigraph to his fine contemporary reworking of that story, ‘The Owl Service’, though he has a slightly different version of the words e.g. ‘tower’ for ‘bower’, and ascribes it to ‘Traditional’.

Of those countless performances, I might make special mention of one from the Transatlantic Sessions featuring Dick Gaughan, Emmylou Harris and the McGarrigle family. Now that’s what you call a line-up.

Will Ye Go Lassie Go

Oh, the summer time is coming,
And the leaves are sweetly blooming,
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

I will build my love a bower
By yon clear crystal fountain,
And around it I will pile
All the flowers of the mountain.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

If my true love will not go,   
I will surely find another
To pull wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.

   Will you go, lassie, go?
   And we’ll all go together
   To pull wild mountain thyme
   All around the blooming heather,
   Will you go lassie, go?

Oh, the summer time is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather.

Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

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4 thoughts on “Week 550: Will Ye Go Lassie Go, by Robert Tannahill/Francis McPeake

    • Yes, I love it when they work folk songs into these things. There’s a particularly haunting example in the 1967 (Julie Christie) version of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, where Sergeant Troy is putting flowers on Fanny Robin’s grave while you hear ‘The Bold Grenadier’ (aka ‘One Morning In May’) being sung in the background – I think the singer was Isla Cameron.

      • Oh I love that film! It was part of my childhood as I grew up in Devizes, and clearly remember the filming of certain scenes!

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