Bothy Ballads, Gaberlunzie and The Best Fun I Had All Week, Was in a Care Home!

During the darkest days of the pandemic, I often started my posts with the words, ‘How are we all doing?’. It was a stressful time for most of us what with all the uncertainty about how things would pan out. How soon we forget however, and once the vaccines became freely available, we thought life would get back to normal. In 2022 however, every ‘crisis’ imaginable seems to have hit us at the same time. My pandemic question again feels quite pertinent:

How are we all doing?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that is going on in the world, and closer to home, and I am not the same relaxed person I was in 2016 when I started this blog. I should change my name to Anxious Alyson, someone who finds it quite hard to write entertaining and light-hearted posts at the moment, so apologies for that.

The modern-day care home – quite swish really

A most welcome relief from all the anxiety came in the unlikely form of a visit to a care home yesterday. Regulars around here will remember that four years ago we had to find a care home place for my mum, after a stay in hospital made it impossible for her to return to her retirement flat. It all started well but after only 15 months, due to the pandemic, the home closed to nearly all visitors and any non-essential personnel, like entertainers. For two and a half years it proved very difficult to visit at all what with tests being required, masks, much form-filling and social distancing. In the last month however all that has changed, and things have returned to how they used to be when she first took up residence. Sadly, those residents like my mum who have dementia, have deteriorated quite markedly because of the social isolation of the pandemic years. Yes, they were being ‘kept safe’ from the virus, as directed by our government, but time was not on their side, and many passed away during that period. My mum did make it through, but she no longer knows who I am, which makes my visits quite tricky at times, although you do learn how make them work.

Yesterday they had an accordionist in to entertain, a chap who came regularly prior to the pandemic and who is now being invited back again. I joined them all in the big lounge where he had set up shop, and what a joyous afternoon it turned out to be. One of the most bizarre aspects of dementia, and Alzheimer’s especially, is that you have no short-term memory at all, and you can’t remember anything about your previous life, but you do remember all the words to all the songs you grew up listening to. (Come the day, god forbid we music-bloggers end up in such a situation, we’ll be able to quote chapter and verse all the lyrics to all the songs mentioned in our blogs.)

Phil Cunningham, another well-known Scottish accordionist

It being Scotland, one of the most popular portable instruments for playing traditional music is the accordion, and Duncan, its very dextrous operator (just so many keys and buttons), has a lovely way of connecting with the home’s residents. The songs he plays are the ones I would have been mortified listening to as a teenager, as not the kind of fodder to ever pop up on ToTP or on prime-time telly (The White Heather Club being the embarrassing exception), but they are the songs that would have been played at my granny and grandad’s house on the radio, or via shellac 78s, so all very familiar. My mum, it’s safe to say, knew all the words to even the most obscure and forgotten-about traditional Scottish songs, and we had great fun singing along to them. The best bit was that the staff encouraged dancing, and after working out that if I held on to her at all times for support, my mum and I could entertain the troops with our waltzes, Gay Gordons (a Scottish country dance) and freestyle jigs. Every now and again I asked her if she needed a break but that was apparently not an option so we both had a great afternoon of song and dance. Bet she slept well last night.

I can’t believe I’m nearly seven years into this blog without sharing any of the Scottish songs of my youth but they’re definitely not for everyone and very niche. One of yesterday’s songs was a bothy ballad, called The Barnyards of Delgaty. A bothy is a very spartan farm outbuilding, where in the early years of the 1900s farm labourers in the North-East of Scotland would sleep after having been hired at the ‘feeing market’. Both my grandfathers worked as farm labourers in their youth and would have stayed in such places. My mum’s dad, whose songs I would have listened to as a child, himself worked at the farm called The Barnyards of Delgaty so I always think of him when I hear it. With no internet or large screen television sets for entertainment in the evening, bothy ballads were sung. Being a very male environment some of these songs were bawdy indeed, but this one is a story song really about how you could be deceived by the promise of a fine healthy horse to work with, only to find it was skin and bone when you got to the farm.

The Barnyards of Delgaty by Gaberlunzie:

Another song we sang along to yesterday was this one, The Bonnie Lass O’ Fyvie which is all about the unrequited love of a captain of Irish dragoons for a beautiful Scottish girl. The place names are all so familiar as from our neck of the woods, so another one my mum really enjoyed. Both these songs are performed by the Scots folk duo Gaberlunzie who started out in the late ’60s and were still touring in 2018. Turns out their name is from the medieval Scots word for a licensed beggar.

Duncan the accordionist finished off with The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, a bit of a shmaltzy one this time, which all these years later still makes me homesick for my old stomping ground. I have such fond memories of living in Aberdeen during my late teens and twenties and of course I had my flat reunion there back in the summer (link here). My mum loves this song, so we did a little waltz, and I have to admit it all got a bit emotional for a myriad of reasons, but I quickly pulled myself together by the end. There are worse ways to spend a wet Thursday afternoon in November. Interestingly the first comment attached to this clip on the video-sharing website is very relevant to this post. It comes from kem10:

In my old job I used to help at a coffee morning which was run to help older adults who were socially isolated – in particular individuals with dementia. We would always play music and it was great to see folk light up and join in. This song was a particular favourite that EVERYONE got involved in and still knew all the words to.

‘It was great to see folk light up and join in.’ Exactly that.

The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen by the Mill Weavers:

So, ‘What’s It All About?’ – The power of music, eh? If the worst comes to the worst, my generation will be listening to a very different set of tunes in the care home, but they will bring us much joy and we will no longer worry about the really big issues of the day as they will be for the next generation to sort out. We will of course be blamed for having caused them in the first place, and they’ll have a point. People often avoid going to visit relatives with dementia as it can be quite distressing, but it can also be great fun as I found this week. Use music as a tool to connect with them.

Folk music comes and goes in popularity, but it has always been around as it tells the story of our cultural and regional identity, as is the case with bothy ballads. I’ve only shared songs here from the North-East of Scotland but such songs are attached to all parts of the country. Do you have any local favourites you might not have warmed to as a youngster at all, but have come round to as you’ve ‘matured’?

The music of folk duo Simon & Garfunkel has appeared often around here, so I’m going to end with their version of the bothy ballad Pretty Peggy-O. Soldiers from Highland regiments often ended up in bothies, and encounters between soldiers and ‘innocent maids’ were commonplace, thus songs were written about them. The Peggy in this song taken from the Bonnie Lass ‘O Fyvie lyrics and the tune not dissimilar to the Barnyards song either. Lovely stuff.

Until next time…

The Barnyards O’ Delgaty Lyrics
(Song by Unknown – Traditional)

As I came in by Turra Market
Turra Market for to fee,
I fell in wi’ a wealthy farmer,
From the Barnyards O’ Delgaty.

Linten adie toorin adie,
Linten adie toorin ee,
Linten lowrin, lowrin, lowrin
The Barnyards O’ Delgaty

He promised me the two best horses
Ever I set my eyes upon;
When I got home to the Barnyards
There was nothing there but skin and bone.

When I go to the church on Sunday,
Many’s the bonnie lass I see,
Sitting by her faither’s side
And winking ower the pews at me.

Well I can drink and not be drunk
And I can fight and not be slain.
I can lie wi’ anothers man’s lass
And aye be welcome to my ain.

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days. I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 57 years ago the song "Alfie" was written by my favourite songwriting team, Bacharach and David. The opening line to that song was, "What's it all about?" and I'm hoping by writing this blog, I might find the answer to that question.

16 thoughts on “Bothy Ballads, Gaberlunzie and The Best Fun I Had All Week, Was in a Care Home!”

    1. I know the name as a bit of a ‘silly’ one but unlike you have never seen them live. Just checked them out and Phil Cunningham in the picture above apparently joined them at the age of 16. He went on to great things here in Scotland.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. How are we all doing? I think the phrase is “perma-crisis”. Quite numb from it all.

    However, it was really good to read about your visit with your mum, and I’m glad things are back to “normal” at last. Sorry to hear she no longer recognises you though, that must be heartbreaking. Good that you can still enjoy yourselves despite that.

    Since I started listening to BBC Radio Scotland, I’ve been exposed to quite a bit of trad (and more modern) Scottish folk music I’d never heard before, particularly on Ian Anderson’s show. I appreciated your explanation of the bothy ballad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, “perma crisis” is the term. You do become numb from it all.

      I don’t think I’ll get much traffic on this one, but it was the best afternoon I’ve had in ages, and definitely the best care home visit with my mum ever, so I wanted to write about it for posterity.

      Mr WIAA used to listen to Ian Anderson all the time when he was the morning DJ for our local station. Haven’t listened to him for ages so should put that right soon. If he does play traditional Scottish songs, you’ll probably find the language a bit undecipherable, but at least you now know how bothy ballads come about. Ironically bothies are now hired out as holiday accommodation for those who want to go off-grid and have the authentic experience. My late grandfathers would laugh and say no, book the place with the internet and the big telly!


  2. When I go playing my songs in front of people it’s often in folk clubs; I see a lot of floor singers – and some great booked turns too – and everyone of them sing or speak from the heart. It’s really quite moving. But, like pubs, folk clubs are an endangered species; if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them.

    That said, I don’t need to hear another bloody version of The Fields of Athenry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right, they are probably an endangered species although folk music comes and goes in fashion, but if the venues close it’s hard to get them back. More Open Mic sessions needed like the one in Edinburgh.

      The Fields of Athenry – Not heard it before. You mean this one (sorry!):


  3. With all this appreciation of scottish accordion music will you be discovering a liking for the Alexander Brothers? I suspect that like me you will be able to sing along with more than one of their songs

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was trying to avoid having to include any Alexander Brothers but in trying to find a suitable clip of The Northern Lights… I think I just might have. Yes, like you I know a fair few of their songs, and I’m pretty sure ‘For These Are My Mountains’ was included last week. We got the hankies out for ‘Nobody’s Child’. Tom and Jack both gone now but they had a good innings.

      As an aside I remember my dad once treating the family to a trip into Aberdeen to see a film he’d seen advertised in his P&J – Sadly when we got there it didn’t come out until the following week, but all was not lost, The Alexander Brothers were playing at His Majesty’s Theatre so we were taken there instead. I behaved like a typical teenager and huffed through the whole thing refusing to even look toward the stage. They were loved by many, so well done them, but not by the average teen.


  4. A lovely post Alyson
    I knew the daughter of one of Gaberlunzie when I was in Ullapool.I also saw them play when I worked in Cambeltown
    I think we may have discussed this when we met up but if I end up in a care home I’m hoping for more contemporary music!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s great having the care home a bit more open to visitors again and whenever music is involved, we have a lot of fun. Your stint in Ullapool is being mentioned again – you met a lot of people during those summers it seems.

      Yes, a lot of traditional Scottish songs in care homes yet many of the English residents don’t know any of them. I am constantly amazed how the words come back to me but engrained from a young age I think and as for my mum, she constantly amazes me with her memory for the most obscure lyrics. The brain is a complex organ. The husband of one of the younger residents was in last week for the accordion session and got his wife up dancing too – It looked as if they were really enjoying it but when I spoke to him he said he prefers heavy metal!


  5. A heart-felt and a heart-warming post, thank you for sharing it. When I have recovered my composure, I may have to begin creating a playlist for such an eventuality. Fortunately, the girls and I have quite a bit of crossover in musical genres, in part due to their plundering of my record collection when they were younger, but also because they have both influenced my tastes in return. I wonder if care homes will ever be organised on a musical genre basis?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve got a point, maybe we should start organising our playlists now! I was with DD and the Soon-to-be Mr DD last night and the playlist in their car was a real mix of 70s/80s/90s and well as contemporary songs. I was just saying that they are so lucky they have such a wealth of music at their disposal as when we were young there hadn’t even been a music chart for that long and only a Top 12 at that – Very soon it’ll have been going for 70 years.

      We’re speaking in jest of course but care homes organised by musical genre might be a good idea. Or care homes for communities of bloggers? Let’s hope all that is a very long way off.


  6. Ah, a lovely post, Alyson, and quite the tonic for these dark and difficult days (‘perma-crisis’ is right). Your visits must be so hard but to have this experience in the circumstances is really special and your mum must have absolutely loved it. Listening to the bothy ballads you posted here I can just imagine the dancing and singing along, they’re so upbeat. Interested too to know the origin of the word ‘bothy’ as some people we know who live in a nearby hamlet have a very old house with a little workshop building in the garden which they call ‘The Bothy’ (it was already called that when they bought the property) – I can only surmise that some previous owners must have had Scottish roots.
    I’ve mentioned it before I’m sure but I have a hanker to learn the accordion because I love the sound and the look of them, but I understand from my very musical cousin, who can play multiple different instruments, that they’re pretty difficult to master. I fear it would just sit in the corner looking pretty and any attempt to bang out a good tune on it would instead elicit noise nuisance visits from the council…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Out in the real world it’s one crisis after another but in the care home they are immune to all of it, so if it’s a nice one with lots of entertainment, there are worse places to spend your twilight years.

      I studied Sociology a long time ago and one of our modules was about rural farm life in the North-East of Scotland and we looked at a lot of bothy ballads as they told the stories of that culture. A tough life but I often think they had less worries than we do today as life was so much more simple. You worked outdoors, you got fed, you socialised with your bothy-mates and met young ‘maidens’ at dances. I think both my grandfathers had good lives and I never heard them complain about the harsh conditions – They did like it if they farmer’s wife was a good cook though, otherwise rations were oatmeal, oatmeal and more oatmeal. Kept them healthy though.

      The accordion does look complicated doesn’t it with all those keys and buttons – some only have buttons on both sides – and the squeezy bit in the middle. It does make a lovely sound though and is used in many countries – think Parisian music. You could have a try out some time as I’m sure someone near you must give lessons? A challenge for 2023?


  7. It’s all just a click away so we take it for granted, but what a magical gift music is when you stop to think about it. It’s lovely to hear that your Mum and her fellow residents still enjoy listening (and dancing!) to it so much. A heart-warming post Alyson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It never ceases to amaze me how my mum remembers all the words to the most obscure songs yet she no longer recognises me, or my dad in photos. The brain is a complex organ. The musical afternoons do bring much joy though, so I’m really glad they can happen again after a lull of two and a half years.

      Thanks for dropping by.


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