This year saw the development of the Queering the Archive initiative as part of our 70th Anniversary.
Join Elliot as he takes you through an exploration of the initiative as well as updates and upcoming plans.
Throughout Scottish tradition and history we have heard many iterations of the Love Song, be it through themes of unrequited love, courtship, lamentations at the loss of a lover, or even bawdy tunes and romance. No matter the theme, there is always one thing in common – that they are a man and a woman’s love song. There is not much in the way of recorded queer love in traditional Scottish songs, and it would have been near impossible for these to enter into the mainstream of known love songs. However, in my research on what we hold on the traditional Man’s Love Song and Woman’s Love Song, I have found some content that can be ‘queered’. Through a mix-up of pronouns in song or change of the gender of the singer and the protagonist we can find queer undertones and subtext within these traditional love songs.
Within the Man’s Love Song, we of course have many examples of songs with a male protagonist describing his love or telling a tale of love about a woman. I will take you through a few examples of songs that can be ‘queered’ through being sung by a female singer and no change of the gender of the person the protagonist loves. Below are just a few example of songs that we hold that can be viewed through this lens.
For example, there is “Mo Ghaol an Tè Nach Dìobair Mi”. This version, sung by Mary MacRae and recorded by Donald Archie MacDonald is a Man’s Love Song on how ‘he will always stand by beautiful Mary as being a woman of virtue.’ What I like about this version is that the lover is named, and through queering can be seen as a romantic tune about the virtues of women as recognised and sung by another woman. Listen to this track on Tobar an Dualchais linked below:
MacRae, Mary, “Mo Ghaol an Tè Nach Dìobair Mi”, recorded by Donald Archie MacDonald, The School of Scottish Studies Archives, SA1964.062, Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches, http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/104516
There are also examples of unrequited love. “Och Mar a Tha Mi ‘s Mi nam Aonar”, sung by Peggy Morrison and recorded by Morag MacLeod is of a man’s love song for a beautiful girl from Lochcarron. The protagonist hopes she gets a man who is worthy of her. As this particular recording is sung by a woman, we can view this recording as being about a woman’s unrequited love for the beautiful girl from Lochcarron, but they cannot be together so she hopes she finds a good man who is worthy of her love. Listen below:
Morrison, Peggy, “Och Mar a Tha Mi ‘s Mi nam Aonar”, School of Scottish Studies Archive, SA1975.210.A4a, Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/108130?l=en
There is also another about promises of marriage, sung by Nan MacKinnon, in “Gur Tu Mo Chruinneag Bhòidheach.” In this love song, ‘a man praises his beautiful darling. He would do many things if she promised to marry him’. Different from “Och Mar a Tha Mi ‘s Mi nam Aonar”, this song allows for a reading of a woman promising many things to her lover if she married her, and is not about unrequited love or not being able to marry the lover described. Listen below:
MacKinnon, Nan, “Gur Tu Mo Chruinneag Bhòidheach”, School of Scottish Studies Archive, SA1958.132.5, Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, https://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/track/97353?l=en
There are also a few examples of The Woman’s Love song as sung by men about a man the protagonist longs for or is telling of love for him. Although we have less examples of men singing the Woman’s Love song, there are still more recordings of this type within the collections.
The song “Ò Hù Tha Mo Ghaol air Òigear a’ Chùil Dualaich” is a, ‘woman’s love song to the young man with the beautiful hair.’ This version is sung by John MacLeod and recorded by Polly Hitchcock. Again, through the singer being male, we can hear the description of his love and admiration of the man with beautiful hair. Listen below:
MacLeod, John, “Ò Hù Tha Mo Ghaol air Òigear a’ Chùil Dualaich”, School of Scottish Studies Archives, SA1951.43.A7, Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches, http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/90295
In “Cha Bhi Mi Buan ‘s Tu Bhith Bhuam”, the singer, ‘will not survive if she is parted from her beloved, whom she has loved since she was young. She sits on the hillock, looking over the narrows seeing his boat passing.’ This version sung and recorded by Calum Iain MacLean can be viewed about the sadness of the childhood lover leaving for sea and being so in love it is difficult to part with him. Listen below:
MacLean, Calum Iain, “Cha Bhi Mi Buan ‘s Tu Bhith Bhuam”, School of Scottish Studies Archives, SA1953.79.1, Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches, Tobar an Dualchais
With Queering the Archives, we are creating a finding-aid to help other’s locate queer and related records. If you are interested in responding to these recordings with your own work or researching our queer collections, please do just get in touch with us. Visitor Information | The University of Edinburgh
Why not take a look at the material we hold remotely on Tobar an Dualchais and think of ways in which our sound recordings can be ‘queered’? If you are interested in recreating our material in any form, please get in touch with us or submit an access to digitised collections form directly. Access to Digitised Collections | The University of Edinburgh
As always, we would love to hear thoughts on the material we hold and would love for you to work with us and our records.
Queering the Archives will have our very first workshop held on the 25th August from 13.00 – 15.30. This is a public workshop and is open to all under the LGBT+ and Queer umbrella and allies. Get your tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/165396797273
This will take you through understanding of queering, what we are doing for Queering the Archives, and working with our queer records and will involve discussion and practical work on improving our search-terms and catalogues. Access to event via QR code below:
As the first in our series of blogs as part of ‘Queering the Archive’ initiative, I discuss some infamous ‘cross-dressing’ ballads within our collections.
Here at the School of Scottish Studies, we hold many records of the popular cross-dressing ballads that exists in Scottish oral tradition and traditional songs. Protagonists of these forms of ballads and songs are often women. These ballads involve a humorous tale of women in forms of drag and concealment as a way to engage in male public life or work. Common forms of this are cross-dressing sea-ballads that describe the protagonist entering the workforce. Women were excluded from joining the ranks of the navy and any work at sea was relegated into different roles for men and women. As such, the selected ballads can be viewed as a way of subverting gender roles and societal expectations through drag and cross-dressing. While these are not necessarily queer stories, we can apply queer theory to these records thus allowing us to queer the archive and Scottish sounds.
This blog was originally created in mind to not only provide my own point of interest in just some of the examples of the ‘queer’ in the archive but to introduce application of theory and some of my own thoughts to the records. Though I do not see these as records of particular LGBT+ identity, they are examples of the ‘queering’ of records and application of queer theory.
Content warnings apply within this blog and for some of the sound material for sexual content, issues in consent, and themes and depictions of gender that some may find uncomfortable.
The first ballad to be discussed is “The Banks O’ Skene”, which describes how a young female protagonist sought work in the navy and disguised herself in “men’s clothing”. The protagonist is apprenticed to a heckler and sings of how “the girlies all fell in love with me below The Banks O’ Skene.” This can be seen as subversion of expected gender roles and exploration of sexuality and performance that wouldn’t often be afforded to women. However, later in the ballad the protagonist is discovered by her master and the ballad continues with bawdy descriptions of exposure of identity, drinking, and her master, “taking her maidenhead” and the ballad ending in pregnancy and marriage. While intended as a humorous tale, it reflects issues and attitudes of the life of women working on ships and the reasons given why women working aboard naval vessels were frowned upon due to notions of sexual relationships, pregnancy, and conflict. Through application of queer theory, this turns into a tale of a female protoganist gaining freedom in male fields of work and performance, but ultimately having to fall to her expected female role of sex and marriage.
Another example of a similar style of cross-dressing ballad is “The Handsome Cabin Boy”, in which the female protagonist disguises herself as a young cabin boy. She is described by the sailors as handsome and pretty in most versions of the ballad, while she is still ‘disguised’ as male. Her identity is only ‘discovered’ once she gives birth to the Captain’s baby. This song is similar in style and content as “The Banks O’ Skene”, again singing of the benefits of navigating the world disguised as a man, and later the problematic exposure narrative and relegation of roles of birth and marriage. A different queer narrative can be applied to this in the example of the hidden sexual relationships of sailors and the attraction the other sailors felt towards the protagonist when she was viewed as “The Handsome Cabin Boy”.
There is also another known cross-dressing ballad of “Billy Taylor”, or “Willy Taylor”. A jilted lover of Billy Taylor disguises herself as a man and finds work aboard his ship. She discovers Billy with another woman and shoots him. The Captain of the ship is so impressed by the bravery and act that he makes her commander of the ship and gives her a hundred men. This ballad is different from “The Banks O’ Skene” and “The Handsome Cabin Boy”, as while it does involve the typical problematic and often times literal exposure narrative of these ballads, it does not feature a sexual relationship that ends in discovery and pregnancy. It instead follows the ballad and protagonist archetype of a romantic heroine that takes revenge on her cheating lover. This ballad begins and ends with subverting gender roles through taking on work as a man of lower status on the ship to ultimately becoming highly ranked to a Captain when the protagonist is no longer ‘cross-dressing’.
Not all cross-dressing ballads follow a life at sea. There is also the ballad, “The Famous Flower of Serving Men”, in which the female character of ‘young Ellen fair’ cuts off her hair and becomes ‘young Willie Dare’ after an attack on her life and child by her step-mother. She later goes to find work dressed as a man, and gains a job in the castle, initially as a stable boy. However, because Young Willie Dare is so handsome, which is acknowledged by her Master and the working men, she gains rank as a serving man. The Master later finds out her identity and marries her because she is so beautiful and handsome. Other ballads follow the young protagonist entering the military, such the group of ballads, “The Female Drummer”, “The Solder Maid”, and “Wi my Nice Hat and Feather”. The groups of ballads also involve similar narratives of entering the male sphere of work and roles in the military, with some queer attraction. In the version of “The Female Drummer” sung by Margaret Jeffrey, it is noted that “Although [the protagonist] pretends to be a young man, she is so beautiful that another girl falls in love with her”, however it is also related to aspects of heteronormativity by the end of the ballad, “She is told that if she ever gets married and has a son, she should send him to learn to play the drum.”
We also hold many more examples of these types of ballads, as well as examples of cross-dressing ballads where men were dressed as women. This is also often used as a form of anecdotes and tales, where men were dressed up to escape a skirmish or the authorities. The most famous of these songs surround Bonny Prince Charlie dressing up as a female maidservant to escape to the Highlands, which includes the songs “Moladh Mòraig‘ [Marion’s Wailing”’, and many more. Other examples of this cross-dressing narrative, includes the tale of “Mac Iain Bhàin Ghobha and the robbers”. The Gaelic tales describes how Mac Iain Bhàin Ghobha’s partner leaves for America to find where work as a servant. She is later captured and taken to a cave of robbers, in which she finds Mac Iain Bhàin Ghobha dressed as a woman. They fight and deal with the robbers and gain money for bringing them to justice. They both marry once they return to Scotland with their new riches. The majority of these ballads or tales are Romantic in nature and feature a brave heroine, a daring protagonist, or forms of escapism and running away and heroics. It is notable that most of these ballads and tales also end in finding love in heterosexual marriage, thus relegating any subversion of binary gender roles or examples of any kind of sexual fluidity and exploration back to the traditional heterosexual spheres of marriage.
We can apply queer theory to these records in the sense that the ballads often explore subversion of binary gender roles and include some form of queer attraction and aspects of fluidity. However, these ballads are often told and passed down through a cisgender and heterosexual lens. Some ballads reduce queerness and cross-dressing to mockery, and at times, danger. Themes of deception can be common which can make some an uncomfortable listen when considering themes and narratives of these forms of ballads. Almost all of the ballads in our collections end in a heterosexual marriage and raises questions about the context of expected societal roles and views of fluidity. Queering the Archive will allow us to analyse these records and more through queer theory within the workshops and beyond.
The records discussed in this blog are available for listening on Tobar an Dualchais:
“The Banks o Skene”. George Hay recorded by Hamish Henderson. Aberdeenshire, Skene. SA1957.17.A3 http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/20800
“The Handsome Cabin Boy”. Jeannie Robertson recorded by Hamish Henderson.
“Billy Taylor”. Robb Watt recorded by Arthur Argo.
“The Famous Flower of Serving Men”. Jeannie Roberston recorded by Hamish Henderson, SA1954.103.A1; SA1954.103.A2, 525 http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/38037
“The Female Drummer” Margaret Jeffrey recorded by Hamish Henderson.
“The Female Drummer”. Donald George Gunn recorded by Donald Grant.
“The Soldier Maid”. Rob Watt recorded by Arthur Argo.
“The Drummer Maid” James Laurenson recorded by Alan J. Bruford.
“Wi my Nice Hat and Feather”. Jimmy Taylor recorded by Hamish Henderson.
SA1952.32.B18 (B25) http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/46812
“Moladh Mòraig”. Pipe Major Robert Bell Nicol recorded by Pipe Major Neville MacKay.
“Mac Iain Bhàin Ghobha agus na robairean” Angus MacLellan recorded by Donald Archie MacDonald, SA1963.57.A2 http://tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/78752
(There are also other versions of these ballads on Tobar an Dualchais. To find our records, select School of Scottish Studies only within Advanced Search. All of our records will be listed under SA.)
If you are interested in taking part in Queering the Archive workshops, or if you are interested in researching LGBT+ records or using our collections for your work, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Elliot Holmes.
Elliot is one of the Archives and Library Assistants at the School of Scottish Studies Archives and uses He/They pronouns. You can also find him on twitter @elliotlholmes
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