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Cowboy Celtic
by Rob Gibson -
Issue 27 June/July '98

On the western plains of nineteenth century North America, intoxicating Gaelic melodies drifted through the evening air at many a cowboy campfire and during lonely shifts at night guard. When you're in the middle of nowhere, nothing lifts your spirits more than a familiar tune from home.

Most people are aware of the Celtic musical influence in Cape Breton and Nashville but little is said of its impact on the music of the Wild West. Cowboy music is the traditional music of the American and Canadian west. Cowboys chose, like the drovers in the Old World, only the slowest and most haunting songs to bed down their scary herds at night. Hence the love of so many fine Scots, Irish, English and Welsh ballads in the cowboy repertoire.

While the tales of the emigrants from the old to the new world is well documented, the stories and songs of the Celtic drovers who became North American cowboys are less well known. This article intends to explain the fascinating links between the Scots cattlemen and drovers who immigrated to the new world and became cowboys.

The droving tradition in Scotland has long since vanished, but remnants of this can still be discovered. Dotted throughout Scotland are the old drovers' inns, many of which are still used today as watering holes for walkers and tourists. They were a popular resting place over the centuries for tired men, cattle and sheep. The Inverarnon Inn at the head of Scotland's famous Loch Lomond is one example, a very busy hostelry as it lies on the ninety mile walk, the West Highland Way, and also on the busy highway from lowland to highland Scotland. There are still many old drove roads in existence, popular with walkers. Some of today's major highways started life as drove roads.

Who were these Scots drovers who endured such hardship, sometimes walking barefoot with their herd of cattle or sheep to the trysts (markets) at Crieff or Falkirk or to the fattening pastures of Norfolk, hundreds of miles away in England ?

Some drovers became rich entrepreneurs. John Cameron of Roybridge flourished in the first half of the 19th century. He worked on the droves for fifty years and owned 20,000 sheep at one time. He would send lieutenants to gather cattle from far-flung communities and drive on south with thousands of head of cattle and later twice as many sheep. By twelve mile daily stages, they moved from grazing to grazing and cattle stances in the summer and autumn of each year.

There were the Williamsons and William McCombie of north-east Scotland, and the McTurks of Lowland Galloway who organised the delivery of tens of thousands of cattle and sheep to the Scottish markets or further south for fattening.

Enterprising Scots were often to the fore in the build-up of the huge North American cattle empires. Firms like the Prairie Land & Cattle Company were actually based in Edinburgh and the Matador Land and Cattle Company in Dundee. These firms began in the 1880s and in the latter example existed until 1951. Murdo MacKenzie who hailed originally from Tain, north-east Scotland, worked for both these companies in the new world. He still found time to play his fiddle for dances, though he never wore a gun or allowed his cowboys to drink. John Clay, originally from Berwickshire, was also a leading cattle baron, as was the half-Scot half Cherokee trader Jesse Chisholm, whose name was given to the Chisholm Cattle Trail in Texas in 1867. The Celtic Cowboy link is therefore no myth. Scots by birth and descent carried on the cattle trade on the great plains of Western Canada and America.

While the droving tradition has vanished in the old world, the cowboy tradition thrives today in places such as Alberta, Wyoming and Montana. On the huge cattle ranches, cowboys still dress as their forefathers did, even if the pickup truck has replaced the horse as the main means of transport. The modern Canadian City of Calgary, Alberta, names its major highways after the old cattle routes. Glenmore Trail, Marquis of Lorne Trail, McLeod Trail. These are all Scottish names. Every August sees thousands of cattlemen and tourists head for the city's famous Calgary Stampede, for a feast of cowboy celebrations. Calgary, itself takes its name from a settlement in the island of Mull, off Scotland's west coast.

Without doubt there is a wealth of songs composed for, and by, drovers and cowboys. This is an important reminder of the popular traditions and cultural links between the cattle economies of two Continents.

And what of these songs? The oral tradition of the drovers has a long history. A song collected by the School for Scottish Studies from Donald S MacKay in North Sutherland about 1943 called 'Oran na Drobhairean' - the Drover's Song - has a tune that was used in Wester Ross in the 18th century. It praises the virtues of the drovers and describes their impact on the communities from where they bought their cattle. John MacInnes of the School for Scottish Studies describes 'The Drovers Song' as a unique account of the joyful arrival of the drovers in the remote glens, with their sturdy appearances and jaunty wearing of the belted plaid.

'You appeared to collect the cows before the summer drought,
You wore not the lowland dress that curbs the vigour of the leg with its fastenings,
But the kilt and short hose and the splendid ample plaid, that was ever your emblem.'

Although the song was collected in 1943, its several variants all point to a late 18th century song. The tune is known in the Lowlands for the song 'Wat we whay I met yestreen'. A religious blessing 'The Herding Rune', was collected by Alexander Carmichael in South Uist.

'Travel ye moorland, Travel ye townland, Travel ye gently far and wide,
The protection of God and Columba encompass your going and coming,
And about you be the milk maid with the smooth white palms,
Bridget of the clustering hair, golden brown.'

The contemporary singer songwriter Brian McNeill has written an excellent account of the drovers' market and celebrations in his popular song the 'The Lads of the Fair'. It celebrates a vibrant and vital era of Scottish life, which was ended by the network of the railways.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, huge areas of the Scottish Highlands were emptied by vicarious landowners who forced the resident population to flee to America and Canada in search of a new life free from intimidation, harassment and poverty. The tragedy of the Highland Clearances was the American continent's gain as the Scots emigrants prospered and helped to build up the new world. Their exodus from the Highlands started as a trickle and became a flood and as Dr James Hunter in his authoritative text on Scottish emigration 'A Dance Called America' states, 'sometimes it seems that there is no part of North America which does not have its connection with the Scottish Highlands'. The emigrants naturally took their Gaelic language and songs to their new homes across the Atlantic. Drovers' songs became cowboy songs even if the transatlantic crossover would often alter tunes and lyrics.

One of the most popular cowboy songs 'The Streets of Laredo' started life as an Irish ballad called 'The Bard of Armagh' or sometimes called 'The Unfortunate Rake'.

'Oh list to the tale of a poor Irish Harper, And scorn not strings in his old withered hand,
But remember these fingers could once move more sharper, To waken the echoes of his dear native land'.

The Wild West version was written by a cowboy and became very popular particularly with the arrival of records.

'... oh muffle your drum slowly and play your fife merrily, Play the Dead March as you carry me along,
And fire your gun right over my coffin, There goes an unfortunate boy to him home.'

The Aberdeenshire whaling ballad 'Fareweel tae Tarwathie' became 'The Railroad Coral'.

Come take up your sinches and shake out your reins, Come wake your old bronco and break for the plains.
Come roust out your steers from the long chaparral, For the outfit is off to the railroad coral.

The story behind some of these songs is quite fascinating. Take the Gaelic song 'Mo shoraidh leis aiCo'gach' - Farewell to Coigach. Written in 1910 by a Scots emigrant to Montana, Murdoch MacLean, this is the only surviving Gaelic song written in Montana. It concerns one man's longing for his homeland in north-west Scotland. Tom and Valerie Bryan who live today in the same Coigach peninsula collected this song. Tom, Canadian born of Scots and Irish descendants, a creative writer and historian, met his wife Valerie, who hails originally from Midlothian, Scotland, at Terrihaute University in Indiana. After returning to live in the Scottish Highlands, they compiled and published a collection of Gaelic music and songs from the local area to commemorate the bi-centenary of the Wester Ross port of Ullapool in 1988.

By a curious twist of fate, this collection found its way to David Wilkie in Turner Valley, Alberta, Canada. Wilkie, a veteran of Alberta folk music, has spent the last seven years researching and recreating the songs and tunes brought over by the emigrants to the Wild West.

In 1997 Wilkie flew to Scotland and persuaded Gaelic singer Arthur Cormack from Portree, Skye to record the song at Phil Cunningham's studio for an album 'Cowboy Ceilidh'. This summer the Celtic Cowboy Connection will be celebrated in song and music in the Highlands with a show called 'Plaids and Bandannas', written and produced by Highland Traditional Music Festival director Rob Gibson, in association with Tom Bryan. David Wilkie's Cowboy Celtic Band will also tour their Cowboy Celtic show. The tour will culminate at the Highland Traditional Music Festival at Dingwall, on the 28th June. Dingwall is in the heart of the area that gave America and Canada the sources of some of their greatest songs. It is also the former home of Scots born Rod Campbell, now of Edmonton, Alberta folk music enthusiast who passed on the song 'Farewell to Coigach' to David Wilkie.

Little did Murdo MacLean of Coigach realise when he composed a Gaelic ballad for his workmates in Montana around 1910, that it would be celebrated this year as one of the most fascinating musical links between the Scots and North Americans.

Cowboy Celtic Album Cowboy Ceilidh Album

David Wilkie from Alberta, Canada, has been working on his 'Cowboy Celtic' project for a number of years. Not to be confused with modern Country & Western songs, he sees these songs as the real folk music of the Canadian and American west. David has researched many cowboy songs back to their Scots and Irish roots and in 1995 and 1997 he produced two CDs, 'Cowboy Celtic' and 'Cowboy Ceilidh' respectively. David fronts his Cowboy Celtic Band on mandolin, guitar and vocals. On the second album, 'Cowboy Ceilidh', that band was joined by several well-known folk musicians from Scotland and Ireland.

Contact him at Centerfire Music, Box 868, Turner Valley, Alberta, Canada, T0L 2A0 E_mail:


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