A new date for an old melody – A Rock and a Wee Pickle Tow

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The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow as it appears in the Scots Guards collection, volume 1.

By Seán Donnelly

A Rock and Wee Pickle Tow (or The Linlithgow March) is a tune that needs no introduction. Like Cock o’ the North, a descendant of Joan’s Placket is Torn, first published in 1685 but referred to from the 1660s onward, A Rock and a Wee Pickle Tow also derives from a tune published in the 1660s. In ‘Musick’s Hand-maid’ (London, 1663; rep. 1678) John Playford called it The Scotch March and in ‘Musick’s Delight on the Cithren’ (London, 1666) he called it Montrosse’s March; later titles include Green Goose Fair (1714), and The Retreat or Pretender’s March (1752).

It is clear that a good deal of arbitrary renaming was going on in Playford’s publications and in fact this tune had previously appeared in John Benson and John Playford’s, ‘A booke of new lessons for the cithern and gittern: …’ (London 1652), as The Irish Rant (no. 28). This version is reprinted in Aloys Fleichman et al. (eds.), ‘Sources of Irish traditional music c. 1600-1855’ (Cork and Dublin, 1999), no. 43, and is transposed up a 6th to bagpipe pitch. There are differences between this version and the later Playford ones; one thing they do have in common, though, is an extra bar, the 5th or 6th, in part II.

The occurrence of the tune as an Irish one as early as 1652 upsets previous assumptions about its popularity in Ireland, where it is associated with the province of Munster, especially Co. Kerry, and called O’Sullivan’s March. Romantics had it that this was the clan-march of the O’Sullivans, and the title has also been expanded to O’Sullivan’s March to Leitrim. This refers to the famous mid-winter trek of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from Dunboy Castle in West Cork, to Co. Leitrim, after the battle of Kinsale on December 23, 1601. Of the 1,000 men, women and children who set out only seven reached Hugh O’Rourke’s stronghold in Leitrim, so mercilessly was the party harried on their way north.

The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow as it appears in the Scots Guards collection, volume 1.

But there is little doubt that the title O’Sullivan’s March originated in some words sung to the tune: “De bheatha ad’ shlainte, Ui Shuilleabhain Mhoir”, (Greetings and good health, O’Sullivan Mor). Dozens of songs and verses in Irish are sung to the tune, of which several Irish versions have been collected and published. In Ireland it is the air of the well-known nursery rhyme, ‘There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket’, though elsewhere this is sung to Lillibulero. The famous Munster poet, Eoghan Rua O Suilleabhain (1748-84), composed a lullaby to this air for his natural son, “A bhile gan chealg” (O branch without treachery). The fabulous gifts he promised the child included “claidheamh Alasdruim” (the sword of Alasdair), that is the famous Alasdair mac Cholla, who was killed at the battle of Knockanuss, near Kanturk, Co. Cork, in November 1647. Previously, this tune has been assumed to have been one of the numerous Scottish tunes popular in 18th century Ireland to which various Munster poets wrote songs. The original titles of these tunes gradually faded from sight as later poets wrote to the same airs, but referred them under the titles of the previous Irish songs. This, however, appears not to be true of O’Sullivan’s March (to use its most popular Irish title).

Where it is cited as the air of a song, the title is usually in Irish; certainly there is no hint that the tune was thought to be Scottish. Neither do the played Irish versions of the tune derive from A Rock and Wee Pickle Tow — though it is possible that this version of the tune is known in Co. Donegal, where there is a strong Scottish influence on the local fiddle style. In contrast, Co. Kerry is about as far away from Scotland as is possible to go in Ireland, and the tune seems to have been so deeply embedded in the tradition of the county that it is likely to have been known there from quite an early date. 1652 is, of course, the year of this tune’s first known publication; how much older it could be is anyone’s guess.

In form the tune is reminiscent of Lillibulero, though the two are not melodically related, and words set to one can be (and often are) sung to the other. Though Lillibulero is not found in print before the 1680s and ’90s, there are suggestions that the title dates from the 1640s. If true, this would mean that both these tunes were more or less contemporary.

• From the December 2001 Piping Times.