The Word on the Street
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Broadsides on all themes ranging from romance and exile to politics and sport were often published as ballads. Many of these were derived from past folk culture and learnt by ear rather than from a written source. In time the term came to be applied more broadly to any kind of popular or topical verse. The popularity of the street ballad coincided with the decline of the traditional minstrel.

Among the earliest ballads printed was 'The ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge', written by John Skelton about the battle of Flodden Field, 1513. Broadside ballads became popular as a means of expression in Britain during the Reformation, and by the early 19th century had adapted to deal with the concerns of ordinary people.


Famous writers such as Robert Burns, Robert Tannahill and Allan Ramsay produced ballads, but generally the composer was unknown. Most of the ballads were sung by hawkers who sold them for a penny or a halfpenny.

In an age when when most of the population was illiterate, street balladry was a popular form of entertainment, as well as providing the general public with the latest news. The tunes were either established favourites or occasionally new tunes which were suggested on the sheet of words. Only a small number of broadsides printed musical notation - often only for decoration.

Bonnie Mary of Argyle
Highland Mary
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'Highland Mary'

'Bonnie Mary of Argyle' is one of the best-known of Scottish ballads. It was written by two Englishmen, Charles Jeffries (1807-1865) (words) and Sidney Nelson (1800-1862) (music). It is not known when it was first published - possibly during the 1850s.

The 'Mary' in question was Robert Burns's beloved 'Highland Mary' (Mary Campbell, 1763-1786) born in Dunoon. In her early teens she became a nursemaid in a house in Mauchline. There, Burns fell in love with her after he had been 'deserted' by Jean Armour. It appears that the poet and Mary had planned to emigrate to Jamaica, before she tragically died at Greenock from a fever.

James Lindsay, who published this broadside, was one of the most prolific publishers of broadsides in Glasgow. He sold his material to pedlars, hawkers and street-criers rather than directly to customers straight off the street.

    Detail from Gaberlunyman broadside
The new way of Gaberlunyman
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'The new way of Gaberlunyman'

In medieval Scotland, a 'Gaberlunyman', or more commonly 'Gaberlunzie Man', was a licensed beggar and beadsman, who would pray for the souls of others for a fee.

The word 'gaberlunzie' is believed to have come from the French words 'gaban', referring to a sleeved, hooded cloak, and 'laine', meaning 'wool'. The cloaks these men wore were blue, so they were also known as 'bluegowns'. It was also one of the names by which King James V was known when he travelled anonymously among his people.

This ballad probably dates from the period 1700-1720 and predates Allan Ramsay's song about the 'Gaberlunzie Man' which was published in his Tea-Table Miscellany in the 1720s.

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National Library of Scotland 2004

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