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In the 19th century many ballads were written about folk going abroad. A large number went to seek their fame and fortune, others to escape difficult economic conditions and some to fight the foreign foe – be it the French in Napoleon’s time or the Russians in the Crimea in the 1850s.

But no matter what the reason the ballads reflect a deeply-felt love of their home place and in many cases the hero - usually male – is pining for a loved one he had to leave behind.

The broadsides in the collection reflect these themes and the sheer number of them published reflect the huge numbers of Scots and Irish who set sail for foreign shores during this period.

Illustration from 'Donald's Farewell to Lochaber'
Donald's Farewell to Lochaber
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Donald's Farewell to Lochaber

This famous song, usually known simply as ‘Farewell to Lochaber’, was written by Allan Ramsay (1684-1758) and was first published in his Tea-Table Miscellany in 1724.

Lochaber, in the north-west of Scotland, is a wild and rugged place of mountain and moorland, running from the Great Glen to Knoydart on the coast. The ‘dangers attending on Wear’ (war) mentioned in the second verse, may be a reference to the Jacobite uprising of 1715. Ramsay, though not a participant in the conflict, had strong Jacobite sympathies.

There are echoes of the refrain ‘Lochaber no more’ in the Proclaimers’ song ‘Letter from America’ (1987).

Illustration from 'The Irish Emigrant'
The Irish Emigrant
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The Irish Emigrant

Written by Helen Selina Blackwood (also known as the Countess of Gifford and Lady Duferin) (1807-1867), this song is still sung in Ireland today. It is usually known by its first line ‘I’m sittting on the stile, Mary…’ Many Irish ballads were popular in Scotland because of the significant number of Irish people who came to Scotland to find work throughout the 19th century. This is the best-known of a number of sentimental songs the author wrote on the subject of emigration from Ireland. George Bernard Shaw, in his 1906 play John Bull’s Other Island, described this ballad as ‘twaddle’!
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National Library of Scotland 2004

National Library of Scotland