[1958:] The cornkisters of the Aberdeenshire ploughmen had three main subjects: themselves, their work, and their employers. The first is marked by a jaunty boastfulness:
And as for me, I'll be no sweir tae sing the praise o' ploughmen
But the second and third they use as a vehicle for wry comment. They were stuck on a particular farm and with a particular farmer for a year and there was little they could do but sing and bear it; and sing they did. Of the soil, heavy and hard to work, like that famous 'clay-cauld hole', Rhynie; for their horses - with a mixture of criticism and pride; but especially they sang of the farmer:
And when the bargain's ended they'll toll ye oot twa shillin's
An' grunt an' say that siller's scarce, the set o' leein' villains
Not that the songs are full of self-pity or hatred. They have none of that unyielding bitterness which characterises so many of the miners' songs, for example. Perhaps it was because of their comparative freedom - they had only a year's engagement and the next place might be better - that they substituted humour for bitterness. Certainly their 'feein' time', when they could change farms, exists like a kind of Utopia in their songs:
The term-time is drawing near, fan we will a' win free
An' wi' the weary fairmers again we'll never fee
Drumdelgie shows a bit of all these features. There are, of course, many different verses - and there were many different 'Drumdelgies' to evoke them. The tune, too, is used for many different songs, and not just for those of a cornkister theme. The fact that it is found almost always in the form printed here is probably a proof of its excellence. (Norman Buchan, Weekly Scotsman Sep 25)
[1965:] Like this one, most bothy ballads either give a straight-forward account of a day's work at the particular farm or the story of the term's hiring. The farm servant was fee'd by the half year at the hiring fair where he would be promised easy work and good conditions. If he got a bad bargain, he could do nothing but wait for the end of his term and sing out his discontent. However, the North-Easter, always a fair man, would just as readily praise a good farmer and a fair farmer as he would condemn a bad one and there are numerous bothy ballads to show this. The tune, sometimes called the Irish Jaunting Car, is probably the best known one in Aberdeenshire. It is also common in England, Wales and its native Ireland. (Peter Hall/Arthur Argo, notes 'The Singing Campbells')
[1968:] Many of the bothy ballads give us broad caricatures of employer and workmates alike. The comments are usually pretty caustic, and even the women receive little benefit of chivalry. In this song only the horses get a good word. It is one of the most popular of the genre and its tune is used for many other north east songs as well as being widely known throughout Britain. (Peter Hall, notes Norman Kennedy, 'Scots Songs and Ballads')
[1973:] No wonder Jimmy MacBeath later described the North-East farm servants of that period as 'a very sad-crushed people, very sair crushed doon'. Conditions of work, living accommodation and the food (generally brose) provided for the lads were all the subject of outspoken complaint in the bothy ballads, and when Jimmy sang Drumdelgie to audiences far outside the North-East, he was able to communicate more of the immediate reality of a farm labourer's life in the old days than a hundred Government papers or bureaucratic reports could possibly have done. (Henderson, Alias MacAlias 162)
[1979:] Throughout the period which saw the finest and the most characteristic of the ploughman songs made and put into circulation [late Victorian and Edwardian times], the farm servants had no Union to protect their interests - the nearest thing to one was the Horseman's Word, a clandestine freemasonry specialising in drinking bouts, supernatural folklore and esoteric in-group techniques of horse management - and the picture of farm life [...] is a pretty grim one; long hours, insufficient diet, and (all too often, on the part of the farmers) a harsh prepotent code of subjection and victimization.
The fees paid to farm servants were exceedingly small, by any standards, to well within living memory. [...] Unmarried farm servants were hired for a six-month term at the feeing fairs [...].
Once back on his new farm, the fee'd man would find out whether he was to be "bothied" or "chaulmered". The bothy proper was a solid stone-built out-house, in which the unmarried labourers slept, and had their living-quarters. There were usually two compartments in the bothy - one where the lads had their meals, and sat in the evenings, and the dormitory, fitted up with wooden boneshaker bothy beds - these were "fixtures", with cauf (chaff) mattresses, the latter being refilled once a year ("Stuffed as full as possible, so that they looked like coos in the family way"). At night, when the lads were bedded down - and on cold winter nights especially, there would be every incentive to go to bed - sing-songs helped to pass the time away, and this was the setting in which bothy ballads were swapped, re-made and improvised.
These bothies were a feature of big farms like Rettie, Crichie and Drumdelgie, but most farms in the North-East were "family size" farms, and in these the servants were accommodated in the chaulmer, which was usually a loft over the stable, although it might be an upstairs room in the farm steading itself - sometimes reached by an outside stairway. There would probably be two to four men housed in the chaulmer, whereas there might be as many as eight in a big farm's bothy. [...] Although, in addition to his exiguous wage, he got fresh milk, salt and oatmeal from the farmer's wife, plus a little butter, the living conditions of the "bothy chiel" were of the crudest. The staple diet was brose - oatmeal and boiling water - which many servants had to make do with, three times a day. (The lucky ones might have porridge and milk, or saps - bread and milk - as their evening meal, and maybe pease-meal brose or turnip brose on a Sunday). No wonder the farm servants not infrequently came out in a rash, from excess of oatmeal intake; this rash, known as "Scotch fiddle", was a kind of scurvy. The married men on the farm, who were "cottared" - i.e. were accommodated in tied cottar houses - grew kail if they possibly could, because it was an anti-scorbutic. Brose was eaten from a wooden bowl (the "caup"); this was never washed, just scraped thoroughly with a spoon. Chairs and tables were scrubbed with white sand by the men themselves. On some farms a woman - the "kitchie dee" - would keep the place clean, make the beds and maybe bake the lads oatcakes. The monotonous oatmeal diet was of course augmented - if possible - by thievery; the lads stole eggs and poached salmon. If they got hold of a hen, they had a way of cooking it wrapped up in clay among the ashes of the fire; when the clay was peeled off, the feathers came off along with it.
As for the "darg" (the daily toil) itself, this is meticulously documented in a score of bothy songs - for example, in the one describing the ongoings at that famous "fairm- toon up in Cairnie", the Hash o' Drumdelgie [...]. This was the bothy life as thousands knew it. It was "gey roch" (pretty rough) and we can hardly regret its passing. However, it should always be remembered that, as scores of bothy songs show, the lads often took great pride in their work, and in their horse and harness [...].
The bothy chiels were also lucky in that they were the inheritors of one of the largest and most voluminous folk song traditions in the British Isles. When the day's work was done, and the lads were away to the bothy, a tune on the melodeon or the whistle, or "a stave o' an aul' sangie" would soon cheer them up, and help to soften the rigours and harshnesses of the kind of life we have been describing.
Another point worth stressing is that the life of the men who were chaulmered was a good deal more agreeable than the bothy style proper, for they were fed in the farm kitchen and were therefore much more part of the family.
One of the great occasions of the year was the "meal and ale", a jollification after the harvest. This time the ever-present oatmeal was mixed with the contents of several bottles of whisky, and was merely the preliminary to a big feed of mutton broth or vegetable broth. [...]
The farm scene itself often provided good material for satire or comic invective, and new songs were composed commemorating the trials and tribulations of poetically gifted bothy chiels at farms like Castles of Auchry, Drumdelgie, and the Barnyards of Delgaty. These often contained stanzas warning other farm servants against falling for the blandishments of skinflint farmers. [...] Farms in which working conditions were bad were likewise blacklisted in mordant satirical stanzas. This type of song can thus be said to have fulfilled a useful practical function. [...] A new "bothy ballad" chronicling the antics or infamies of one particular farm community would not take long to travel to even the remotest corners of that fertile song-struck North-East province. "Ballad" is not of course to be understood in the restricted sense of classic or "Child" ballad [...]. Another term frequently used - but more often nowadays on the music hall stage or at a "bothy nicht" concert than on the farm - is "cornkister". This harks back to the leisure-hour habit the lads had of sitting on the corn-kist - the box in the stable which contained the horses' fodder - and raising a song. However, "cornkister" was and is used mainly of songs like Sleepytoon or The Guise o' Tough which deal with the farm itself, or the life associated with it. (Hamish Henderson, notes 'Bothy Ballads')
[1995:] Greig and Duncan found Drumdelgie to be the most popular of all the bothy ballads, recording 21 versions, even more than The Barnyards of Delgaty. Unlike many of the genre, which are made up of bits and pieces, Drumdelgie gives a very logical narrative of the day's work on the farm, with the servants looking to their horses before breakfast, then milling and winnowing the grain before daylight when they can yoke their horses to the plough. The farm, which lies between Huntly and Keith, in the hilly country in the north west of Aberdeenshire, is no longer in cultivation, but given over to forestry and leisure pursuits, a sure sign of the marginal nature of much of the land in the area. (Peter Hall, notes 'Folk Songs of North-East Scotland')