[1900:] There are few folks, I am sure, who have, unaided, tried to understand these fascinating and popular verses ["By yon bonnie banks ..."] that have not been sorely puzzled in regard to their drift and meaning. As a matter of fact, their signification has oftener than once, recently, been the subject of newspaper correspondence. Myself put the question to the public a good many years ago. And from all I have learned since, it appears evident - it is also a fitting story - that the refrain of the ballad, as we know it -
O, ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye,
and so forth - was, in substance, the adieu to his sweetheart of one of Prince Charles's followers in the "Forty-five", just before the poor fellow's execution at Carlisle. There is a tradition, indeed, with respect to one in this situation, which avers that his sweetheart - who had journeyed from Scotland, all the way on foot, of course, for the satisfaction of seeing her lover's face once more, and also, mayhap, with the dim hope of securing his pardon - was at the side of the scaffold, and his parting words to her were, in substance, as above stated. The low road, of course, meant, for the prisoner, the grave, and the high road, that which the girl should take to return home; and what was further said was meant to indicate that death would relieve his spirit, and before she could travel back to Loch Lomondside his liberated and still ardent spirit would be there, where they had learned to love each other, where they had plighted their mutual troth, and had hoped to spend their married career in perfect peace and happiness.
One writer, it is true, suspects the origin of the ballad to be older than the "Forty-five", though he, curiously, offers no reason for his suspicion. "Is it likely", he adds, "that any Lennox girl could be present at Carlisle at the military execution of the Jacobites by the Duke of Cumberland? The execution was summary. Rebels with arms in their hands! No trial! How could such a prisoner of war communicate with his true love? Had anything like this occurred in the eighteenth century there would surely have been a definite record." There might, and there might not. There were many doings in the "Forty-five" of which we lack definite information; and of which we may never know. To the larger question I have only to answer, much is possible where love points the way. The parties, unquestionably from the Lennox, were, undoubtedly, furth of Scotland somewhere; and, if not at Carlisle, where were they. That's the rub.
There seems little doubt that the verses which have enjoyed so much vogue in recent years, alike on the concert platform and in the social circle, are but a rescued and revivified fragment of an old country ballad, presumably of considerable length originally. So evident is this, that a large portion is actually extant, which Lady John Scott (but very recently deceased), the writer of the modern and exquisitely beautiful version of Annie Laurie, picked up in the streets of Edinburgh and gave to Sir Noel Paton, I do not know how many years ago. This portion, unfortunately, is not less enigmatical than that which forms the song we have all heard so often, but I will quote it for its own sake, and for the evidence which it affords in relation to the presumption that the ballad, so called, is but a touched-up fragment, and not the whole of the original production. The first three verses, be it noted, are in dialogue; the last four are delivered all in one voice:
[see lyrics above]
Miss F. Mary Colquhoun of Luss has also gathered some wandering verses, notably these:
We'll meet where we parted in bonnie Luss Glen
'Mang the heathery braes o' Ben Lomon'
Starts the roe frae the pass, and the fox frae his den
While abune gleams the moon thro' the rowan
Wi' yer bonnie laced shoon and yer buckles sae clear
And yer plaid o'er yer shouther sae rarely
A'e glance o' yer e'e wad chase awa' ma fear
Sae winsome are yer looks, O, my dearie
These gathered fragments leave almost no reason for doubting but that other portions remain to be collected. It would be of great interest to have the whole. If we had what is wanting, perhaps the drift and meaning of the ballad would be clearly apparent. In the event of these not appearing, however, and, perhaps, whether or not, it may be safe to accept the explanations offered in the opening sentences of the present writing. Unless taken in this, or similar light, the chorus would be nonsense. Now, while it is true that in the modern ballad we find much that "no fellow can understand", the old ballad-makers, with not less genius than the new, kept generally well within the bounds of common sense. The late William Black, the novelist, and others, I know, have given it as their opinion that the composition is wholly of recent origin; and in his recent story of "Wild Eelin", Mr. Black says: "The story that both words and music were taken down from the singing of a little boy in Edinburgh streets won't answer at all; the little street boys of Edinburgh are not in the habit of singing, 'Where in purple hue the Hieland hills we view'. What is that? Is it Highland, or is it Scotch, or is it - rubbish? It's rubbish!" Rubbish it may be, but Mr. Duncan Kippen, of Crieff, and Mr. William Freeland, of Glasgow, each separately have assured me that they heard the ballad sung in the streets, in one form or another, more than sixty years ago. It is not, then, a product quite of yesterday. As to little street boys in Edinburgh not singing such lines as 'Where in purple hue the Hieland hills we view', little street boys in Edinburgh, or elsewhere - or big street boys either, for that matter - sing but what they find, and with understanding or without it. They are not the makers of the songs they sing; and 'tis the airs more frequently than the words which dominates their choice.
In a copy of the song recently issued in music-sheet form, under the title of Bonnie Loch Loman (sic), and with symphony and piano accompaniment by Finlay Dun and John Thomson, it is worth noting, the second two lines of the chorus are made to read:
But trouble it is there, and many hearts are sair
On the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond
The three verses so generally known are each, also, less or more altered; while [...] four are interpolated between the second and the third [, supporting the "Forty- five" theory]. Even the simple, I hope, won't be deceived by these. They are not old verses, but new ones, and poor stuff. One might have borne with the poetical poverty, though, had the writer by his altering made a clearer story and a better song. But this he has not done; and the older and briefer version, with all its mystery, we may be sure, will still "hold the field". (Ford, Histories 275ff)