[1900:] This is a song that has few equals in its class, and which, though more than 200 years old, is as potent today as when it fell fresh from the imagination of its author, Francis Sempill, the last of the rhyming Lairds of Beltrees. The Sempills of Beltrees, in Renfrewshire, were distinguished as poets when Scottish poets were few and obscure. [...]
Francis was the son of Robert, and grandson of James; and in addition to Maggie Lauder contributed to the volume of popular song such toothsome, graphic, and lively items as The Blythsome Bridal, Hallow Fair, and She raise and loot me in. He was born at Beltrees in or about the year 1605, and died in or about the year 1680. Of his personal history little is known further than that he was a warm adherent of the Stuarts, wrote several panegyrics on James II. while Duke of York and Albany, and held the office of Sheriff- Depute of Renfrewshire. It is enough for us in this time that Francis Sempill wrote the ever-delightsome song of Maggie Lauder. The county sheriff and the political partisan are soon forgotten, but the writer of a simple song that unites the common heart in a glow of ecstasy - his name remains forever.
Doubts, to be sure, have been thrown out as to Sempill being the author of Maggie Lauder at all. These are based on two grounds, the first being that the scene of the song belongs to Fifeshire; and the second, that the song, if as old as Sempill's day, would have appeared in Ramsay's "Tea-Table Miscellany", which it does not. In reply to these objections it may be said, in all fairness, that although the heroine, Maggie Lauder, professedly belonged to Anster (Anstruther), yet the scene of the song is not laid there, nor even in the county of that town, for in the very first verse we are told "A piper met her gaun to Fife." As to the song not appearing in the "Tea-Table Miscellany", that might arise from the same accident or oversight by which various other old and worthy songs are missing from that yet wonderfully comprehensive collection. Allan Ramsay was not infallible. Moreover, the allusion to Habbie Simpson in the last stanza should be admitted to favour the claim for Sempill being the author, for Simpson was a noted piper in Kilbarchan village, contiguous to the estate of Beltrees, and had already provoked the muse of the elder Sempill (Francis's father). But really in the present day there is no one who has any doubt about the authorship; and the honour, without contention, goes to Francis Sempill, at whose worthy credit it will doubtless remain.
If the identity of the author is fixed beyond reasonable cavil, not so, however, the personality of the heroine, which has long been a question of speculation among the antiquaries. There seems fairly good reason to believe that William de Anstruther, who occupied the Castle of Dreel, in this little Fifeshire town, in King Alexander's time, did bring home a wife named Lady Margaret Lauder from the opposite side of the Forth; but that this was the lady who shook her foot with "richt gude-will" to Rob the Ranter's piping is, to say the least, somewhat doubtful. Professor Tennant, in his elaborate poem of "Anster Fair", describes Maggie as a wealthy heiress, while Captain Charles Gray, in his sequel to the song, locates her in "a snug wee house in the East Green". Sir Robert Lauder of the Ross, the loyal Scottish cavalier, certainly had a sister who was celebrated as a dancer. More than that, she was celebrated for her bravery.
Sir Robert's farm and buildings where he stored his corn, being on the mainland at North Berwick, and his seed corn having at the time been laid up in sacks in his granary, Cromwell sent a party of his Ironsides to seize it for the use of his troops, then encamped near Dunbar. Sir Robert's servants, being too few in numbers to resist, came in great tribulation to tell Mistress Margaret, their master being away. Mistress Margaret, as the story goes, at once called for "a sharp knife and a strong flail". Having got these, she entered the granary; and after upbraiding the plundering Roundheads for their lawless proceedings, she ripped up all the sacks and scattered the corn, and then laid about her so lustily with the flail that the men took to flight and left their spoil. The character here revealed would perfectly agree with the Maggie Lauder of the song; but the connection has not been definitely established, and the real Maggie Lauder has yet to be discovered.
As regards the tune to which the song has always been sung, it is said to have been known in England by the name of Maggie Louther; and even the Irish have claimed its paternity, alleging that the Scots stole it from their minstrelsy, and put it to the base use of celebrating "a famous courtesan of Crail". But there is no proof that the air is not originally Scotch any more than the song itself. Certainly it was popular in London for a time, but that was not until nearly the middle of the last century, when it was sung in the "Quaker's Opera" performed at Bartholomew Fair in 1728, and was introduced into Gay's opera of "Achilles" produced in 1733.
Burns held the song in high esteem, and there never was a better judge of song-ware. "It is so pregnant with Scottish naiveté and energy," he says, "it is much relished by all ranks, notwithstanding its broad wit and palpable allusions. Its language is a precious model of imitation - sly, sprightly, and forcibly expressive. Maggie's tongue wags out the nicknames of Rob the Piper with all the careless lightsomeness of unrestrained gaiety." That is so. But here I am reminded of one other controversial point with regard to the song. Was it Maggie or the Piper that was "gaun to Fife"? Strange as it may appear to those who read with both eyes open, there has been more wind wasted in the endeavour to solve this problem (so-called) than would have kept the Ranter's drone bumming for a year and a day. The third line says in simple and unequivocal language - "A piper met her gaun to Fife", the only reasonable inference from which is that Maggie was "gaun to Fife"; yet that poor innocent, simple and natural sentence has been contorted and subjected to the most absurd punctuation and jerky declamation in order to prove that it was the piper, and not Maggie Lauder, who was going to Fife. Oh, the dullards! Even although the statement here had not been altogether clear and emphatic, they had only to read on to the last verse to have every doubt removed, when Maggie says:
Gin ye should come to Anster Fair
Speir ye for Maggie Lauder
The word come surely places the matter beyond dispute. [...]
[Captain Charles] Gray was a schoolfellow of Dr. Chalmers, the preacher, and of Professor Tennant, the author of "Anster Fair", who were natives of the same town. In his poems and songs [he published Sequel to Maggie Lauder]. [...] Those verses, I said are worth quoting, but so only because they are well meant and in excellent taste, and not because the song requires a sequel. No song does, any more than it requires a moral. The song indeed which leaves untold what one would like to know is no true song. The original song here is in itself perfect, the glimpse it affords is a happy and refreshing one (no song should be more than a glimpse), and the parties depicted in the scene - why! we are left without concern as to whether they should ever meet again in this world or no. Their identities is another matter. In the song itself - happy come, happy go. (Ford, Histories 96ff)
[1930:] It was about the year 1680 - two hundred and fifty years ago - that Francis Sempill died, who was the author of the well-known old Scottish song, "Maggie Lauder". The Sempills of Beltrees, Renfrewshire, were distinguished as poets when poets were few. [...] Doubts have been thrown on Sempill's authorship of this song, but the allusion to Habbie Simpson in the last stanza should be admitted in his favour, as Habbie was a noted piper in Kilbarchan village, near the estate of Beltrees, and Robert Sempill's poem had him as its subject. Burns had a high opinion of the song, and said of it: - "It is so pregnant with Scottish naiveté and energy, it is so much relished by all ranks, notwithstanding its broad wit and palpable allusions. Its language is a precious model of imitation - sly, sprightly, and forcibly expressive. Maggie's tongue wags out the nicknames of Rob, the piper, with all the careless lightsomeness of unrestrained gaiety."
The tune to which the song has always been sung is said to have been known in England, but there is no proof that the air is not originally Scotch, though certainly it was popular in London for a time. That, however, was not until nearly the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was sung in "The Quaker's Opera" in 1728, and introduced into Gay's opera of "Achilles," produced in 1733. (James Baird, F.S.A. Scot., Weekly Scotsman, 1 Feb)
[1962:] Francis Sempill had had attributed to him, in addition to Maggie Lauder, the roistering and outrageous song, The Blythsome Bridal. His authorship of both these songs has been disputed, mainly because it is based on the unconfirmed claims of his grandchildren. (Buchan, Folksongs 149)
[1970:] Sir Robert Sempill [Laird] of Beltrees (?1595-?1660) [...] ushers in the new day with his comic elegy on Habbie Simpson ['The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan'], the stanza of which was to become so famous that we now call it 'Standard Habbie'. [...] Son of Sir Robert, Francis (?1616-?1685) followed his father in rhyming as in estate, and the best of his few poems is the one given here. It has an excellent tune, one of our best songs. (Penguin Book of Scottish Verse 9f)
William Tennant's 'Anster Fair' is a [...] comedy deriving from Francis Sempill's song, Maggie Lauder [...]. (Penguin Book of Scottish Verse 47)
[1977:] It always amuses me that this fairly obvious piece of symbolism managed to pass with flying colours the great purge of anything the slightest bit risqué which happened, especially in Scotland. (Notes Dick Gaughan, 'Kist o' Gold')
[1980:] One of the most renowned of Scottish pipers is Habbie Simpson, the early seventeenth-century Town Piper of Kilbarchan in Renfrewshire, whose life and reputation are celebrated in an elegy by the laird-poet Robert Semple of Beltrees. (Hugh Cheape in Cowan 145)
[1988:] Doubts of Sempill's authorship confirmed in Donaldson, Song 31