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The Raggle Taggle Gypsy

Busy week for me. After the Sons first leg play off on Wednesday, I have a solo gig to do on Friday night. Just me, a guitar and a harmonica rack. One of the songs I’ll be doing is Raggle Taggle Gypsy.

This is Mike Scott and Steve Wickham performing the song:

It is the story of gypsies arriving at a nobleman’s hall and one of them charming the lady of the house to run away with him. The lord, on discovering what has happened rides on his “milk white steed” until he finds his lady.

When he locates her he asks plaintively how she could leave her house, land, money, comfort and her husband to lie in a field with a “raggle taggle gypsy”. The lady is scornful and retorts that she doesn’t care and that “I’m away wi’ the raggle taggle gypsy oh!”

I’ve been familiar with the song, originally through the Waterboys, for years but I have never checked on its origins before. When I did I found that it started life as another song and is based on a historical event in the Scottish Borders.

That song was The Gypsy Laddie and it dates to around 1720. However the tale it tells is from many years previous to that.

Nick Tosches, in his Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘N’ Roll, spends part of his first chapter examining the song’s history. He compares the song’s narrative to the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The ballad, according to Tosches, retells the story of John Faw or Faa, a 17th century outlaw, described as a Scottish Gypsy, and Lady Jane Hamilton, wife of John Kennedy, 6th Earl of Cassilis.

Lord Cassilis led a band of men to abduct her.

The story goes that the gypsies (possibly as many as 16) were hanged by the lord and his men and that Lady Jane spent the rest of her life imprisoned.

Robert Burns recorded his love of the song in the Reliques of Robert Burns which was a collection of traditional poems and letters and critiques of traditional songs. It is believed that the Burns songs Leezie Lindsay and Tibbie Dunbar were inspired by The Gypsy Laddie.

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy would therefore seem to be a somewhat romanticised if not sanitised version of the story but that is the one I’ll be sticking to on Friday. However the introduction could be longer than the song!