Bob Dylan acknowledges a debt

Bob Dylan acknowledges a debt to the bothy ballad of the North East of Scotland.[1]    The bothy ballad is a form of song associated with farm life and in particular the bothy, in the North East of Scotland during 19th and early 20th century.  The bothy was an intimate space, created within existing farm buildings, to meet a need for accommodation for unmarried male farm workers. From that specific space comes a cultural tradition, the bothy ballad, also intimate, expressing the often-harsh experience of life.

The Building

In the North East of Scotland, from Angus and the Mearns through to Moray, the bothy was living quarters for unmarried male farm workers. [2]   In old Aberdeenshire, and specifically Buchan, there was a variation, the chaumer.[3]

The bothy is also (and perhaps more generally) a hut in the mountains used by walkers. The history of the Cairngorm Club records the members’ involvement with bothies since before the Second World War [4], and since the 1960’s the Mountain Bothy Association [5] has also been maintaining and renovating bothies in Scotland. The origin of this form of accommodation is in the transhumance, the seasonal cycle of moving animals from winter lowland pastures to summer highland pastures. This cycle is found throughout the world.

The bothy (or chaumer) on a farm came about as a result of the agricultural improvements. Neither meaning of the word, although apparently referring to a specific building type, actually specifies any style of architecture. Mountain bothies range from the smallest tin roofed shed, to substantial multi-roomed buildings. Farm bothies in later years were separate buildings in the farmyard, but were typically within the steadings.[6]

“The name depended on faur ye bade or fit size o a fairm ye were feed on. A chaumer wis a wee biggin or room, sometimes at the end o a steadin or next tae a wash hoose, or a room up abeen a stable or barn. In fac if it wis up abeen a stable or barn the bothy lad wid hae got the heat fae the horse or beasts. A chaumer didna hae a fire, an the single lads wad hae been fed in the fairm kitchen bi the kitchie deem. The chaumer or bothies wid hae been lined or wid jist hae been steen an lime waas. There wid hae been een or twa bothy lads on a sma fairm an they workit alang wi the fairmer.

The bothy wis a bigger affair wi een or twa rooms, an they wid hae held sax, acht, or ten men if it wis a big fairm. The big bothies were maist aften found in the Mearns or up Buchan wye, richt up tae Morayshire. The big bothies wid hae a fire faur the men wid hae made their ain maet. Geyn aften een o the younger lads wid hae haen tae dae it for them aa. They hid gey simple maet, in fac it wis aften kent they hid brose for their brakfest denner an tea an fan they were askit if they niver got fed up o brose they wid say ‘Foo cwid ye get fed up o yer maet?’”  [7]

Farm bothies and the culture associated with them appear as a result of agricultural improvements. Starting in the mid-1700s the structure of farming changed. Landowners sought to improve their land, and part of this involved reorganising the workforce. Planned villages such as Cuminestown (1739) through to Lumsden (1825) were built.[8]   No longer did people live where they worked. Moreover, they were recruited to farms at feeing markets held in the major towns at Whitsunday (15 May) and Martinmas (11 November).[9]   The timing of the feeing markets probably relates to the timing of movements in the transhumance, but were also convenient to the farmers who were able to hire appropriate labour for the winter or summer season.

The Song

The bothy ballad develops from a much older oral tradition of muckle ballads. By the advent of the bothy ballad the culture was literate.[10]   Bothy ballads were memorised, and even distributed in ‘chap books’ at feeing markets.

The importance of the bothy ballad as a cultural expression is highlighted by Francis J Child[11] who published The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. This is the standard work, and of the 305 ballads he collected, 91 are from Aberdeenshire.

The bothy ballads tell us about the life of the farm worker. They remain an important part of the culture of the area, although the agricultural system that brought the bothies and the ballads about ended with the advent of the bicycle and the tractor.  The one enabled farm workers to travel greater distances to work and the other reduced the number of men required to run the farm.

The bothy ballads describe the character of life including the priorities of the day, such as feeding the horses before the men:

At five o’clock we quickly rise
An hurry doon the stair;
It’s there to corn oor horses,
Likewise tae straik their hair.
Syne, efter workin half-an-hour,
Each tae the kitchie goes,
It’s there tae get oor brakfest
Which generally is brose.

Drumdelgie, Traditional [12]

Bothy ballads are often humorous and satirical. The farmer is criticised because his horses are in poor condition and his plough is broken. The food, which in any case most consisted of oatmeal, is described in detail:

The milk it wis blue an the porridge wis thin –
Like a coord in a battle – aye willin tae rin!
An the breid wis sae teuch an the scones wis sae raa,
Man, it took near a yokin yir brakfest tae chaa!

The Foreman at Drum, Traditional [13]

The insight that the bothy ballads provide us with is important because the character of agricultural life has changed dramatically over the 20th century. The movement of people from the land to villages and towns has continued, and with the reduction in people employed in agricultural work, accelerated.


The bothy ballads point us to the important relationship between a building and a culture. Whilst we cannot define an architectural type for a bothy, and can only speak about a range of locally and time specific characteristics, we can identify a very specific relationship with a cultural form. This cultural form, the bothy ballad, continues to play an important role in contemporary folk music, and also has made a significant contribution to the evolution of contemporary popular music.

The built environment and in particular the common places, the public space, is increasingly understood to need a cultural dimension. This is not an uncomplicated picture. On the one hand we have a wave of new cultural buildings such as the Tate Modern in London, and the Baltic in Gateshead. We have regeneration projects led by cultural agendas and involving artists. On the other had we have increasing demand for housing, which often results in what we might call large areas of monoculture. One thing we might learn from the history of the bothy and the ballad is that there can be a fruitful connection between the domestic and the creative.

The three projects in the ‘Intimate’ section of the exhibition are all driven by a cultural and creative energy. All three projects are initiatives that have developed on the West Coast of Scotland – the Highlands, Islands, and Argyll. They all address intimacy in large sparsely populated areas, creating desirable spaces to bring people together.

The Screen Machine, a mobile cinema, is perhaps the closest to the bothy in being a functional space (an articulated lorry) which is animated by the performances. The mobile cinema is itinerant around the rural parts of Scotland.

An Turas on Tiree (Sutherland Hussey Architects, Jake Harvey, Sandra Kennedy, Glen Onwin, Donald Urquhart) is a collaboration between architects and artists. The new structure engages the temporary inhabitant with the environment and landscape by structuring natural light entering, and focusing views out.

The Windshelter at Campbeltown (Calum Stirling) creates a meeting place for people in the town. The design acknowledges the weather on the West Coast of Scotland by enabling the shelter to rotate 360°, but also through using sustainable technology to generate power, acknowledges the value of the climate.

These initiatives all take as their starting point the mundane or vanishing spaces of rural life. The values they embody and articulate speak to all modest human spaces whether rural or urban. All of these projects (which we respond to as imaginative, aesthetic, and functional) have required an act of imagination to create something new.

The bothy ballads developed as a creative form out of harsh, undervalued and apparently insignificant circumstances. Yet they are one of the great cultural flowerings of the North East of Scotland.

Perhaps we should look at the small spaces with more care and attention. We could imagine them as potential locations for cultural activity. We need to develop an imagination about the insignificant.

How can we imagine a bus stop as a place for song? (A bothy for ballads?) We already have a telephone box as an architectural space for telecommunication: how could we develop it for a wider range of spoken word? Instead of closing public toilets, what could we re-imagine them as?

Today the bus shelter is the space in rural villages inhabited by young people in the evenings. Most adults feel that it is a cause for concern. How can we make a bus shelter that encourages those young people to engage in their own culture? The bus shelter is already the place where they discuss their lives. How could the bus shelter enable them to express themselves? Should they be able to listen to hip-hop or nu-metal? Could they make music in a bus shelter?

I am sure that Bob Dylan would approve.

[1] According to Marc Ellington, Bob Dylan made these remarks when he played in Aberdeen a couple of years ago.

[2] The Concise Scots Dictionary, The Scottish National Dictionary Association, 1985, Aberdeen University Press.

[3] Chaumer is a derivation of the French chambre, ibid.

[4] The Cairngorm Mountain Club 1887 – 1987, Sheila Murray, The Cairngorm Mountain Club, 18, Bon Accord Square, Aberdeen.

[5] accessed 26 November 2012.

[6] The development of separate bothies, outwith the existing steadings or farm buildings, seems to have occurred in the late 19th century following the ‘Master and Servant Act of 1867’ and the formation of the Scottish Farm Servants Union in 1886. Willie Petrie, who lives in Lumsden, described living in a chaumer above a neep shed when he was feed at Boghead Farm. This must have been in the early part of the 20th century. At Auchinleith, also in Lumsden the building that contains the chaumer is still standing. This is a small room, perhaps 3m. by 5m. with a fireplace and a window, and backs onto a stable.

[7] The Bothy or Chaumer (Fairm), by Anne Reid, Kist, Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen, by kind permission of Dr. Ian Russell, accessed 26 November 2012.

[8] History in the Grampian Landscape, Sydney Wood and John Patrick, published by Robin Callander, Haughend, Finzean, Aberdeenshire.

[9] Both were moved in 1886 to the 28th of the month.

[10] The Ballad and the Folk, David Buchan, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

[11] Francis J Child (1825-1896) was born son of a Boston sailmaker. He rose to a Professorship at Harvard and travelled in the UK and Europe. See accessed 26 November 2012.

[12] See Kist, Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen accessed 26 November 2012.

[13] ibid.

One Response

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  1. Failure « CHRIS FREMANTLE said, on November 26, 2012 at 11:05 am

    […] the wrong end of the stick and wrote something about Bob Dylan and Bothy Ballads (you can read it here).  My piece was never published.  They had to get someone else to do the […]

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