Tracing ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland

Dr Brianna Robertson-Kirkland is the Research Assistant for the Romantic National Song Network and is also a Research Associate for The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay project. Her biography can be found on the Network Members page.


POPULAR MELODIES, English, Scotch, Irish and Welch arranged as Rondos and Variations for the Piano-Forte, by JOSEPH DE PINNA. Nos. 1 to 6. Published by the Royal Harmonic Institutions.

These airs, are Rule Britannia; When the Hallow Drum from the Mountaineers: A Rose-Tree in full bearing, from The Poor Solder; Auld Lang Syne; The Highland Laddie, and The Yellow Hair’d Laddie. […] all of them are very easy and pretty, for they are formed upon some of the most popular of our British Melodies, and are well adapted for young performers, who may derive both pleasure and instruction from these productions of our native land (The Harmonicon, 1823: 40).

It is perhaps redundant to state ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ is a popular song with a long and complex history. Redundant, but not untrue. Though many will recognise it as a well-known Scots song popularised by Robert Burns, the advertisement which opens this post bundles it in the category of ‘British song’. It has appeared in broadsides, tune books, dancing collections, and London theatre productions and while its origins are almost certainly Scottish, by the early 1800s it appeared in several British songster collections. In this blog post, I will trace the history of ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ showing its subtle move from a purely Scots to British national identity in the early 19th century.

As noted by Murray Pittock (2018), ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ first appeared as a 17th century broadside ballad. There are in fact three broadside ballads printed around the same period that make use of this tune, though they all have different lyrics.

1672-1696 ?. ‘The Country-mans care in choosing a Wife’. Printed for P. Brooksby, in West-smithfield. Collection: Magdalene College – Pepys.

1700. ‘THE / Royal Shepherd’s / Happy Life’. Collection: National Library of Scotland – Rosebery.

1701. ‘BONNY HELEN / A New Song. Collection: National Library of Scotland – Rare Books I.262

Broadside ballads were commonly hawked on the street and a good tune could be recycled several times, perhaps to encourage buyers to purchase a new broadside, which could be sung to a recognisable melody. Claude Simpson’s 1966 book The British Broadside Ballad and its Music is still a must read for any broadside enthusiast, but since the early 2000s there has been much more research activity on broadside ballads, which is uncovering a fascinating musical history. Databases such as Broadside Ballad Online ( and the English Broadside Ballad Archive ( have uploaded thousands of broadside sheets, which are searchable by lyric and/or tune and there have been more up-to-date studies published in the last ten years, which depict a more nuanced picture of the broadside tradition. These include Folk Song in England by Steve Roud (2016) and Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500-1800 edited by Patricia Fumerton, Anita Guerrini and Kris McAbee (2010).

None of these broadsheets are printed with music notation and there are no song sheets or broadsides with music notation from this early period. However, the tune ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ is musically notated in The Balcarres Lute Book dated around 1700, which includes several native Scots airs, English popular tunes, and French baroque lute music. Of the three versions, two are described as being in ‘Mr Beck’s way’ and one in Mr Lessley’s way. The two versions by Mr Beck are almost identical except for the addition of a variation, but both Beck and Leslie’s versions are recognisably similar, with only slight differences in the ornamentation (Spring, 2010).

As is the case with several Scottish music manuscripts no text appears in the Balcarres Lute Book, and it isn’t obvious if the creator of the lute book intended lyrics to be sung to the notated melody. Both William Stenhouse (1853) and John Glen (1900) were unaware of The Balcarres Lute Book and suggested the first appearance of the tune in its musically notated form was much later. However, Stenhouse correctly identified the tune in the 1709 manuscript by Mrs Crockat, which tuned up in the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House in the early 2000s ( Unfortunately, little is known about Elizabeth Crockat, but several Scots airs are notated in her music book (again without lyrics). A surprisingly busy version of the melody can also be found in the Gairdyn manuscript (created between 1710-1735), which includes a mix of Scottish traditional tunes and popular English melodies including ‘Rule Britannia’ (Stell, 1991: 87).

By the early 18th century, ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ melody frequently appeared in printed Scottish collections including John and William Neal’s 1724 Dublin publication A Collection of the most Celebrated Scotch Tunes for the violin, William Thomson’s 1725 Orpheus Caledonius, Alexander Stuart’s Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of 71 Scots Songs (1726?) and Adam Craig’s A Collection of the Choicest Scots Tunes (1727). Excepting the Dublin publication, the latter three are directly connected to Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), who not only included ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ in the first volume of his Tea-Table Miscellany (1723) but also used the melody in the 1729 ballad opera version of The Gentle Shepherd. Ground-breaking work on Allan Ramsay is being carried out by Murray’s Pittock’s AHRC-funded project The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay (

Steve Newman has already discussed the public rift between Ramsay and Thomson in his blog post, which discusses Ramsay’s songs in more detail (link). However, Stuart’s publication was printed by Ramsay and should be an authoritative source for the music. Unfortunately, this publication has done more to baffle us than provide us with concrete information about the performance practice expectations Ramsay had for his songs. Stuart was a musician, one of the first to be employed by the newly established Edinburgh Musical Society, and They employed him both as a player and copyist throughout his life (Sederunt Minute Books, 1727-1795). His colleagues were William McGibbon (1690-1756) and Adam Craig (fl. 1727-1741), both of whom published their own selection of Scots tunes (a digitised version of Craig’s publication can be seen here: Their publications were even engraved by the same man, Richard Cooper (1701–1764) who often engraved tickets for the Edinburgh Musical Society and was well-known for his trade in Edinburgh (McCue, 2017: viii; Clayton & McConnell, 2011).

Portrait of Richard Cooper, the elder (1701–1764), English engraver by Jeremiah Davison (1695?–1750?)

While words and music do not often appear together in early 18th-century Scottish manuscript or print, English ballad opera publications did include both words and music. Theophilius Cibber included a version of ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ in Patie and Peggie (1730). Cibber publicly thanked Ramsay for allowing him to produce this ballad opera, which was an adapted, two-act version of The Gentle Shepherd. The publication was printed by John Watts in London and he actually uses the same wood cuts for Patie and Peggie, The Musical Miscellany printed in 1729 and another ballad opera The Jovial Crew also printed in 1730.

T Cibber. 1730. Patie & Peggie. London: John Watts.

Richard Brome. 1731. The Jovial Crew. London: John Watts.

The tune of the ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ continued to be used in English ballad operas throughout the 1730s. By the 1740s and ‘50s it continued to appear in popular Scottish collections as a dance tune including William McGibbon’s A collection of Scots Tunes (1742), Burk Thumoth’s Twelve Scotch and Twelve Irish Airs with Variations (c.1745), and James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion (1756).

In 1793, George Thomson included a duet version of ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ arranged by Ignaz Pleyel in his ambitious publication A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, which was intended for use in the drawing room. The original lyrics were not included in the publication, though Ramsay’s lyrics, ‘In April, when Primroses paint the sweet plain’ where underlaid with the music and another set of lyrics written by Robert Burns, ‘Flow Gently Sweet Afton’, were suggested as alternative text for the melody. In fact, there is no mention of ‘the Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ anywhere on the page, which perhaps suggests the tune was so well-known Thomson need not state it. A performance of ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ as it appears in Thomson can be found here:

The rise and fall of the melodic progression certainly adds to the imagery of a gently meandering river as can be heard in a recording produced for the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st-century AHRC funded project (link). As a drawing room song, ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ proved popular and Jane Austen’s niece, Caroline, even recalled it being performed by her aunt. Jeanice Brooks’ identified a version of the ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ in the music albums compiled by Austen and her family (2016: 917-918).

Though ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ had already been popularised in collections of Scots tunes and in ballad operas, it was perhaps its popularity as a drawing room song that prompted its inclusion in British song collections. As outlined by Linda Colley in her 1986 article ‘Whose Nation? Class and National Consciousness in Britain 1750-1830’, British national identity was solidified as a direct result of several cultural, economic and political factors. Between 1756 and 1815, Britain had been engaged in international conflicts with only brief reprieves in between. By the 1800s, internal tourism had significantly increased, communication through newspapers, novels and magazines diluted local communication and encouraged wide-spread socialisation (1986: 101-103). British song collections such as St. Cecilia: or, The British songster started to appear as early 1782 and within them they contained a mix of well-known English, Irish, Scots and Welsh songs. The content wasn’t necessarily new –Ramsay regularly drew inspiration from Scots and English theatre songs– but branding it as British was a distinct move away from national collections, which were specifically associated with an English, Irish, Scots or Welsh brand. ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’ regularly appeared in these collections including Robert Anderson’s 1795 publication The Works of the British Poets, and C. Whittingham’s 1822 publication The British Poets: Including Translations and the 1823 Edinburgh publication The Common-place Book of British Song.

Thus, even with its undeniably Scottish roots, ‘The Yellow-Hair’d Laddie’ is still well known as a British song, more specifically in connection with Jane Austen. A quick search on YouTube reveals several solo-voice versions of the arrangement appearing in Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice and yet there is no mention of Thomson, Ramsay or even Burns). While it is wonderful to see so many diverse areas of research coming together and being utilised by different musicians, it further demonstrates the ever-changing associations of a song.


1727-1795. Sederunt Minute Books. Held at Central Public Library, Edinburgh. Ref. qYML 28 MS

Brooks, Jeanice. (2016). ‘In Search of Austen’s ‘Missing Songs’’, The Review of English Studies, Volume 67, Issue 282. 914–945.

Clayton, T., & McConnell, A.  (2011). ‘Cooper, Richard, the elder (1701–1764), engraver’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Available from Accessed 18 August 2019.

Colley, L. (1986). ‘Whose Nation? Class and National Consciousness in Britain 1750-1830’. Past & Present, (113), 97-117.

Glen, John. (1900). Early Scottish Melodies. (Edinburgh: J. & R. Glenn).

McCue, Kirsteen. (2017). Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of 71 Scots Songs: Volume 11 (Scottish Poetry Reprints). Columbia: University of Southern California Libraries.

Pittock, Murray (ed). (2018). The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns: Volumes II and III: The Scots Musical Museum. Volume 2-3. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Purser, John and Parkes, Nick. (ed). (2006). James Oswald: The Caledonian Pocket Companion Books 1-6 on CDROM.

Spring, Matthew (ed). (2010). The Balcarres Lute Book [2 volume set]. (Glasgow: Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen).

Stenhouse, William. (1853). Illustrations of the lyric poetry and music of Scotland. (Edinburgh : William Blackwood and Sons).

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