A boy to keep the plough coulter clean
29 June 2021
Words by Murdo MacFarlane 1901-1982 Tune by Donaidh Barker (1999 - ), Peigi Barker (2002- )
Researched and sung by Donaidh and Peigi Barker
My plough lies above the furrow
And the ploughsock has been sharpened
I have spread my seaweed regularly
And I only want for one thing.
My furrow waits
and a boy who will keep the plough coulter clean
Is what I require.
And I’ll give my word
That when droving day comes round
He’ll get a groat from me.
O who! O Who! Who will I get to keep the coulter clean?
My yoke and my muzzle-bar
And my drag ropes are all in order
My horse newly shod
by “Steallag” in Stornoway.
Like a horseman in springtime
Going to fetch the midwife
Shouting that he didn’t
Have long to wait.
The grey mare is in the furrow
And the black horse on the furrow’s left side
So that I may plough straight, close and deep
And I leave nothing unploughed.
The gorse wears its golden crown
And with no ploughing or harrowing done
It’s the cuckoo’ s crop
I’ll be left with this year.
If I don’t plough and I don’t sow
How will we have a harvest
Or bake bread
From the cold empty meal-chest?
Young man that I meet
Leave your cattle on the machair land
And I will reward you.
(Translation from Le Mùirn)
Why we chose this song
We were looking for a song from Lewis and we wanted to find out more about Murdo MacFarlane’s songs. We came across the Melbost Bard’s songs beacause we were studying the singing of Donnie and Margaret MacLeod, who were in the group Na h-Òganaich. We chose Donnie and Margaret because they are brother and sister as we are. We discovered that they sang a lot of Murdo MacFarlane’s songs and so we looked for one of his songs that Na h-Òganaich hadn’t recorded.
We found the song in Le Mùirn - Murchadh MacPhàrlain agus Mairead Nicleòid, Sgeul Càirdeis, written by Catrìona Murray about the friendship between Margaret and Murdo.
Murdo MacFarlane was born and brought up in Melbost, Lewis. He did not have Gaelic in school but he was taught French, Latin and English. He went to North America in the 1920s but returned to Scotland in 1932 and he was in the Second World War. He never married but he returned to Lewis after the war. Murdo is a famous author who wrote many other songs.
He wrote Cànan nan Gàidheal in 1974 and many singers have recorded it since then – for example Karen Matheson, Cathy Ann MacPhee and Ishbel MacAskill. He also wrote the song
’S fhada leam an oidhche gheamhraidh when he was working in Canada. Capercaillie, Anna Murray and Na h-Òganaich have all recorded that song.
In the song, Murdo is seeking someone who will work at keeping the plough coulter clean. ‘Geingealadh’ is not a common word today. Murdo explained it as follows:
“ This was a trade we had when we were young, going along by the plough when they were ploughing, and when the seaweed and the manure gathered in a lump round the plough coulter we had to keep the coulter clean using a fork or a stick or anything that would keep the coulter clean. And we would turn the manure and the seaweed that gathered in a lump round the coulter. We would return it to the furrow and that was doing ‘geingealadh’.
That’s what the man in the song is wanting, where will he find a lad to keep the plough coulter clean? I’m going back to a world that’s disappeared. I try to pluck things from that bygone world to give them to today’s generation, so they’ll know about the kind of things we had to do to earn a living.”
In the second verse Murdo mentions a man whose nickname was ‘Steallag’. Calum ‘Steallag’ MacLeod was a blacksmith in Stornoway and he was well-known in the community.
We don’t think the song is about one person but about people who have to work the land. We feel the song is a metaphor for Gaelic. It’s not ‘Who will I get to keep the coulter clean? ’ - who will keep working the land? – but who will keep Gaelic alive?
We want to thank Margaret MacLeod for the support she gave us with the song and with information about Murdo.