‘What Can a Poor Woman Do?’: A Feminist Study of Scots Song


by Hannah Rarity


This project explores how traditional Scots songs, which contain themes, depictions or suggestions of sexism and domestic and sexual violence towards women, can be used as effective vehicles by which these issues, still very apparent in present day society, can be highlighted and communicated to a modern day audience.

It does so by analysing selected examples of misogynistic and abusive songs with the use of selected feminist theory, deconstructing the songs’ meanings, assessing their suitability for this use, the study of examples of other performance art forms that have attempted to raise awareness of issues of abuse faced by women and through my own performance-based research and fieldwork. The project does not seek to provide solid solutions or answers on this topic, but explores the ways in which traditional song could be used to contribute towards the dialogue surrounding domestic and sexual violence by highlighting the similarity in experience between women in our traditional songs and women in present day.

This is not a historical study, but it acknowledges the historical contexts within which these songs were composed and the similarities and contrasts in the attitudes and experiences between past and present society on sexism and abuse. Further research could be undertaken to expand upon the areas researched within, however, this study provides an original starting point within the area of Scottish Traditional Music research, which I hope, either by others, or myself, will be further built upon in future.

Videos from Spotlight Artistic Research in Action event:

This event included a short talk, performances and a focus group discussion. Full dissertation below, see Chapter 6 for discussion of constructing performances and the performances below.



























































1. Introduction

1.1 Introduction

The existence and inclusion of melancholic themes and misogyny in Scots song is often met with complacency by those involved within the genre of Scottish traditional music. Despite this, an alarming parallel can be drawn between the experience of abuse faced by women within our nation’s songs and the experience of women in the 21st century. Douglas has noted: “…(songs) which seem to belong to a far-off and different time can in fact reveal the elemental forces still at work in what we think of as modern and more enlightened times” (DOUGLAS 1992: 292).

The purpose of this research is to uncover misogyny, in the forms of domestic and sexual violence, within traditional Scots song repertoire, and explore the varying responses by modern day audiences to such songs, using a variety of performance styles, highlighting the similarities between the treatment of women in song and present day. A key theme throughout this study is combining historical and contemporary depictions and experiences of abuse in order to highlight the injustices against women, which affect mankind as a whole.

The desire to eradicate gender inequality and abuse of women at the hands of men is a feminist cause, to which this study hopes to contribute, however, despite a resurgence in the momentum of feminism in the form of a “fourth wave”, particularly evident within online platforms, it could be argued that society is regressing in regards to its stance on the treatment of women (COSSLETT 2014: n.p.). The exploitation and abuse of women is not unique to the genre of traditional song; popular culture and more specifically, music, has long condoned, and continues to condone, the objectification and mistreatment of women. John Lennon and Paul McCartney sang “Well I’d rather see you dead little girl then to be with another man” and we currently celebrate artists such as Beyoncé who, despite portraying herself as a feminist and ambassador for women’s rights, included a quote from a scene of domestic violence from the film ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ within a rap on her track ‘Drunk in Love’, adding to the already aggressively sexual nature of the song (McNish: 2014).

Reminding audiences of our dark history of abusing women through our own traditional song may highlight the fact the issues within them are a lot closer to home than we perhaps realize.

This study uses a range of research practices in order to shed light on traditional Scots songs’ suitability to be used as a vehicle to highlight issues of domestic and sexual violence.

1.2 Aims and Objectives

From the research and reading I have conducted so far on studies of this type, this particular kind of study and set of questions have never been asked or undertaken before within the area of Scottish Music, or Scots song. When completing a project of a similar nature last year, I identified that there was more to be discovered and discussed in this area. As the topic is so broad

I have combined my interest in women’s rights, a variety of art forms and performance experience as Scots song singer to create a project regarding the abuse women have faced throughout history and whether these aged songs can contribute to attempts to remind current day audiences that these difficulties are still faced by women around the world today. I hope the project will open up discussions and begin a dialogue surrounding these questions, aims and objectives:

  • Can these selected Scots songs be shown to contain misogynistic or sexually violent themes towards women?
  • Can these selected older, traditional songs’ content and narratives be considered relatable to a modern day audience?
  • Can the Scots songs that contain misogynistic themes/descriptions or themes of a domestic/sexually violent nature towards women hold value and effectively highlight issues raised within them to a modern day audience?
  • How do performance choices and settings affect the audience’s awareness and perception of these issues and themes?

1.3 Terminology

As this study takes place within the specialist area of Scottish Music research, I feel it is important to define certain terms used both within the text and appendices, most of which are specific to this area.

Ballad: “A poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally fromone generation to the next.” 1

Bawdy song: Humourous traditional songs containing obscene or erotic themes.

Child Ballads: Collection of 305 traditional ballads collected by Frances James Child in the 19th century.

Feminism: “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” 2

Scots: “The form of English used in Scotland” 3

Scots song: Traditional songs, from Scotland, written in Scots language, which are rooted in many aspects of traditional Scottish history, life and culture.

1 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ballad
2 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/feminism
3 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/scots

2. Review of Sources

As Kousaleos has noted, studies concerning folklore and feminist theory have previously been conducted, however, there has been very little written or published on the subject of feminist theory in relation to Scots song or, indeed, wider awareness of violence towards women and Scots song. When undertaking a study of a similar nature in 2014 I was able to uncover texts that looked at the topic of sexism in traditional song within other genres of music. Anna Rogers’ discussion of sexism in American Country music in her essay Sexism In Unexpected Places: An Analysis of Country Music Lyrics looks at sexism towards women within song text. As there is nothing yet written on the analysis of these issues within Scots song, it is possible to take ideas from these sources and apply these, along with my own analysis and application of feminist theory, to a number of selected traditional songs.

Rogers’ essay largely focuses on the analysis of the lyrical content of American country songs that have featured in the Billboard Top 100 and the study contains her own analysis and interpretation of selected lyrics, framed within the sociology of music, culture and gender issues. Within her study, Rogers lists a number of ways in which she would expect sexism towards women to manifest itself within the lyrics she is looking at, which include:

  • Depicting women in traditional roles
  • Using (slang) words that portray women as inferior
  • Implying a woman’s worth is determined by her looks
  • Use of female pronouns when speaking of objects
  • Portraying women as a group with a negative stereotype
  • Suggesting a woman is a sexual object
  • Reference to forced sexual acts upon women
  • Referring to violence against women in a positive way

(ROGERS 2013: n.p.).

The misogynistic characteristics listed here are largely in agreement with the basic principles of feminist theory.

Within the area of this study where I undertook literary analysis of selected examples of songs, I have also engaged with selected feminist literature. Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse and Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men Women and Rape are examples of such texts which all discuss the female author’s personal stance on some of the issues faced by women within the history of the world, through the lens of their own feminist ideologies. By consolidating my own analysis of songs I have identified as misogynistic or shrouded in patriarchal dominance with selected examples of feminist literature, I have been able to validate my opinion and show this is the case by identifying themes found within the songs within this literature.

For some scholars, feminist literature holds little value and has often been regarded as unreliable theory upon which to base research due to its unscientific and introspective nature (KOUSALEOUS 1999: 23). However, as this study dissects songs that have come from places of lived human emotion, experience and history and discusses women’s current lived experience, personal opinions and theory based on the female lived experience is extremely valuable to this study. Conway has noted the value of feminist analysis and principles within research on the abuse of women in intimate relationships in the UK Government’s acceptance of it as a valid means by which to provide more information on abuse (CONWAY 2013: 2).

2.2 Informants

As this study is the first of its kind, I relied on interviews of informants from within the Scottish traditional music scene and a focus group to help inform this study.

The individual interviewees for this project were the musicians Rod Paterson, Karine Polwart, and Ian MacGregor. The two former informants were asked to respond to a set of questions posed for my own previous research project, entitled ‘In what ways do sexism and violence towards women appear within Scots song repertoire?: A study of domestic violence in traditional Scots song and the considerations involved in choosing to perform songs of this nature’ in 2014. These prior interviews, however, contain responses of value to this study.

Rod Paterson is a traditional Scots song vocalist who, whilst performing regularly in his own right, has been a member of the well-established traditional bands ‘Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ and ‘The Easy Club’. As my previous tutor of Scots song at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Rod possesses an extensive Scots song repertoire, which is invaluable to a study of this particular specialism.

Karine Polwart is an acclaimed Scottish singer/song writer, whose prior employment within the women’s domestic abuse charity ‘Scottish Women’s Aid’, combined with her passion for traditional Scottish song and narrative provided me with a source with experience in both areas this study is interested in.

Ian MacGregor is an active Scottish musician and son of the late Sheila 14

Stewart; a Scottish traditional singer from the Stewart traveller family, based in Blairgowrie, Scotland. He also carries out his own charitable work in the Philippines, providing aid to the homeless and victims of abuse. As I have included a number of songs Sheila performed, most notably ‘Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk’, within my research, I seized the invaluable opportunity to interview Ian on his Mother’s opinions of that particular song, songs of other abuse and his own observations of her performances of such songs. I was lucky to be able to collect this valuable response.

Focus Group

My aim was to perform to and conduct a post performance focus group with an audience that consisted of participants with little knowledge of, or contact with, the genre of Scottish traditional music, providing me with evidence of how audiences outwith the traditional music scene, with little exposure to sung Scots and Scots song repertoire, perceived the songs upon first hearing. It was also important for me to gather responses from those with a knowledge of Scottish traditional music and singing to provide feedback on musical and creative choices made within the performances and also assess their responses to, and awareness of, songs of an sexist or abusive nature, as purveyors of the Scottish music tradition.

3. Methodology

After learning several songs within my principal study lessons last year that I identified as sexist in nature I sought literature on the subject of sexism within folklore, and more specifically Scots song, and was taken aback by how little I discovered, particularly due to the frequency and quantity of songs within the Scottish Music tradition that are either blatantly sexist towards women or tell tales of many female characters and their barbaric treatment, which almost exclusively takes place at the hands of men. I wish to undertake one of the first studies of this type within Scottish traditional music for this very reason. As a performer of Scots song, I am also interested in finding other uses and platforms for the vast and rich collection of songs we are lucky to have as part of our country’s culture and history, which, I feel, should be brought to the attention of more people in Scotland and the world.

By attempting to use these traditional songs to highlight the issues of sexual and physical violence, this exposes audiences to other, perhaps more harrowing, aspects of the human condition documented within tradition. From personal observation of my own and others’ emotional reaction to certain performances of traditional music, if traditional song can effectively communicate feelings of love, loss and sorrow to modern day audiences and listeners, which, I feel are arguably the main themes traditional song is most popular for conveying, then they could also be utilised to display and convey the darker side of human existence and highlight the parallels between the experience of women captured within song, and women today.


Nicole Kousaleos acknowledges: “Contemporary folklorists have begun to ask what can be learned form women’s experience…” (KOUSALEOUS 1999: 19). Through my combined study of the folk songs themselves and audience reaction to a variety of performance settings of a select number of songs, I hope to shed light on whether the experiences of women detailed within these older songs can bring the topic of violence towards women to the front of their minds and enlighten audiences to the sad truth that, although these songs are rooted in the past, the issues within them are still current and in need of discussion.

3.2 Data Collection and Research Methods

Due to the lack of study previously conducted in this area, I have relied heavily upon qualitative research practices; these have included fieldwork interviews, email responses to questions posed, interaction from online participants to an online observation and questionnaire resource, a focus group discussion in response to live performance and thematic analysis of the responses collected.

After compiling a table of 25 songs, I coded the lyrics for abusive content, signposting abuse with red text. When analysing the traditional songs I chose to focus on textual and thematic analysis of the lyrics, backing this up with statements or examples of rather than conducting additional musical or melodic analysis. I did, however, comment on the melodic nature of several songs within which the melody contributed to their controversial nature. Detailed musical analysis and the importance of melody may be an area to be researched further for future study, however.


The latter section of my study was conducted using performance-based research, within which I gathered participant responses to live and recorded performances.

I constructed five differing performances of songs analysed within the study using a variety of performance styles: one song performed once unaccompanied, musically accompanied and with added digital visuals on a screen and two other songs; one performed unaccompanied and one with accompaniment and visuals. I invited a group of participants with contrasting involvement in and knowledge of the traditional music scene, to discuss and react to the performance immediately afterwards within a focus group setting, led by myself. I then conducted thematic analysis of this data. Due to the nature of artistic research, as noted by Bergdorff, the result of this study is “unfinished thinking”; it does not seek to produce formal knowledge or conclusions, but artistically explores my topic, identifying themes which may have emerged during the process (BERGDORFF : 44).

3.3 Interviews and Interview practices

As several of my interviews used within this study already existed prior and the participants’ availability was varied, a range of interview practices were used. For those I was fortunate enough to interview face-to-face I attempted to create a relaxed atmosphere and highlighted the nature of the conversations being informal, to put the participants at ease. For individuals, questions were emailed to them prior to the interviews, and within the focus group I provided a summary of the nature of my study on their permission forms, allowing them to assess whether they wished to take part or not as I had hidden the nature of the discussion prior to their involvement to produce the most organic responses possible. I led the focus group, outlining the experiment conducted prior and prompted discussions between amongst members of the group, which led to the collection of useful data for this study and many other interesting points which may provide ideas for future study on this topic. One other individual informant responded to a questionnaire via email, one via iPhone voice recording, and I seized the unforeseen opportunity to interview one participant within an informal setting as I saw value in their observations and knowledge of this particular topic.

3.4 Recording Techniques/Video Techniques


All of my face-to-face interviews were completed with the use of my iPhone voice memo recorder or GarageBand programme on my Apple MacBook. I was able to position these devices close to my participants and achieve a high level of clarity in the recordings, which enabled me to transcribe them at a later date. The unaccompanied songs I recorded for use on my online research videos were also recorded on my iPhone and edited on GarageBand, adding some reverb to them to add a more agreeable quality for the singing vocal than is necessary for speech and give it a sound that was more representative of the live performance I was attempting to emulate.

Focus Group

My live performances for my artistic research, performed in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, were captured using high definition DSLR cameras and additional lighting. This, firstly, aided visibility in the recording and provided the clearest recording of the performances possible with the space used.

Online research platform videos

The online research platform videos (found at http://www.hannahscotssongresearch.tumblr.com – password: tartan) were edited together using the iMovie programme on an Apple MacBook. The pre- existing videos I edited together with my vocals were sourced from YouTube. These visuals, along with some verbatim statements, also taken from YouTube sources, were used within my live performance research also.

3.5 Positionality

As a woman who would consider herself a feminist, I feel I was able to identify a large number of songs within the Scots song tradition as misogynistic or sexist prior to conducting my analysis, but this was only further confirmed after the application of a number of observations and arguments contained within the feminist theory used within this project. Combined with my interest in feminism, my specialism in Scots provides me with a specialised perspective on this subject area within wider academic research. I am now certain that, as I view it, the largely patriarchal society within which we live is reflected within the songs of our past and mirrors many of the harrowing issues and problems many women still face today as a result of the values which have been ingrained into society for generations. My personal stance is that, used in the correct way, selected songs from the tradition could be important tools in highlighting the multitude of abusive issues women face within them which still take place in modern day society.

3.6 Methodological problems encountered

Several problems were encountered during the duration of this project. Due to unforeseen personal circumstances the completion of work within this study was delayed; this had a knock on effect with the organisation of the performance-based aspect of this study including musician availability and rehearsals and performance space set dressing. As a result, I conducted this research as part of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s BMus Traditional Music/BA Scottish Music research platform ‘Spotlight’ – Research in Action which provided me with venue and other elements necessary to complete this research.

Originally for the performance section of this study I had hoped to largely gather responses from participants who were not involved in or with the Scottish traditional music scene to provide the study with evidence of how audience members who are not familiar with these songs or this genre of music, responded to them and the themes within. Unfortunately only two of ten participants of the focus group fit these criteria. I had foreseen this as an issue and so created an online platform on which to encourage participants to engage with the materials online. This was not as complete as effective as the live performance but still provided me with valid, useful responses.

The lack of prior studies of this particular nature led me to feel I was going into this study blind, however I feel I have attempted to ask and highlight some interesting questions which I hope provide others with an interesting insight into this area.

4. Plight of Women within Scots Song

Throughout history women have been faced with a multitude of injustices, largely conducted at the hands of men; this study focuses on misogyny, but more specifically domestic and sexual violence. These injustices have taken many forms, but it can be shown that the patriarchal dominance that runs throughout every aspect of human existence lies at the heart of issues of gender inequality and the contrast in lived experience between men and women. These abuses, however, are not solely women’s issues, but human issues, despite this study focusing on them from the female victim’s perspective. This dominance is clearly documented and evident within the traditional songs of Scotland. Polly Stewart has noted the number of songs within the Child Ballad collection, from which a number of songs in this study can be found, in which a female is mistreated is five times greater than songs featuring a victimised male (STEWART 1993: 59).


For this section of my study, I have sampled twenty-five examples of traditional Scots songs from a variety of sources within which this dominance is evident and central to their narrative/existence. By analysing the songs within Appendix .I through a feminist lens, using both feminist theory and analysis, this section of my study will attempt to reveal layers of hegemonic masculinity that are not only responsible for the female characters’ suffering within, but which reflect social attitudes of the past that are still evident today.

This study does not deny the existence of songs in which men may experience abuse at the hands of women. Songs from the tradition, such as ‘The Bald Headed End of the Broom’, detail physical abuse inflicted by a female character upon a male, although these are greatly outnumbered by tales of the abuses and mistreatment of women.4
Tracy has noted: “…women are also often initiators of intimate partner violence and intimate violent acts almost as often as men… The fact is that male violence against women is far more damaging; generally occurs in a far different context (aggressive dominance vs. self defence); and typically has a more pernicious meaning (establishment of control)…” (TRACY 2007: 573).

Female violence towards men often occurs as a result of the dominance placed on them by those men, against which they feel they must retaliate; male violence is often an aggressive act, reasserting power and control over the female in question. The vulnerable position women find themselves in within many of these songs is a result of this control and oppression by men within their lives and their wider cultural surroundings. Violence towards women can be shown to be a much more frequent and disturbing occurrence, as it still is today.

4.1 Traditional Scots Songs and Patriarchal Dominance

Appendix I. and II. contain a selection of twenty-five traditional songs, from a variety of sources and time periods within traditional Scots song in Scotland, chosen for their discussion of or narrative plot involving sexual violence, sexism and evidence of patriarchal dominance as the driving factor of these.5

4 Bald Headed End of The Broom: <http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/fullrecord/82873/3&gt;
5 One would note that each of the songs in this study exist in a number of forms and song collections, varying in length, origin and dialect, however, the themes and values contained within are all representative of past Scottish societal values.

When coding these songs for ‘sexual violence’, one uses this term to refer to or identify, as defined by Kelly, “any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act experienced by a woman or girl at the time, or later, as a threat, invasion or assault that has the effect of hurting or degrading her/and or takes away her ability to control intimate contact” (KELLY 1988:41). ‘Violence’ is here used in place of ‘assault’, as violence more accurately reflects the man’s desire for power and aggressive control during acts of sexual violence. Physical abuse, as found, for example, within the examples of songs that speak of domestic abuse, can be identified as an extended expression or manifestation of male sexual violence too, “rather than (a) discrete, disconnected issue…”, as it, too, is an expression of male sexual domination over women and the subordination of females (RADFORD 1992:3).

Here, I detail a few of the themes that emerged from Appendix II.

Silencing of Women

One particularly noticeable characteristic within Appendix II is the silencing of women within song narrative. From the table of twenty five songs, only three are autobiographical in nature, from the perspective of the suffering woman: 4. ‘Why Should I?’, 14. ‘What Can A Young Lassie?’ and 1. ‘Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk’ (Appendix II). 4. and 14. are accounts by young women expressing their despair and contempt towards their forced marriage to a much older gentleman; a widely prevalent historic and, sadly, current practice.6 Comedic in nature – “Why should I, a brisk young lassie be forced tae wed a feckless auld man?” – it is often possible for an audience to overlook the serious nature of forced marriage, and so, although autobiographical, empathy from the woman may not be felt.

6 “Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Yet among women aged 20 to 24 worldwide, one in four were child brides” (UNICEF 2016).

Women are often portrayed as passive characters with little control of their fate or the telling of their mistreatment. Songs are rarely told from the victim’s perspective, unlike ‘Blue Bleezin…’; perhaps one of the more emotively powerful as a result of this (Appendix VIII, Song 1). Silencing of women in song contrasts women’s interaction with song as “women enjoyed a prominent role as the purveyors of oral culture” (HOUSTOUN 1989: 139-40).

Physical Dominance

One of the more apparent manifestations of male control is physical dominance over females; both sexually and violently. Ten of these songs contain a murder or attempted murder by men upon women and eight with described, suggested or attempted sexual assault upon a woman. Caputi notes: “femicide is an extreme expression of patriarchal “force”. It, like that other form of sexual violence, rape… is a social expression of sexual politics…and ritual enactment of male domination” (CAPUTI 1992: 204-5).

Violence exists within these songs as a means by which men consolidate their power over women, which is representative of social attitudes at the time, which condoned this behaviour and patriarchal domination. In current society, this is still evident within statistics surrounding femicide: In 2015, 126 women were killed my men in their lives in the UK.7 The male’s sense of entitlement to a female’s body is still evident.

Mockery of women’s physical appearance

Several of the song’s content solely speaks degradingly of women’s physical appearance, such as 13. ‘Ah Widna Gee A Button Fur Her’ and 19.‘Nae Hair On’t’. (Appendix II). In current society, particularly within the media, women are often valued based on appearance rather than other characteristics. These attitudes have survived from before the composition of these songs, which laugh at women’s expense.

Abuser known to victim

An important consideration when selecting songs was that the experiences within them contain events and aspects of women’s experience that are still evident today in order to provide myself with a number of songs which can raise awareness of relatable experiences that still take place. In terms of assault on women, it has been noted that women are at most risk from men they know in their lives: amongst victims of sexual assaults aged 12 and up, approximately 80% of the victims know the offender.8 In many songs within Appendix I. and II., women face abuses at the hands of men known to them in their families, as well as husbands and men of status. There are also a number where the men are unknown, and this reflects random attacks on women by unknown attackers, which still unfortunately take place.

8 Sex Offender statistics: <http://meganslaw.ca.gov/facts.htm&gt;

Female resistance/retaliation

Although in this selection, women are largely victims at the hands of men, there are some examples of retaliation and/or resistance by the female within the song. The dominance in physicality and status of men within the song usually prevails against the female’s attempts, however, as in real situations of this nature, women are often victims despite fighting against the injustice against them, which again, provides me with examples of songs true to current day experience of a similar nature.

4.2 Song Analysis

Here, I will conduct literary analysis of six songs from Appendix I, each containing a different example of abuse faced by women at the hands of men, as identified in the coding within Appendix II. This then provides the study with song examples that have not only been identified as abusive and misogynistic in content or nature, but songs with relatable elements to current abuses to take forward into the performance aspect of this research.

4.2.1 The Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie/Andra Lammie

The first of these songs is the disturbing, historical Aberdeenshire ballad ‘The Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie’, or ‘Andra Lammie’, as it is also known (Appendix VIII, Song 6). It is said this ballad is based on true events as a grave, dated 1673, which existed in Fyvie, was believed to be the grave of the unfortunate main female character Annie, or Agnes Smith (Figure. 1). Due to its historical basis, this ballad provides us with possible insight into the treatment of women and gender inequality during the period within which it is set.


Figure 1: The original inscription on the grave of Annie or Agnes Smith, the main subject of ‘The Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie’, Fyvie, Scotland.

Annie, the central female character of the ballad, falls in love with the trumpeter Andra Lammie, whom her family greatly disapprove of due to his low status. Annie remains true to her love throughout the song despite facing mockery and contempt from her Father, who, alongside her brother, beat her to death for going against their wishes and dishonouring their family.


Figure 2: A turret on Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, depicting the object of Annie’s love, the trumpeter Andra Lammie.

Male dominance and control are the driving forces of the plot and suffering throughout the tragic narrative: from the offset, ownership of Annie is established, as she is introduced secondary to her Father, despite her central role within the narrative.


“In the Mill O’ Tifty lived a man…He had a lovely dochter dear…” (Appendix VIII, Song 6 ).

From the offset, she is silenced and positioned as secondary, as she is under her father’s control and is in his possession, highlighting the disparity of power between men and women. Dworkin identifies this inequality: “…Men have it (power), generally speaking; she does not because she is a woman” (DWORKIN 1987: 171).

He keeps Annie under lock and key when he hears of her admiration for Andra:

“Her faither locked the door at night, laid by the keys fu canny…” (Appendix VIII, Song 6 ).

Issues of control “…appear central to the ideals of masculinity…” within many of the traditional Scottish ballads; here it manifested within Annie’s father’s physical and protective control over her, which highlights the societal pressures and that existed at the time of composition and within the ballad narrative, to fulfil gendered roles in a “cultural system of male hegemony” (WOLLSTADT 2002: 296). Annie’s youth within the ballad may give credence to her father’s controlling behaviour within the song, however the assertion of this control continues throughout the ballad, despite Annie’s strong stance on her feelings towards her love.

The culmination of Annie’s refusal to stop loving a man below her station is death at the hands of her family. Although beaten in part by each family member, her father and brother play the most damning and violent role in her painful demise and eventual death:


“Her father struck her wondrous sore and also did her Mother,
Her sister also did her scorn, but woe tae be her brother.
Her brother struck her wondrous sore wae cruel strokes and many, He broke her back ken on the door for loving Andra Lammie.” (Appendix VIII, Song 6 ).

Historically, subjecting women to violence has been one of the main ways men have established dominance and control over women, as Dworkin has noted: “Men must make women afraid and compliant, including through beatings…” (DWORKIN 1987:11). This violence and dominance stems from a mind-set that upholds the belief that women are the property of males within a family; older traditions still evident reflect this value. [9]

She is seen as an object, a possession to be passed on from dominant male to dominant male. Male sexual proprietariness can be considered responsible for murderous acts against women as “…Men exhibit a tendency to think of women as sexual and reproductive “property” that they can own and exchange” (WILSON AND DALY: 85). When this is challenged, this can lead to a violent response in an attempt to re-establish control, as in this ballad.

‘Mill O’ Tifty’ is first, and foremost, a tale of a gruesome honour killing; ‘honour killing’ here referring to the murder of someone who has been accused of bringing shame upon their family. More commonly associated within Islamic countries and immigrant communities, between 2010 and 2014 11,000 cases of honour crimes, including murder, battery and abduction, were recorded in UK, proving this ancient way of thinking and barbarity is also found within our own multi-cultural country (BBC: 2015). Martin Simpson acknowledges the disturbing inclusion of honour killing within this Scottish ballad and our own disillusionment with the act, stating: “Just incase we thought honour killing to be a shocking new event, here it is in our high society” (SIMPSON 2007). A parallel can be drawn between the experience of this historic character and that of the female born in rural areas of India: “What is clear is that she has very little say in her own destiny, little sense of her own rights”. [10] Annie remains strong and true to her love, despite the controlling forces around her.

9 …such as the tradition of a suitor approaching a Father for permission to marry his daughter and the handing over of a daughter, by her Father, to her new husband as part of many marriage ceremonies.
10 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14142154.In_India__where_giving_birth_can_be_a_d eath_sentence/
11 As noted in the comments section: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcH0qtyvbQE&gt;

4.2.2 The Wee Cooper Of Fife

Current traditional song performers interviewed have detailed they would not perform, or would feel uncomfortable performing, this song in public due to its abusive content and promotion of antiquated traditionally sexist household roles and violence, despite its prior popularity; in the past this song has been performed by The Corries, American singer, Burl Ives, and was, somewhat shockingly, widely sung and taught within British primary schools [11] (POLWART 2014: Appendix V, 2).

The song’s origins date back to Shakespearean times; the song is a tale of one man’s disdain for his wife’s reluctance to perform her stereotypically traditional, domestic wifely duties (WARNER 1984: 36). As a result he resorts to beating her until she yields (Appendix VIII, Song 7). At the end of the song the narrator addresses the listener, stating: “A’ ye wha gotten a gentle wife, Send ye for the wee cooper o’ Fife”, suggesting and promoting the idea that violence is an acceptable means of asserting control over a woman (Ibid). Dworkin identifies the role of violence in patriarchal control within the home: “Men must make women afraid and complicit, including through beatings… women must be house-bound and servile” (DWORKIN 1987: 11). In order to regain control, the male must assert physical dominance over the woman.

Hastie has noted the manifestation of tension surrounding women’s newfound sexual liberation within Appalachian ballads; depictions of violence against women in song illustrate disdain for the “cultural modernism that threatens the hegemony of the past” (HASTIE 2011: iv). So, too, could this be said of ‘The Wee Cooper of Fife’, in its condoning of physical abuse and traditional gender roles.

The jaunty melody that accompanies the song contributes to its misogynistic content:

Wee Cooper

Figure 3: Transcription of cheery melody that accompanies the lyrics of ‘The Wee Cooper of Fife’, contrasting the song’s violent narrative

The jarring disparity between the sadistic abusive act contained within and its upbeat, comedic melody highlights laughter at the expense of the victimised female.


In regards to performing this, Rod Paterson notes this comedy song must “operate…in the context of the time, otherwise it would be so outlandish…” as the values and depiction within are extremely old fashioned (PATERSON 2014: Appendix IV).

4.2.3 Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk/Mickey’s Warning

The Scottish traveller and traditional singer Belle Stewart learned this song from an unknown ploughman at an annual tattie-lifting, and her daughter, Sheila Stewart, added this to her own repertoire (ROWE 2002: n.p.). A comparatively modern song, discovered in the early 20th century, it is an autobiographical account of one woman’s abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband. The majority of other songs sampled within Appendix I. are narrated by an observer, male character or solely contain brief moments of dialogue from the female character(s), which I would argue is representative of Scots song as a whole: female’s personal narratives are greatly outnumbered by men’s (Appendix. II).

When discussing the documentation of women’s stories throughout Scottish history between 1500-1800, Houston notes women were “…omitted entirely from accounts of the period, women are commonly treated as peripheral and unimportant”, thus positioning their experiences as secondary in importance to men’s (HOUSTOUN 1989:118). This would appear true of women’s voices within songs. This relatively modern song marks a development in the documentation of women’s own stories within traditional song. Sheila Stewart added the third verse to this song in order establish a “stronger women’s viewpoint”, liberating the female character (ROWE 2000: n.p).

The song is a tale of alcoholism and domestic abuse; although the woman clearly states she is victim of domestic violence, the song almost offers a justification for this, detailing the woman chose to marry for wealth, but soon discovered her husband was an abusive alcoholic: “ I married a man for his money, but he’s worse than the devil himsel’” (Appendix VIII, Song 1).

A parallel could be drawn between this inclusion of monetary incentive and the practice of victim blaming, evident with current society. [12] The original motive for marriage provides the male with a justification for the abuse.

The song is descriptive in its depiction of the violence in verse two:

“For when Mickey comes home I get battered,
He batters me all black and blue,
He throws me about from the kitchen to the bedroom right through to the room…” (Appendix VIII, Song 1).

The clarity of the lyrics and the accessibility of the language enable the listener to clearly identify the abuse and injustices. She is a victim of abuse at the hands of her husband, within a domestic setting. Although, arguably, the song attempts to justify this abuse by detailing her desire for his money, this only further highlights the control of men over women within the song. She must sacrifice her safety, as she must depend upon him, despite the abuse she experiences. Cynthia Ezell disagrees that patriarchy is responsible for an individual husbands’ violence towards his wife arguing, rather, that it “creates an environment ripe for abuse” (EZELL 1998: 39).

12 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/28/culture-rape- victim-blame-too-far

4.2.4 Laird O’ The Dainty Dounby

‘Laird O’ The Dainty Dounby’ is a rape ballad; a girl is approached by a stranger, the Lord and protagonist, whilst working on her Father’s property, and after refusing his sexual advance, he rapes her:

“To lie ae nicht that’ll never, never dee Suppose ye’re the Laird o’ the Denty Dounby, But he catched her by the middle sae sma’ He laid her doon where the grass grew lang

It was a lang, lang time till he raised her up again, Sayin’ “Ye’re lady owre the Denty Dounby”.

(Appendix VIII, Song 8)

Rape within traditional song is rarely depicted as the aggressive act it is, here shown in the use of phrases such as “catched her by the middle sae sma’” and “laid her doon”, which suggest a playful gentleness, undermining the seriousness of the act taking place.

Post-rape the daughter is silent, as the men around her dictate decisions in her life, and the song narration: “Being owned and being fucked are or have been virtually synonymous experiences in the lives of women” (DWORKIN 1987: 66). This male entitlement to women and their bodies continues through the rest of the ballad, as, when her attacker discovers her ill health, or assumed pregnancy, he takes her from her family and places her in his keep as his Lady. Prior to this, money is exchanged between the Lord and the father:

“To face the lassie’s father some money had to pay…” (Appendix VIII, Song 8). Brownmiller has noted the past business-like nature of a Father’s ownership of his daughter: “Criminal rape, as a patriarchal father saw it, was a violation of the new way of doing business. It was, in a phrase, the theft of virginity, an embezzlement of his daughter’s fair price on the market.” (BROWNMILLER 1975: 18). The Father allows his daughter to be taken by her attacker, despite his actions against her, as she has lost her value now she is pregnant and no longer virtuous. Her Mother and Father rejoice at their daughter’s match:

““O,” says the auld man, “what will we dae?”
“O,” says the auld wife, “we’ll dance tae we dee.” “O,” says the auld man, “I think I’ll dae that tae Since she’s Lady owre the Denty Doonby.”“ (Appendix XIII, Song 8).

They are concerned with her wealth and societal position over her well-being. Although, unlike other ballads here analysed, some may argue the abuser makes amends for his wrongdoing by placing the girl within his keep. However, the daughter is given no say in the matter, further highlighting male societal dominance and control.

4.2.5 Edom O’ Gordon

Edom O’ Gordon is an example of a ballad that demonstrates the treatment of women as disposable objects by men, conveyed here during an act of war. Feminist theorist Brownmiller has noted:

“War provides men with perfect psychological backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women. The very maleness of the military, the brute power of weaponry exclusive to their hands… the spiritual bonding of men at arms, the manly discipline of orders given and orders obeyed…confirms for men what they long suspect, that women are peripheral, irrelevant to the world that counts, passive spectators to the action in the centre ring.” (BROWNMILLER 1975: 45)


Male power is reflected in Edom’s dominance over Lady Campbell, via military force at his disposal and the Lady’s lack of protection: her husband is away from home and so Edom has seized an opportunity to attack the castle. He uses his brute force to achieve his aim of storming the castle; the women and children are sacrificed willingly to achieve this, as they are ‘peripheral’. Men are depicted as the owners and defenders of their land and property, of which women and children are included.

When Edom threatens to invade the castle, the Lady resists and retaliates; an example of female strength debunking the ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘helpless woman’ stereotype found within traditional song narratives:

“I winna come doon,” the lady cried “For laird nor yet for loon
Nor yet for any rank robber
That comes frae Auchendoon”

The lady frae the battlements Twa bullets she let flee…”

“”I winna come doon, ye fause Gordon I winna gie up tae ye”
(Appendix VIII, Song 15).

This retaliation only encourages an attack on the castle, another possible manifestation of this disdain for the modernism of female liberation, acknowledged earlier (HASTIE 2011: iv).

Whilst she attempts to escape the flames of the castle, Campbell’s daughter is thrown into the path of Edom, where she is murdered. Edom sexually objectifies her in this moment, stating:

““Ah micht had spared that bonny face Tae be some man’s delight”” (Appendix VIII, Song 15).


Dworkin argues femicide “turns the woman one has fucked over a lifetime human” (DWORKIN 1987: 8). Edom did not acknowledge the daughter prior to this moment; however, it is too late for her to be considered human. However, where it may have been possible for the inequality and her status as “…a sexual object for the man” to end in death, she is still the object of the male gaze as Edom speaks of her sexually in this moment (Ibid: 22).

4.2.6 The Rape/Lassie Gaitherin’ Nuts

Found within Robert Burns’ ‘Merry Muses’ collection, notorious for its inappropriate bawdy songs, this song is an example of the “gratuitous misogyny” present within traditional song; Houstoun has noted that even Burns, despite his status as an advocate of equality and romance “…had a patronising and deeply sexist attitude towards women” (HOUSTON 1989:141).

Within this narrative, the female protagonist experiences unprovoked sexual assault and implied rape at the hands of three men:

“Whan by there cam three lusty lads, three lusty lads an’ strang. The first did kiss her rosy lips, He thought it was nae wrang; The second lous’d her bodice fair, Fac’d up wi’ London whang. An’ what the third did to the lass, I’s no put in this sang;

But the lassie wauken’d in a fright, An says, I hae slept lang.” (Appendix VIII, Song 9)

If we were to apply the theory of Andrea Dworkin, the act of sexual intercourse implied in line 4 within this example, could be understood as rape and invasion of the woman’s body, whether consensual or not, as Dworkin regards sex as “a physical surrender of herself to him; he occupies and rules her, expresses his elemental dominance over her” (Appendix VIII, Song 9; DWORKIN 1987: 63). The biological necessity of the invasion of the female’s body by the male for the act of sex to take place, in itself, is understood as rape by Dworkin. Posing a potential explanation for why some men feel the need to rape or assert sexual dominance over women, she notes “…men…feel entitled to come into the privacy of a woman’s body in a context of inequality” (DWORKIN 1987: xxxiv). The inequality in status between men and women within Scotland’s past, and current, culture could be held responsible for the existence of songs such as this which document acts against women within which men feel entitled to women’s bodies and sex.

5. The Value of Scots Songs Containing Abuse

5.1 Why still sing these songs?

Observing the number of injustices and the way in which women and their stories are depicted within the songs of the previous chapter, one might wonder why a performer would continue to include them within their repertoire or perform them. Karine Polwart has noted:

“…if we were to eradicate the songs that touch on the most visceral human experiences and on the darkest elements of human nature then something would be lost…it’s that very thing that drew me to Scots song in the first place…” (POLWART, 2014: Appendix V, 5).

Just as traditional song effectively conveys the emotions of love and loss, it may also be able to document and convey darker messages and themes about the world we live in.

A number of traditional ballads have been referred to as providing “…lessons in life” in the past, however Rod Paterson argues this is no longer a justification for their existence and performance as the morals within them are “…no longer applicable now” (PATERSON 2014: Appendix IV, 2). However, I would argue, based on evidence that traditional songs and ballads have functioned as warnings in the past, so too, could they draw attention to the abusive themes within them to modern audiences, if used effectively. Within fieldwork research on coded ballad performance in the USA, women interviewed have recognised songs’ function in conveying messages to women within their communities (BURTON 1978: 24, 30). [13] Traditional song performance has and can be considered a valid means by which to highlight societal issues, and this is what I hope to prove within my performance-based research.

13 “She continues to think they have meaning. ‘…I guess sometimes it might help a body to watch out. Some of em’ that’s sung might be a good warning to people sometimes…” – Buna Hicks, Beech Mountain, North Carolina, 1888.
“Back when my sister was a-talkin’ to a boy they wanted me to sing that ‘Pretty Polly’ because they thought this boy might not be right fer her, so if she would see and not talk to him.”

Within the Philippines, the similarities in treatment of women in song and their communities is recognised by ballad performers:

“The singers of these ballads often relate these songs to specific events and characters to lend credance and immediacy to their performance. They or their friends and relatives know someone who had suffered the same fate… in 1980 a market vendor was killed by her lover and her body hidden in a thick grove of trees. Immediately after the event, another female market vendor composed a komposo (ballad) and sang it during a gathering in the victim’s village.”

(MENEZ 1995,103).

This example not only confirms that the abuse of women is a global issue, but that each culture enshrines their suffering within their traditional songs. Menez’s observation that this example illustrates “…how close the ballad still is to the lives of the singers and audience, who view the narrative outcomes, or moralistic message, as prescriptives or guides to behaviour” is what I wish to discover of traditional Scots song; can the song of abuses still suffered by women within the UK strike a chord with audiences? I believe so.

Facing the reality of, or hearing accounts of domestic or sexual violence, will never be an easy thing to be faced with, however, it can be shown music possesses the ability to transcend the limits of spoken word. Sheila Stewart’s performance of ‘Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk’ to a traveller women’s domestic violence support group connected more personally and emotively to those present than the talks given around the issues due to Sheila’s interpretation, its emotive quality and relatable depiction of despair (MACGREGOR 2016: Appendix VI, 3). [14]

14 “…the traveller women had listened, paid attention to the music rather than the talk, they listened to the song because it appealed to them more than just having a discussion about it…”

5.2 Current attitudes towards songs of this nature

From personal observation, within the Scottish traditional music scene there appears to be a complacency regarding the acknowledgement of the range and types of abuses towards women within the music we, as traditional musicians, are so regularly exposed to and interact with. Polwart also recognises this, noting that this has manifested itself within traditional music pub session settings, as chorus songs containing dark themes are often performed enjoyably for their melodic content and catchy chorus, rather than acknowledged as the documentation of abuse (POLWART 2014: Appendix V, 4).

When introducing a song that speaks of abuse or mistreatment in live performance, I have been guilty of, and viewed others, making humour from the sad traditional song cliché, noted by one focus group participant:

“Well it’s a cliché isn’t it? “Oh it’s this… song where someone dies just like every other one”. And then everyone laughs.” (P4, Appendix VII, 16).

The sad nature of our traditional songs appears accepted whilst the underlying topics and issues of violence towards women within are often met with humour or complacency. This may reflect our attitude towards these issues as a nation; we know these issues exist, but what can we do about them? Performing songs of this nature and introducing them appropriately, drawing audiences attention to the content is one possible aid.


Past audience reaction to songs such as Sheila Stewart’s performance of ‘Blue Bleezin…’, where the abuse is clear within the narrative, have been met with acknowledgment and community spirit from women, who have perhaps experienced similar abuse:

“…almost every time she sang it, no matter where we were – a festival or a folk club or anything – the women cheered, honestly, you could see…the women were like “YES! That’s what he deserved, the bastard!”, y’know?”
(MACGREGOR, Appendix VI, 2).

Although this study does not allow for a detailed study of audience perception and immediate reaction to these songs, it is possible to clearly differentiate between current audience reaction and that of the past; within the fieldwork recordings of Seamus Ennie, Hamish Henderson, Wyn Humphries, Peter Kennedy, Alan Lomax and Sean O’Boyle between 1950-56 audible, exaggerated laughter can be heard at female character’s expense (VARIOUS 2000; n.p).

5.3 Contributing to ‘Awareness’

As often as possible, this study has made the best attempt to avoid the phrase ‘raise awareness’ in relation to the potential use of these songs; however, these songs may be valuable to the dialogue around these issues within our own country, and further afield.

During the Scottish Women’s Aid 60th Anniversary conference, 2016, I was keen to discover how art, specifically based on historical accounts of violence and misogyny, could contribute to the dialogue around sexual violence; when asked how to get past a superficial stance against equality, one speaker noted “women’s lived experiences (should be) acknowledged”


(RITCH 2016, speaking at Scottish Women’s Aid Conference). These songs, which have enshrined women’s experience of inequality from our own countries’ past, are “document(s) of hidden history” and so hold value as artistic expressions of lived abuse (POLWART 2014, Appendix V, 5). Other forms of art, including theatre and film have depicted sexual violence in a multitude of ways whilst highligting issues of inequality; there is much to be done to eliminate honour killings. However, there is proof that art, albeit on more accessible, mainstream platforms than traditional music, has the power to influence minds on matters such as this; the President of Pakistan is to change Pakistani laws on honour killing after viewing the 2016 Oscar winning documentary A Girl in the River. Art “does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind…this…feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action” (ELIASSON 2016: n.p).

6. Performance-Based Research: Can Traditional Songs Raise Awareness of Current Day Issues Faced By Women To Modern Audiences?

6.1 Constructing Song Performances

After identifing performance charcteristics in Nirbhaya which made it effective in its ability to provoke thoughts and responses towards issues of mistreatment of women, it is now possible to adapt these performance settings or style choices and apply them to examples of songs from within this study for performance (Appendix III). I also drew inspiration from repsonses to my online research blog from participants who had never heard the songs prior. The three songs from the song analysis chapter I will perform are:

Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk – Domestic violence Unaccompanied, Accompanied, Unaccompnied with visuals

Mill O’ Tifty’s Annie – Honour Killing/Femicide/Patriarchal control Accompanied with visuals

The Rape/Lassie Gaitherin Nuts – Rape/Sexual assault Unaccompanied

Each of these contains a different example or manifestation of abuse to present to an audience. 15 15 Videos of each performance can be found at: <hannahscotssongresearch.tumblr.com>

Unaccompanied vocal

Scots songs would traditionally be unaccompanied. This bare quality of an arrangement, as in the singing within Nirbhaya, allows the audience to concentrate solely on the lyrics or melody as there are no other musical elements of the performance to distract from the song. ‘The Rape’ will be performed unaccompanied; the song uses an upbeat melody which contrasts with its abusive narrative. I am interested to gather responses on how aware the audience are of this when there is little else to distract them from the plot.


Musical accompaniment

When trying to highlight the disturbing narratives of these songs I feel a standard folk arrangement is not the most effective choice due to the pleasant tonality of many accompanying instruments, however, using traditional instruments to create soundscapes, such as the electronic sounds in Nirbhaya, which create an atmosphere within a performance space is what I wish to achieve. Within ‘Blue Bleezin Blind Drunk’ an arrangement was improvised with a whistle, electric guitar and fiddle. The electric guitar, using reverb and other effects, supplied a similar sound than that present in the play whilst supporting the other instruments and vocals. Experimenting with uncomfortable sounds and creating an arrangement that generated a dark mood, rather than highlighting actions verse by verse, provided us with freedom during the perfomance also, to experiment and read the room, making jarring sounds whenever it felt appropriate to draw out the sinister theme of the song. A more traditional arrangement was performed alongside ‘The Mill O’ Tifty’, on electric guitar again, as the reverb and dissonances provide a mellow backdrop to the long ballad’s melody, not distracting from the lyrical content.



Although within a paper regarding the phenomenon of monster trucking, Hahn notes the power of the ‘extreme’ on our senses and why we are drawn to forms of entertainment that feature it, stating “the sensually extreme provides us with an opportunity for disorientation that helps us define not only our boundaries, but our understanding of the world around us” (HAHN 2006: 88). The visceral, extreme nature of the depictions of violence within Nirbhaya triggered an emotional response from me and many other audience members, and provoked thoughts on the issues the play was trying to highlight. Learning from this, the application of ‘extreme’ images to the traditional songs may do the same for traditional music audiences. Visuals also provide a reference and visual reminder of the song’s content, attempting to focus audience attention on the subject matter. The video of a woman featured within a domestic violence campaign fitted the visceral image for ‘Blue Bleezin’; the woman wipes away her wounds only for fresh wounds to appear, representing the helplessness and violence depicted in the song. As ‘The Mill O Tifty’ is a tale of honour killing, I wanted to draw a parallel between this historical example and evidence of honour killing within current day to the audience. A news report of an honour killing which took place in Pakistan in 2014 removes the level of artifice and the distance from the act in the song and current day, in an attempt to provoke thought and responses from an audience.


Each of these examples may be considered ‘extreme’ due to their blunt and harrowing depiction of events that are hard to be faced with. However, as Hahn noted, observations of the extreme are thought to provoke thoughts and actions and I wish to discover if this is true of my performance.

16 New Domestic Violence PSA – “It Rarely Stops”:<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WL3rfk2iFww&list=PLs_Xpv01MXypLfkJFc x5xwd-5v4oVJ5KP>
17 Pakistanis protest honour killing of young woman: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NglJ-37oUAk&gt;

Verbatim speech

As ‘The Mill O’ Tifty’ is a long song, I wished to draw the audience’s attention to the subject matter before the ballad’s narrative began. By using two speech recordings from academics, who speciailise in the act of honour killings, to provide a definition of the term and explanation of the concept of honour, I hope to engage the audience, who I hope will be attempting to make the connection between the speech and the song narrative, encouraging them to engage with and reflect on the reality that honour killings still take place.

4.2 Responses to Performance Experiment

After performing the songs as detailed previously and evident within the video recordings, I conducted a focus group session to gather audience responses to the material they had just been shown. These are some of the themes that emerged.

Within a prior study Rod Paterson noted: “…you have got to remember… that, unless they already know a song, an audience will not absorb a whole song right away…so little nuances in the meaning might well get lost” (PATERSON 2014: Appendix IV, 3). When asked how often they picked up on the lyrics of a song upon first hearing within a live performance setting, almost all participants admitted that, unless the song had been introduced in detail prior, much of the content was missed upon first listen (Appendix VII).

Conflict regarding the clarity of lyrics between performance settings became apparent; a singer within the group experienced very few issues when deciphering song lyrics, even when paired with atmospheric accompaniment: “I didn’t think I lost anything. I thought it added to it quite a lot” (P5, Appendix VII, 4). From the group, I found traditional musicians are more willing to accept creative interpretations of material as this is a process we go through each time we create music, and this may have been a reason for their engagement with creative attempts to portray the domestic themes within, whereas a non-musician informant within the live felt the musical accompaniment distracted from message about domestic violence within the song (P3, Appendix VII, 2).

The Scots within the three examples performed was perhaps not reflective of the range of dialects and differing complexities evident within Appendix I, however the majority of participants were familiar with Scots song and Scots language and so this may have played a role in this response. Each of the three songs were based on the English language, contain easily understood Scots expression, and so were more easily accessible to all.

When observing Ewan MacColl performing, Douglas noted that “…an individual ballad singer’s interpretation can help listeners to cross boundaries that otherwise might inhibit their understanding. You can read a fact in a history book which your intellect will put into your mental filing system, but you have to be knocked sideways by…singing like this to understand it is terms of human feelings. When it becomes real in this way, you realise that in fact we are not perhaps so far removed from this kind of horror as we think” (DOUGLAS 1995: 291). The importance of a singer’s interpretation and sensitivity to the song themes when attempting to convery emotive messages or narratives to an audience, arose. One participant noted: “I think you’re easy to understand compared to other singers…you put emotion into it rather than just sing. So I think it’s the delivery as well, not just the song” (P5, Appendix VII, 11). Ian MacGregor also noted the importance of the musical quality of a voice, as a nice voice has the ability to draw people in and attract their attention to the subject matter: “…if you can perform these songs, people are actually going to listen to you…that’s what appeals to people as well – not just the, the
message, but the way the message is, is, is given in a way. “ (MACGREGOR 2016: Appendix VI, 4).

In response to the contemporary visuals that accompanied the songs, more so the news report of a real example of abuse, the juxtapostion of the historical account of abuse within song and the contemporary, either visuals or verbatim speech, placed the abuse within a contemporary setting which sparked recognition and reflection of this parallel within the focus group: “that’s the way we process this kind of empathy. We don’t really mind that Anne Boelyn was beheaded, it doesn’t keep me up at night…” (P4, Appendix VII, 6); “I think a lot of the time with these traditional songs you kind of get disconnected from the content because they are all like that…then when you see something like that…how horrendous that is…” (P5, Appendix VII, 9). The artificial depiction of the woman held less meaning than evidence of the real life occurrence for most. This is perhaps the most effective performance aspect to highlight the similarties between abuse in the past and abuse now.

7. Conclusion

Within each stage of this research I have been approached by outside observers, family and friends enquiring as to whether delving into this topic or reading and performing songs that speak of such horrible acts against women has affected me emotionally in anyway. Yes – taking on the role of narrator or female victim whilst perfoming songs of such a harrowing nature does take its toll on you emotionally, but my admittance that I have been affected was not the heartbroken, emotive response those asking may have expected; being faced with the vast number of depictions of women’s suffering, abuse, mistreatment, degrodation at the hands of men, and the injustice of inequality has planted a deep rooted frustration and anger within me. Not only do I feel I have barely scratched the surface of this research area, but the regularity of misogyny rearing its head within traditional song and the parallels between the sexual violence which took place then and the abuse faced now only strengthens my determination to use these songs as vehicles for change.

Using feminist theories to identify the patriarchal domninance that threads together the collective abusive experiences of women within each song provides individual feminist perspectives on the position of women within the world and men’s and society’s role in women’s suffering; however, in my opinion, some of the views expressed by theorists, such as Dworkin, whose text Intercourse attempts to suggest that men and women will never be equal as long as male sexual desire continues to exist, are useful for identifying possible explanations for certain song narrative’s existence but are not effective theories to apply to women’s daily inequality, as, for example, sexual desire will exist as long as human’s exist. Alternative theories or other more gender inclusive methods of erradicating inequality should be applied when facing domestic and sexual violence. Women’s rights are human rights.

In regards to the performance aspects that help draw audiences towards the themes, personal musical taste and experience of the issues detailed within are two key aspects that will define whether a performance is effective at provoking reflection; as shown within fieldwork, contrast in tastes and lyric awareness between those who enjoy songs and those who enjoy instrumental music differ, and many distracting factors could draw someone’s attention away from a live song performance, including accessibility of the language, performance environment etc. The most important theme to emerge for me, personally, was the effectiveness of pairing the historical with the contemporary and enabling the audience to make the realisation that the two are not so far removed from one another.

For future study or development of ths research, I would suggest a deeper level of musical analysis of the songs to provide evidence as to why the melodies of certain songs are more effective in capturing an audience’s attention/how melody adds to the abusive themes, sampling a wider collection of song, conducting more interviews and fieldwork with those from outwith the traditional music scene.

As previously noted, music and art posses the ability to transcend the limits of spoken word; if I were to continue working on this area of study, I should like to adapt this for a contained themed live performance within which examples of songs from this study would annotate a talk on abuse in society and song.

As Bouvouir has noted, women are “…heirs to a weighty past, striving to forge a new future”, and it’s Scotland’s weighty past that could provide the fight against gender inequality and violence with a unique historical and musical tool (BOUVOIR 2011: 328).

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HASSAN, Yasmeen (2016) <http://www.theguardian.com/global- development/2016/mar/04/a-girl-in-the-river-oscar-win-pakistan-end-honour- killings> (accessed 5 April 2016).

HASTIE, Christina Ruth (2011) ”This Murder Done”: Misogyny, Femicide, and Modernity in 19th-Century Appalachian Murder Ballads (Tennessee: University of Tennesee).

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Women Killing (New York: Twayne Publishers).

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Videos and Online Research Platform

RARITY, Hannah (2015) Honours Project Research Page <http://hannahscotssongresearch.tumblr.com&gt; – Password for access: tartan

Music Sources

The songs featured within Appendix I and II were located from a variety of sources, including oral transmission, CD recordings and archive recordings. If you wish to search for these or other versions of these songs, they may be found within the sources here listed:

Frances James Child collection Greig-Duncan Collection

Tobar an Dualchais – tobarandualchais.co.uk

WOLLSTADT, Lynn (2002) ‘Controlling Women: Reading Gender in the

Ballads Scottish Women Sang’ in Western Folklore (61: 3/4), p.295-317.

Other Sources

Scottish Women’s Aid 40th Anniversary Conference, Easter Road, Edinburgh, March 2016.