Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Annie Laurie and Victorian sentimentality

My paternal grandfather, Tom Irving, was born on a small farm outside Maxwelltown in Kirkcudbrightshire in South-West Scotland. Maxwelltown is probably best known for being mentioned in the first line of the song Annie Laurie (unless you’re a follower of Scottish football, in which case it’s also home to Queen of the South). In the 19th century it was a pretty significant industrial town for the region; nowadays it definitely loses out to Kirkudbright with its artistic history, Wigtown with its bookshops and book festival and other Dumfries & Galloway towns which have put themselves on the map for cultural and gastronomic reasons.

Historic postcard with views from Maxweltown Braes

Historic postcard with views from Maxweltown Braes

When I was busy coming down with yet another stinking cold and my brain was full of cotton wool, I amused myself by looking up things about Maxwelltown, and Annie Laurie. The version of the song which is most familiar was put together in typically sentimental Victorian style by Alicia Ann Spottiswoode/Lady John Scott, a gentlewoman who married a younger son of one of the Dukes of Buccleuch (various of my ancestors seem to have been servants on Buccleuch estates). It goes like this:

Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie,
Where early fa’s the dew,
‘Twas there that Annie Laurie
Gi’ed me her promise true.
Gi’ed me her promise true –
Which ne’er forgot will be,
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I’d lay me down and dee.
Her brow is like the snaw-drift,
Her neck is like the swan,
Her face it is the fairest,
That ‘er the sun shone on.
That ‘er the sun shone on –
And dark blue is her e’e,
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I’d lay me down and dee.
Like dew on gowans lying,
Is the fa’ o’ her fairy feet,
And like winds, in simmer sighing,
Her voice is low and sweet.
Her voice is low and sweet –
And she’s a’ the world to me;
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
I’d lay me down and dee.

But in my wanderings I also came across the fact that this wasn’t the original version. That was written over a century earlier by William Douglas, a gentleman from Fingland who composed the poem to the real Annie Laurie – a local lady with whom he was in love, but whose family didn’t approve of his Jacobite political views and, by the sound of things, rather disreputable character (he later eloped with another woman). The original poem is a rather different affair to Spottiswoode’s coy Victorian love-song, and the original Annie Laurie appears to have rather more oomph to her than the 19th century maid of the ‘low and sweet’ voice and fairy feet. It’s an interesting example of the Victorian tendency to romanticise and sanitise folk songs and tales:

Maxwelton braes are bonnie, where early fa’s the dew
Where me and Annie Laurie made up the promise true
Made up the promise true, and ne’er forget will I
And for bonnie Annie Laurie I’d lay doun my head and die
She’s backit like the peacock, she’s breistit like the swan
She’s jimp aboot the middle, her waist ye weel may span
Her waist ye weel may span, and she has a rolling eye
And for bonnie Annie Laurie I’d lay doun my head and die.

To finish in a slightly bizarre fashion, here is the Red Army Choir singing the Victorian version of Annie Laurie. Yes, really:

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