Auld Wife Ayond the Fire

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AULD WIFE AYOND/AHUNT THE FIRE, THE. AKA and see "Aald Wife Ahunt the Fire," "Old Wife Behind the Fire (The)," "Old Wife Beyond the Fire," "Old Wife Behind the Fire," "Set the old wife beyond the fire," "Welcome Royal Charlie." Scottish, English; Reel, Slow Strathspey or Country Dance Tune (4/4 time); Shetland, Reel. G Major (most versions): F Major (Hunter). Standard tuning (fiddle). One part (Hunter): AAB (Gow): AABB (Barnes, Bremner, Kerr): AA'BB (Cranford): AABBCCDD (Oswald). Once popular throughout Britain, albeit in different versions. According to John Glen, the Scottish version of the tune was first published by Robert Bremner (1757) and Neil Stewart (1761, p. 12), however, the melody appears earlier in the Drummond Castle Manuscript (in the possession of the Earl of Ancaster at Drummond Castle), inscribed "A Collection of Country dances written for the use of his Grace the Duke of Perth by Dav. Young, 1734." Gentleman-amateur fiddler Capt. Robert Riddell (1755-1794), friend of Robert Burns, included the tune with numerous variation sets in his 1794 publication, but ascribed the composition to William French. This assertion is belied by the printings before French's time.

All the Scottish printings are predated by the tune's appearance in John and William Neal's Choice Collection of Country Dances (Dublin, c. 1726), where the tune is given as "Old Wife Behind the Fire." English appearances in print (with the Neal title) are numerous, including Johnson's edition of Daniel Wright's Compleat Collection of celebrated country Dances (printed by John Johnson, London, 1740), Longman, Lukey & Broderip's edition of Bride's Favourite Collection of 200 Select Country Dances, Cotillons (London, 1776), and Longman & Broderips Compleat Collection of 200 Favorite Country Dances (London, 1781). In manuscript form, the tune was included in the collections of Northumbrian musician William Vickers (1770) and London musician Thomas Hammersley (c. 1790). In the 20th century, the tune was known by traditional musicians throughout the Shetlands. Cooke (Fiddle Tradition of the Shetland Isles, 1986) prints the following text to this dance tune, in oral tradition in the Shetlands in the 1970's:

The aald wife behunt the fire,
The aald wife behunt the fire,
The aald wife behunt the fire,
She deed for want of sneezing
She neether deed for kale or salt
She deed for a werrer fault
She deed for want of sneezing.

Compare the above survival to the first stanzas printed by Alan Ramsay (1686-1758) in his Tea-Table Miscellany (1724), a bawdy masterpiece:

There was a wife won'd in a glen,
And she had doctors nine or ten,
That sought the house faith but and ben
To find their mam a snishing.

Chorus:
The auld wife beyond the fire,
The auld wife aniest the fire,
The auld wife aboon the fire,
She died for lack of snishing.

Her mill into some hole had fawn,
Whatrecks, quoth she, let it be gawn,
For I maun hae a young goodman
Shall furnish me with snishing.

'Snitching', according to a note in The Scots Musical Museum, vol. 5 (which originally appeared in Ramsay's collection) is "in its literal meaning, snuff made of tobacco, but in this song, it means sometimes contentment, a husband, love, money, &c." -- it is a transparent redirection.

Source for notated version: Neal's c. 1726 collection [Barnes].

Printed sources: Barnes (English Country Dance Tunes, vol. 2), 2005; p. 97. Bremner (Scots Reels), c. 1757; p. 90. Carlin (The Gow Collection), 1986; No. 8. Christian (A Playford Assembly), 2015; p. 83. Cranford (Jerry Holland's), 1995; No. 164, p. 47. Gow (Complete Repository, Part 1), 1799; p. 14. Gow (Complete Repository, Part 2), 1802; p. 6 (slow strathspey). Hunter (Fiddle Music of Scotland), 1988; No. 43. Johnson (Scots Musical Museum, vol. 5), Song 435, pp. 446-447. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 2), c. 1880's; No. 115, p. 14. Oswald (Caledonian Pocket Companion, Book V), 1760; p. 2. Riddell (Collection of Scotch Galwegian Border Tunes), 1794; p. 34. Wright (Compleat Collection of Celebrated Country Dances), 1740; p. 74 (appears as "Old Wife Behind the Fire").

Recorded sources: Fiddlesticks cass., Jerry Holland - "A Session with Jerry Holland" (1990).




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