Ian Russell, 'competing with ballads (and whisky): the construction, celebration, and commercialization of North-East Scottish identity', Folk Music Journal, 9.2 (2007), 170-91.
In those parts of Scotland where farm workers were responsible for preparing their own food in the bothy, the men required two kists: a clothes kist and a smaller meal kist. These were personal possessions that accompanied their owners on their sojourns from farm to farm, and formed, for the duration of the men's engagements, part of the furnishings of successive bothies. Where meals were provided by the farmer, the need for a meal kist did not arise. In contrast, the cornkist, containing oats for the farm's horses, was located in the stable.
Perhaps the classic account of the cornkist and its role in the folk song of the North-East of Scotland occurs in John R. Allan's book of 1935, Farmers Boy:
[The stable's] chief furnishing was the cornkist that stood in the window recess, with its lid polished black by harness oil and the seats of corduroy breeks. Some fine talk went on around the kist while the boys smoked and spat and took the countryside through hand. They may have had just three topics of conversation--women, men, and horses, in that order--but what they lacked in generality of interest they made up in particularity of knowledge and an Elizabethan directness of expression. The cornkist had an important place in rural tradition, for the old country songs are so closely associated with it as to be known as cornkisters. You see, the boys sat on the top of the kist and kept time to their songs by thumping their tackety boots against the front of it. If you had been passing the stable door of a summer evening when the sun was going down and the west wind was blowing softly over the young corn, you would have heard the mournful words of 'The Dying Ploughboy' sung with tremendous pathos by a deep baritone, while half a dozen heels beat time against the kist, like distant thunder, or the insistent beat of fate's winged chariot hurrying near. It's jist thump a week thump ago thump the morn thump Sin I thump wis weel thump an hairst- (thump) in corn thump; Bit some- (thump) thing in thump my heart thump gaed wrang thump, A ves- (thump) sel burst thump; the bluid thump ootsprang.
And so on through as many verses as the singer could remember or improvise. Unless I am mistaken, Charlie Allan, a notable bothy ballad singer referred to in Ian Russell's piece, is the son of John R. Allan.
While the cornkist was ideally suited for such percussion accompaniment, the dimensions of the meal kist rendered it unsuitable for that purpose (one I possess is about twenty-seven inches long with a depth and width of about twenty inches).
Jim Black's letter is very thoughtful and clarifies the uses and comparative sizes of the three different kists, which I had crudely lumped together. Moreover, the quotation by John R. Allan (who was indeed the father of Charlie) is a classic description of the singing context and merits reproduction here.
Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen
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|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Article Type:||Letter to the editor|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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