What’s a “bricht chaulmer”?

Since moving to Ontario, I’ve been buying my comics at The Beguiling. This, obviously, means that from time to time I have to take a run into Toronto to actually, you know, pick up the comics. So far I’ve managed to work these trips either into other shopping outings I’m taking to the city, or to pick up a beer with a friend while I’m there, etc.

This past Friday, however, I was just doing a speed trip, since I had to get in and out in a relatively short time. I went directly to the store, parking as I usually do in a lot about a half-block away, behind a Korean BBQ joint. I think it was shortly after 8 when I got out of the car.

I’m always in a state of slightly heightened awareness when I’m in particularly urban parts of Toronto–not that I think it’s justified or required, just the leftover neuroses of growing up in a smallish city and hearing all the things one hears about The Big City–and especially so when I’m in dark or secluded spots. This particular parking lot is actually quite secluded for being within throwing distance of one of the major streets of Toronto, and it’s not terribly well lit, so my small town paranoia was in full effect.

Consequently I was fully aware of the gentleman, whom I had noticed while parking, sitting leaning against the back wall of the BBQ joint, and resting up against something that’s either a dumpster or a commercial grease trap. He could have been a kitchen worker taking a break for a smoke, or a just a homeless dude–either was plausible, although it was pretty cold for someone in either of those situations to just be sitting on the ground outside.

From my car, I would have to walk past the guy to get to the side street. I started walking, probably unconsciously having decided to walk past without ‘officially’ noticing the guy, but while maintaining a constant awareness of where he was–small town paranoia, you know. As I got close to him I could hear him making some kind of sounds. When I got closer, it was obvious that he was singing. And that he was pissed drunk–there’s no mistaking a certain kind of slurring of the lyrics.

Why someone would be drunk already at 8PM, and why they’d be hanging out in a parking lot behind a Korean BBQ if they were… who knows. But the kind of person who might be “I can’t actually maintain my Z-axis” drunk at 8PM might well think it a fine idea to have a seat behind a restaurant and belt out a few tunes. Fair enough.

What really threw me as I passed the guy, though, was what he was singing.

As I passed him, and my mind processed the slurred words coming out of his mouth, and the tune he was kind of carrying, it hit me…

“…Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw.
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy bastards are weary.”

Braid Scots and all.

The shock of recognition made me turn and look him straight in the eye–a violation of all our social conventions for this kind of situation. I couldn’t make out a lot in the relative darkness, but he was a white guy, in clothes that were shabby but not in any way tattered. He might have been around 60, or maybe early 50s with a hard life. His hair was a mess, but he had lots of it, and he had a noticeable stubble–enough that I could see it even in those conditions, but not a beard. He did not meet my gaze, or look up when I stopped walking. He just kept singing.

I got moving again, and when I came back to my car he was gone from the parking lot.

Ever since, I’ve been singing the song to myself in odd moments, and wondering about who that guy was, and what his story was.

The song, in case you didn’t recognize it, is THE 51st HIGHLAND DIVISION’S FAREWELL TO SICILY, sometimes just called “The Banks Of Sicily”. It’s something I first heard in my childhood, in a situation that made it stick in my mind. I probably didn’t hear it again for 20 years after that. When it eventually did come back into my head, we were in the days of Napster, and so I managed to find a copy of it. Sadly the copy is one that has no artist attribution, so I have no idea who’s doing the performance. I’ve listened to it once every couple of months since finding it, without thinking particularly deeply about it.

Here’s the mystery-artist version I have:

Don’t worry if you can’t make out the lyrics. Unless you’re from a particular part of Scotland, you’re not supposed to be able to understand them all. Since running into my mysterious drunken singer, I’ve done a little digging into the history of the song–it was written in a carefully selected combination of Scots and English by a fellow named Hamish Henderson, about his regiment (the 51st Highland Regiment, some of the supposed Ladies From Hell) taking their leave of Sicily.

The World War II ballad “The 51st Highland Regiment’s Farewell to Sicily”, also known as “Banks of Sicily”, lyrics by Hamish Henderson, is based on and sung sung to the melody of the march “Farewell to the Creeks”. Composed while he was Intelligence Officer for the Highland Division in World War II. G. W. Lockhart (in Fiddles and Folk, 1998) relates that Henderson had been viewing the smoke curling from Mt. Etna’s crater in the distance behind the Pipes and Drums of the division’s 153 Brigade, when the band launched into “Farewell to the Creeks.” “Without hindrance,” said Henderson, “the words came flowing to me.”

There is some debate about the “proper” wording of the song. Apparently Henderson himself published a couple of slightly different versions, with small changes to how the sky over Messina is described (sometimes as “unco an’ grey” and sometimes “antrin an’ grey”). Further, while the printed lyrics refer to the “Puir bliddy swaddies” being weary, apparently Henderson always sang it as “Puir bliddy bastards
(as in the embedded version above) unless he was in swank company. Given those caveats here’s what the lyrics nominally are:

THE 51st HIGHLAND DIVISION’S FAREWELL TO SICILY

The pipie is dozie, the pipie is fey,
He wullnae come roon for his vino the day.
The sky ower Messina is antrin an’ grey
And a’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie.

Then fare weel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw.
There’s nae Jock will mourn the kyles o’ ye
Puir bliddy bastards are weary.

And fare weel ye banks o’ Sicily
Fare ye weel ye valley an’ shaw.
There’s nae hame can smoor the wiles o’ ye
Puir bliddy bastards are weary.

Then doon the stair and line the waterside
Wait your turn, the ferry’s awa.
Then doon the stair and line the waterside
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie,

The drummie is polisht, the drummie is braw
He cannae he seen for his webhin ava.
He’s beezed himsel up for a photo an’ a
Tae leave wi his Lola, his dearie.

Then fare weel ye dives o’ Sicily
(Fare ye weel ye shieling an’ ha’)
And fare weel ye byres and bothies
Whaur kind signorinas were cheerie.

And fare well ye dives o’ Sicily
(Fare ye weel ye shieling an’ ha’)
We’ll a’ mind shebeens and bothies
Whaur Jock made a date wi’ his dearie.

Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum
(Leave your kit this side o’ the wa’)
Then tune the pipes and drub the tenor drum—
A’ the bricht chaulmers are eerie.

As you can see, unless you’re up on your Scots dialect, you’re only going to working with the very general meaning of the song. (And, of course, there’s rather a lot of potential for mondegreens–I thought that the lyrics “fare ye weel ye valley and shaw” were “fare ye weel ye valiant shore” for around 20 years. Then I thought “valley and shaw” was dialect for “valley and shore”. Only lately I have found out that ‘shaw’ here is a Scots word for a wood or thicket descending from the Old English scaga.)

In any case, the proper lyrics for the tune aren’t ones that would stick in the head of anyone who hadn’t spent at least a fair amount of time around Scots dialects or made a particular effort to learn the song. Which suggests that my mystery singer either had a Scots background, or had made a proper study of this particular tune, committing it to memory. The what-was-this-guy’s-story question just gets bigger.

As part of digging into the history of the tune this week, I’ve been doing a lot of interesting reading, and finding a lot of other artists who’ve recorded the tune. For instance, I found that Dick Gaughan (remember, we like him around here) includes the song in his repertoire… and even found a snippet from an interesting essay about the song at his site. The Guide To The Scots Language and accompanying dictionary at his site is also quite helpful. They give enough information to answer the question in the post title–a “bricht chaulmer” is a “bright room”, and suddenly the lyrics about the bright rooms, presumably now empty of their former noise and populace, being eerie makes a lot of sense.

Other useful references included a couple of discussions specifically about parsing the lyrics at The Mudcat Cafe: this one, and this one. Reading through those reveals a lot of additional information on the phrasing choices. Between what I already had, and Gaughan’s dictionary, and those threads, I think I could make a fair go of translating the thing–but I don’t think I will; it seems a lot more poetic in the original form, perhaps the moreso for the work I had to do to fully understand it.

I also had to do some reading on the traditional relationships within regiments, after reading this: “Henderson’s complexities make his work hard to study: for example, Dick Gaughan’s commentary on the song-poem The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily, while insightful, does not take into account the traditional divide between pipers and drummers in the Scots regiments, the essential key to one reading of the text.” at Henderson’s wikipedia entry. I admit, whatever key is there to a supposed particular reading of the text, it escapes me. Unless that’s just referring to the stereotypical way the “pipie” and ‘drummie’ are each presented in the lyrics, of course, the one as a fey, dozie, drunkard and the other ass a kind of dandified lady’s man.

Speaking of Henderson, I found a recording of Gordon Scott performing the song, and this recording is introduced by Hamish Henderson himself, explaining the origin of the tune:

In addition to that, Youtube searching yields lots of different versions: a fairly faithful one from The McCalmans in the 70s, a particularly caffeine-free one from the aforementioned Mr. Gaughan, an Irished-up and pretty heavily altered version from The Ryans, a faithful solo performance by Kev Thompson, and another acoustic version with sing-along lyrics (again slightly different from the ones above).

So, after a few days of picking at it, I know rather a lot more about the song, and about the proper meaning of its lyrics… but I’m still left with a lot of questions about who the mysterious singer was, why he was drunk in the January-freezing parking lot of a Korean BBQ at 8PM on a Friday, why he knew the words to the song, and why he was singing it.

I think I’ll make up a good story to explain it.

  10 comments for “What’s a “bricht chaulmer”?

  1. UkendtBruger
    February 5, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    And it all began when you parked behind a BBQ joint…..

    I love stopping by your blog Chris because with just one post you have me roaming all over the internet. 🙂

    Very much like I follow one interesting idea after another (well, more simultaneously than sequentially) and end up with 20 tabs in my browser. Except yours has a story that goes with it. Very enjoyable. Thank you.

  2. February 10, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Cheers, and thanks for the good words.

    Oh, and I bet you’d like this post.

  3. September 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Thanks, Chris. I’ve loved this song for 35 years and just taking a crack at really learning it.

    first definition in Concise Scots Dictionary for “fey” – doomed to death, or acting unnaturally as if under doom.

  4. Gary Martin
    September 14, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    I found your mystery-artist version on iTunes. It’s listed as being from the 1995 album “Come On Lads…” by Sods’ Opera on the Beautiful Jo label.

  5. September 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Andrew, cheers!

    Gary, double cheers! I guess I’ll go spend some money now.

  6. Alex Marshall
    January 17, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Thanks, Andrew. I’ve wondered idly about that word “chaulmers” for 50 years or so, ever since I first heard Hamish Henderson sing it, probably in “Sandy Bell’s” bar in Edinburgh. Incidentally, I think the line is “Puir bluidy squaddies are weary”. A “squaddy” is a private soldier in WW2 British army slang. (And “webhin” should be “webbin”– meaning “webbing”, the belts and straps that soldiers used to secure their kit. On parade, it was “beezed up” with a nasty liquid called “blanco” which came as a solid paste in tins and had to be worked up with a wet rag. If you didn’t do it right it went on unevenly and the sergeant-major would swiftly put you on “jankers” or punishment duty. There were also bits of brass which had to be polished (and god forbid you should get blanco on the brass or brass polish on the blanco). The whole nonsense, along with boots polished till the toecaps glittered and creases ironed in unlikely places, was called “bull”, and the petty disciplinarians loved it. Hamish was, to say the least, skeptical.

    • David Provan
      August 12, 2014 at 10:22 pm

      Nope to webbing for webhin ava – I think it’s ‘weapon o’ war’. Slinging off at the drummer hidden behind his drum. But much of the rest beats me, and I’m Scots.

  7. November 15, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    I’m really pleased to have found this – I love that Gordon Scott version. I wish I could say that I first came across this song when I was living in Clydebank in the early 60s, but I didn’t. I learned it when returned to Manchester and belonged to Harry Boardman’s folk club. This is one of the Scottish songs which Harry (a Lancashire singer actually) used to sing really well and it always took me back to a place I’d come to love.
    Rob Crompton

  8. Gordon Cheyne
    January 31, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    When I was a wee loon in Kennethmont, the “chaulmer” was where the farm servants slept, an a room above the stable. I assume it was derived from “chamber”.

  9. Tim Ryan
    January 14, 2015 at 11:07 am

    Old post, but your “anonymous” version is by Sod’s Opera on the album Come on Lads. I believe the singer is named Ian Giles.

  10. AMR
    January 6, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    In the clip above HH mentions the name of the tune, but not its origin/composer – Pipe Major James (Jimmy) Robertson of the Gordon Highlanders, written 1915 or 1916 when he was a PoW.

  11. Dave L
    January 20, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    “Chaumer” is the term used up here in north-east Scotland for the farm annex where the unmarried farm workers slept; they actually ate in the farmhouse. This is distinct from the “bothy” which was the more common arrangement in Angus and Kincardineshire; in the bothies the workers slept and ate. I heard it suggested that “chaumer” comes from the French “chaumiere”, which would be unusual but not unknown (eg: the term up here for a large dish is “ashet” which is very close to the French “assiette” although it might also come from the Norwegian “asjett”.)

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.