Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Boatman

This song is called 'The Boatman' and it was translated from the Gaelic by Thomas Pattison, a poet from Islay. It was published in this gorgeous book, The Gaelic Bards and Original Poems, and this page has a picture of the author. Here's his introduction to the poem:


The number of boatmen, fishers, and half-sailors in the Western islands, is out of all proportion to the rest of the inhabitants; especially on the margin of the thousand creeks and inlets and arms of the sea that calmly nestle in the land. When night is falling on the long and winding loch that leads to a murmuring fishing village, the heavy sound of oars is heard incessantly along the silent shores; or in the summer twilight, when the wind is favourable, many and many sailing-boats may be seen gliding silently, as ghosts, over the smooth, hill-sheltered floor of the fresh western sea-way. Then the far-carried sound of voices comes to the wanderer on the bank, and reminds him, as he looks into the dim gloaming whence they issue, of the mysterious paths that are on the great ocean. Sometimes wild storms overtake the fisher, and anxious hearts wait for him at his home. Sometimes a fierce mountain squall leaps like a wild beast upon him, as he passes by in his careless security, and drives him far away from his warm and blazing hearth; or, as I have known more than once to happen, overturns his frail bark, and sinks him in the hissing, tumbling waters. Where the fishers have large boats they go a great distance, and remain for weeks away. Very frequently they take a voyage or two abroad, and all of them are at least half, and many of them thorough-bred, sailors. The fishing population and the agricultural population differ a good deal in their dress, and a little even in their appearance; of course their associations are dissimilar. The fishermen are a very much respected class, however; and no doubt they think a good deal of themselves. It is of one of them the following very popular song treats. This "Man of the Boat" had gone over the sea, and was like never to return. He had left some one behind him, who mourned his absence greatly.

How often hunting the highest hill-top,
I scan the ocean thy sail to see:
Wilt come to-night, love? Wilt come to-morrow?
Or ever come, love! to comfort me?

My soul is weary ; my heart is breaking ;
With frequent tear-drops mine eyes o'erflow.
Wilt come to-night, love? May I expect thee?
Or, sighing sorely, the door put to?

I question fondly thy friends, and ask them.
Where last they saw thee? where thou art now?
But each one, jeering, some answer gives me,
That sends me homeward with burning brow.

They call thee fickle, they call thee false one,
And seek to change me; but all in vain.
No; thou'rt my dream yet throughout the dark night
And every morn yet I watch the main.

Dost thou remember the promise made me —
The tartan plaidie — the silken gown —
The ring of gold with thy hair and portrait?
That gown and ring I will never own.

For not a hamlet — too well I know it —
Where you go wandering, or stay a while,
But all its old folk you win with talking,
And charm its maidens with song and smile.

And yet I dare not deny I love thee;
And not a month, — oh, nor yet a year,
But thee for ever,— since first in childhood
I stroll'd beside thee, and thought thee dear.

My friends they warn me, and oft advise me,
To let thy false vows forgotten be:
As vain their counsel, as if they order'd
Yon little streamlet roll back the sea.

So here I wander, a tearful mourner —
A stricken cygnet, with music-moan,
That sings her dirge-note by grassy fountain,
When, all forsaken, she dies alone!

In Songs of the North the song has this Gaelic refrain:
Fhir a bhata na horo eile,
Fhir a bhata na horo eile,
Fhir a bhata na horo eile,
O fare thee well, love, where'er thou be.

with the note: "Fhir a bhata" (pronounced 'Ear a vata') means 'O Boatman'. Na horo eile is merely a call.

And here it is being sung:

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