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A Field Guide to Fairies - Aiken Drum

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

Aiken Drum, the Brownie of Blednoch

Aiken Drum, the Brownie of Blednoch

A Scottish character, the name Aiken Drum is best known from the nursery rhyme, ‘There was a man lived in the Moon’, quoted in full in 'The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes' by Iona and Peer Opie. The rhyme describes Aiken Drum as a quirky fellow playing a ladle, wearing entirely edible clothes. His hat is mad of good cream cheese, his coat of roast beef, his buttons made from penny loaves, a waistcoat of crust pies, and breeches made of haggis bags.

A more troubling description of Aiken Drum is given by William Nicholson, who wrote about him in his poem, 'The Brownie of Blednoch'. Famous for its whisky distillery, this Galloway town in Scotland inspired Nicholson to write several ballads on folklore themes.

Aiken Drum, from The Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes

Aiken Drum, from The Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes

Found in the third edition of 'The Poetical Works of William Nicholson', published in 1878, this version is speculated to have been derived from local fairy legends.

In modern times, we are used to depictions of Brownies as a rather small type of fairy. However this Brownie is more or less, as large as a man. William Nicholson’s Aiken Drum did not wear foodstuffs; rather he was naked bar a kilt of green rushes on his waist, and he certainly did not bring cheer to children when he first appeared in Blednoch:

There cam a strange wight to our town-en',
And the fient a body did him ken;
He tirled na lang, but he glided ben
Wi' a dreary, dreary hum.

His face did glare like the glow o' the west,
When the drumlie cloud has it half o'ercast;
Or the struggling moon when she's sair distrest.
O sirs! 'twas Aiken-drum.

I trow the bauldest stood aback,
Wi' a gape and a glower till their lugs did crack,
As the shapeless phantom mum'ling spak,
"Hae ye wark for Aiken-drum?"

O! had ye seen the bairns' fright,
As they stared at this wild and unyirthly wight,
As he stauket in 'tween the dark and the light,
And graned out, "Aiken-drum!"

Aiken Drum arrives to town

Aiken Drum arrives to town

Gliding into Blednoch in the twilight hours, with a dreary hum, Aiken Drum casually asked for work. His arrival terrified the locals:

The black dog growling cowered his tail,
The lassie swarfed, loot fa' the pail;
Rob's lingle brak as he men't the flail,
At the sight o' Aiken-drum.

"Sauf us!" quoth Jock, "d'ye see sic een;"
Cries Kate, "there's a hole where a nose should hae been;
And the mouth's like a gash which a horn had ri'en;
Wow! keep's frae Aiken-drum!"

His matted head on his breast did rest,
A lang blue beard wan'ered down like a vest;
But the glare o' his e'e nae bard hath exprest,
Nor the skimes o' Aiken-drum.

Roun' his hairy form there was naething seen,
But a philabeg o' the rashes green,
And his knotted knees played ay knoit between:
What a sight was Aiken-drum!

On his wauchie arms three claws did meet,
As they trailed on the grun' by his taeless feet;
E'en the auld gudeman himsel' did sweat,
To look at Aiken-drum.

Roun' his hairy form there was naething seen,
But a philabeg o' the rashes green,
And his knotted knees played ay knoit between:
What a sight was Aiken-drum!

The description is somewhat horrific, to the point of unsettling a dog. Covered in hair, with his head resting on his breast, the Brownie had a long blue beard, knobbly knees, and three claws on each hand that trailed down to the ground to reach his toeless feet. There was a hole where his nose should have been, with a gash-like mouth.

"Roun' his hairy form there was naething seen, but a philabeg o' the rashes green"

"Roun' his hairy form there was naething seen, but a philabeg o' the rashes green"

But he drew a score, himsel' did sain,
The auld wife tried, but her tongue was gane;
While the young ane closer clasped her wean,
And turned frae Aiken-drum.

But the canny auld wife cam till her breath,
And she deemed the Bible might ward aff scaith,
Be it benshee, bogle, ghaist or wraith-
But it fear't na Aiken-drum.

"His presence protect us!" quoth the auld gudeman;
"What wad ye, where won ye - by sea or by lan'?
I conjure ye - speak - by the Beuk in my han'!"
What a grane ga'e Aiken-drum!

Standing upright, the locals were frozen in terror, one woman hugging her baby tightly to her as she turned away from the Brownie to protect the child from the hideous sight. At this point, an Old Wife, likely knowledgeable in dealing with fairies, knew that the Bible would ward off entities be they banshees, bogles, ghasts, or wraiths. Holding The Good Book aloft, an old gentleman prayed to God for protection, then addressed this hideous visitor, demanding to know what he was.

'The Brownie of Blednoch' by Edward Atkinson Hornel (1998), displayed in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

'The Brownie of Blednoch' by Edward Atkinson Hornel (1998), displayed in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.

"I lived in a lan' where we saw nae sky,
I dwalt in a spot where a burn rins na by;
But I'se dwall now wi' you, if ye like to try -
Hae ye wark for Aiken-drum?

"I'll shiel a' your sheep i' the mornin' sune,
I'll berry your crap by the light o' the moon,
And baa the bairns wi' an unken'd tune,
If ye'll keep puir Aiken-drum.

"I'll loup the linn when ye canna wade,
I'll kirn the kirn, and I'll turn the bread;
And the wildest fillie that ever ran rede
I'se tame't," quoth Aiken-drum!

"To wear the tod frae the flock on the fell -
To gather the dew frae the heather bell -
And to look at my face in your clear crystal well,
Might gie pleasure to Aiken-drum.

"I'se seek nae guids, gear, bond, nor mark;
I use nae beddin', shoon, nor sark;
But a cogfu' o' brose 'tween the light and dark,
Is the wage o' Aiken-drum."

The Brownie described living in a land where his kind saw no sky, and asked to live with them if they should have any work for him. He offered to shield their sheep, bury their toilet waste under the light of the moon, and to care for the children. He could help with fishing, grind corn, turn bread, and tame even the wildest of horses. It might give him pleasure to serve them, and he sought no payment or accommodation, only porridge served in the hours between day and night as a wage.

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, charmingly entitled, ''I'll berry your Crap", by William Strang.

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, charmingly entitled, ''I'll berry your Crap", by William Strang.

Quoth the wylie auld wife, "The thing speaks weel;
Our workers are scant - we hae routh o' meal;
Gif he'll do as he says - be he man, be he de'il,
Wow! we'll try this Aiken-drum."

But the wenches skirled "he's no be here!
His eldritch look gars us swarf wi' fear,
And the fient a ane will the house come near,
If they think but o' Aiken-drum.

"For a foul and a stalwart ghaist is he,
Despair sits brooding aboon his e'e bree,
And unchancie to light o' a maiden's e'e,
Is the grim glower o' Aiken-drum."

"Puir slipmalabors! ye hae little wit;
I s't na hallowmas now, and the crap out yet?"
Sae she silenced them a' wi' a stamp o' her fit;
"Sit yer wa's down, Aiken-drum."

There was some dispute about taking him on, but after all, the town was scant on workers, and be he man or devil, his offer of help would surely be useful. With his dreadful appearance, they need not worry about him seducing any local maidens, and therefore agreed to employ him.

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, entitled, ''I'll turn the bread", by William Strang.

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, entitled, ''I'll turn the bread", by William Strang.

Roun' a' that side what wark was dune,
By the streamer's gleam, or the glance o' the moon;
A word, or a wish - and the Brownie cam sune,
Sae helpfu' was Aiken-drum.

But he slade aye awa or the sun was up,
He ne'er could look straught on Macmillan's cup;
They watched - but nane saw him his brose ever sup,
Nor a spune sought Aiken-drum.

On Blednoch banks, and on crystal Cree,
For mony a day a toiled wight was he;
While the bairns played harmless roun' his knee,
Sae social was Aiken-drum.

Indeed, Aiken Drum proved to be an asset to Blednoch, although he could not bear to look upon Macmillan's cup, which was a goblet used by the church during sacrament. Said to have magical powers, no-one unworthy could gaze upon it, nor any man do so without confessing his guilt.

Aiken Drum carried out any task required of him at a word, and was gone before the sun was up. Nobody saw him use a spoon, nor eat his porridge. He proved to be most amicable despite his appearance, and the children soon took to playing around their strange friend.

Unfortunately, this arrangement was not to last. Despite his request for nothing more than porridge as payment, a young wife presented him with a pair of trousers. Like any Brownie, he was laid with the gift of clothing. Anyone with knowledge of fairy lore, would understand that such a gift would result in the Brownie departing, and indeed he did. Aiken Drum was never seen again.

But a new-made wife, fu' o' rippish freaks,
Fond o' a' things feat for the first five weeks,
Laid a mouldy pair o' her ain man's breeks
By the brose o' Aiken-drum.

Let the learned decide, when they convene,
What spell was him and the breeks between;
For frae that day forth he was nae mair seen,
And sair missed was Aiken-drum.

He was heard by a herd gaun by the Thrieve,
Crying "Lang, lang now may I greet and grieve;
For alas! I hae gotten baith fee and leave,
O, luckless Aiken-drum!"

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, entitled, 'He was nae mair seen', by William Strang.

Illustration to 'The Brownie of Blednoch, entitled, 'He was nae mair seen', by William Strang.

The Brownie of Blednoch did not seem to happy about his freedom and was heard near Thrieve crying out a lament at his luckless leave.

Awa! ye wrangling sceptic tribe,
Wi' your pros and your cons wad ye decide
'Gainst the 'sponsible voice o' a hale country-side
On the facts 'bout Aiken-drum?

Though the "Brownie o' Blednoch" lang be gane,
The mark o' his feet's left on mony a stane;
And mony a wife and mony a wean
Tell the feats o' Aiken-drum.

E'en now, light loons that jibe and sneer
At spiritual guests and a' sic gear,
At the Glashnoch mill hae swat wi' fear,
And looked roun' for Aiken-drum.

And guidly folks hae gotten a fright,
When the moon was set, and the stars gied nae light,
At the roaring linn in the howe o' the night,
Wi' sughs like Aiken-drum.

Despite being long gone, his footmarks were still found, and tales of his feats were still widely shared by housewives and children. It was thought he lingered still at the mill in Glashnoch, with acts of mischief, and any strange sounds in the night being attributed to him.

© 2020 Pollyanna Jones