muirkirk in the hills of ayrshire - from the muirkirk enterprise group


Isobel Pagan - Tibbie Pagan

Isobel Pagan is known as a Scottish poet of the Romantic Era

Isobel Pagan - known as Tibby to her friends - was born in 1741, about 4 miles from Nith-head in the Parish of New Cumnock, where she lived until 14 years of age.

Tibby was lame from birth with a deformed foot, a squint and a large tumour on her side.

She settled in a cottage situated on the banks of the Garpel water, Muirkirk, where she made a living by writing verses, singing and opening her cottage as a howff - a meeting place where whiskey and strong drink was served in a convivial atmosphere, probably unofficially!. Tibby was reputedly an exceptional singer, often singing her own compositions to the delight of her audience.

Although never married she had a child by a man called Campbell who deserted her, on the eve of their marriage.

Unable to write, the local tailor Gemmell wrote out her verses. Her one published volume of poems was A collection of Poems and Songs published in Glasgow in 1805.

Some of her poetry includes: -

  • The Crook and Plaid
  • Account of the Author's Lifetime
  • A New Love Song, with the Answer
  • The Answer
  • On Burns and Ramsay
  • A Letter
  • The Spinning Wheel
  • A Love Letter
  • Muirkirk Light Weights

Details of Tibbie's volume and some commentary by James Taylor can be found on the Ayrshire History website (pdf file)

Sarah Weinhart in Nebrasca USA has put together a blog The Songs of Isabel Pagan with the words (and, to some, the music) of Tibby's songs:-

Tibby is also credited as the original author of a poem made famous by Robert Burns, Ca' the Yowes tae the Knowes, although some dispute this as a fact. There appears to be no doubt that the Burns' version is a modification of the original, retaining the orginal chorus.

Tibby Pagan died towards the end of 1821, at the ageof 79, and is buried in the old Kirkyard at Muirkirk, where a tombstone is erected over her grave.

The following extract is from 'The Poets Of Ayrshire' John MacIntosh, 1910'

'Isobel 'Tibbie' Pagan is remembered as the authoress of the sweet pastoral lyric 'Ca' the yowes to the knowes'. She was born about four miles from nith-head in the parish of New Cumnock, where she lived till about fourteen years of age. Being lame from infancy she was unfitted for laborious work of any kind , and passed the greater part of her life in a cottage romatically situated on the banks of the Garpel Water (parish of Muirkirk). She did not live as a recluse, but was at all times ready to receive visitors, who frequently spent their evenings there singing and carousing, making her house the favourite "howff" of all the wits and drouthy neighbours in the district.

And an extract from unknown source

Tibbies Brig (Garpel Bridge) was so renamed after a Muirkirk worthy who lived in a clay biggin at Garpelside. Tibby Pagan made a few shillings by selling small items from her basket around the countryside, but her popularity surrounded her singing and poetry. She published a volume in 1803 which included one of the best known "Ca' the Yowes tae the Knowes". A cairn was erected in 1931 on the site of her former house and has been restored.

Following extract from "Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland" by Margery Palmer McCulloch

Pagan was a non-literate poet and singer from Muirkirk in Ayrshire whose verses celebrated - and sometimes castigated or mocked - the characters and activities of her local area. Many of the poems in her collection of 1808 (15) describe hunting and shooting parties or the stationing of soldiers in towns such as Cumnock, with the usual impact on local collier lads and their lassies. Many verses have the name of a tune attached. 'The Flowers of the Forest' air is used for two sets of verses: 'McLellan's Lament for his Master's Death' (IP54) and 'A New Song' (IP67) which celebrates a marriage based on choice. From a reading of the words on the page, as opposed to the way these verses were presumably adapted to the air when sung by Pagan, it is noticeable that the words do not fit their melody as well as those of Jean Elliot and, in her different context, Alison Cockburn, and their thought processes are very simple:

All men of every station now hear my lamentation
I am now so sorry, but little I can say.
I had the best master that every I served
But Providence lately called him away. (IP54)

There is a sense here of a local singer employing the popularity of a good tune for her own purposes. Similarly, the content of 'A New Song' does not match its plangent air and, although the speaker is a woman, glad to have replaced 'youthful sporting' with marriage to a carter and a man of her own choosing , unlike the literary poetry of Janet Little and the ballad singing of Anna Gordon, Pagan's poems in general do not present female perspectives on human life and society, although they do give glimpses of the difficulties facing an unsupported, uneducated and ageing woman such as she herself was when her poems were written down and published.

Pagan's name has become prominent in the twentieth century as a result of her increasingly being represented as the author of a version of 'Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes', most usually the version Burns claimed to have had taken down from the singing of a Rev. Clunzie and to have 'mended' and sent to James Johnson for his Musical Museum. A comparison of the version attributed to Pagan in "An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets" (K164) with the later version of the song much reworked by Burns and sent to George Thomson (included in "Songs of Scotland", WP32-3, where both versions are attributed to Burns), makes it clear that the Pagan version is in its nature an oral folk-song of the traditional love-dialogue or courtship type. Further comparison with Pagan's "Collected Poems" (which does not include this song) suggests that, if the song was indeed in her repertoire, then she was the transmitter of an existing song as opposed to its composer or even adapter, for this courtship folksong is much more sophisticated in idea and expression that any of the verses printed under Pagan's own name. To say this is not to denigrate Pagan or her contribution to the eighteenth-century song tradition. She is representative of good local folk poets and singers who worked in the tradition of transmitting and adapting existing songs and airs for their own local purposes. It shows, however, how misunderstandings and misinformation can arise as a result of the marginalisation and resultant declining knowledge of song traditions and their differences.

The full text of the above document is available on Scottish Corpus