A song about an injustice.
Fareweel, ye dungeons dark and strang, fareweel, fareweel tae ye,
MacPherson’s time will no be lang on yonder gallows tree
Sae rantinly and sae wantonly, sae dauntinly gaed he
For he played a tune and he danced aroon, below the gallows tree
It was by a woman’s treacherous hand that I was condemned tae dee
Above a ledge at a window she sat and a blanket she threw ower me
There’s some come here tae see me hang, and some come tae buy my fiddle
But before that I would part wi her I’d brak her through the middle
And he took the fiddle intae baith o his hands and he brak it ower a stane
Sayin, nay other hand shall play on thee when I am dead and gane
The reprieve was comin ower the Brig o Banff tae set MacPherson free,
But they pit the clock a quarter afore, and they hanged him frae the tree.
The Laird o Grant, that Hieland saunt, that first laid hands on me,
He pleads the cause o Peter Broon, tae let MacPherson dee
Untie these bands frae aff my hands and gie tae me my sword,
And there’s no a man in all Scotland but I’ll brave him at a word.
The story of the song is largely true.
James MacPherson was an outlaw in the North East of Scotland, one of the travelling people and the leader of a band of robbers. He was said to have been generous to and popular with the poor people, but he was the enemy of Lord Duff, the Laird of Braco.
MacPherson was caught in Keith and hanged at the Cross of Banff on 16 November 1700, 300 years ago. The story tells that no-one would arrest him because he was such a fine swordsman, but as he came into Keith through a narrow street a woman sitting at a window overlooking the street threw down a thick heavy blanket which entangled him so he could not draw his sword. The court jury was packed with the dependants of Lord Duff, the Laird of Grant, who found him guilty, but a friend of MacPherson rode to the higher court in Aberdeen for a pardon. The Laird saw the rider coming with the pardon, so ordered the town clock to be put forward so they could legally hang MacPherson before it arrived.
MacPherson was a fine fiddler, and he composed this tune the night before he was hanged and played it on the scaffold. Then he offered to give his fiddle to anyone who would play the tune at his wake. No-one would, so he smashed the fiddle. Anyone who had accepted it would have shown themselves to be a relative or friend of his and so liable to arrest themselves.
The song is also known as ‘MacPherson’s Farewell’. Robert Burns rewrote the song, but these are the traditional lyrics. The tune is very popular amongst Scottish fiddlers.
The pieces of MacPherson’s fiddle are displayed in the MacPherson Clan House Museum in Newtonmore.