Sunday, 27 November 2016

The Whit? Kirriemuir’s ‘Ball’ (With Knobs On)

Consider this original chorus from an old  and coarse bothy ballad, and excuse me for being coy:

Wi’ a fa’ll dae it this time,

Faill dae it noo?

The yin that did it last time
Canna dae it noo.

This truly is a monstrous subject.  Put it a different way:  the topic of this post has achieved  life of its own, like no other, in the hundred and thirty odd years since its inception by an anonymous hand.  Its fame is world wide, yet it is only known in certain circles.  If we were to say that it is the prime example of the popular Scots ballad from the 19th century we would be vastly underestimating its uncouth and rampant appeal.

What?  Nae Dancing?

   What are we talking about?  ‘The Ball o’Kirriemuir’.  For those not in the know  this ballad charts the surreal  orgy which encompassed a substantial section of the town’s population in the late Victorian era, details in ribald and bare-cheeked detail.  No one version is the same as the next and it has grown – mutated perhaps – in the years since.  It is a living, throbbing organism, and it is reckoned that some mutated versions stretch to an astounding 200 verses (the original being perhaps 20 odd verses).  In a non-adult-orientated blog it is almost entirely unpublishable (though I will give some samples below), and it is even claimed to be based on true events.

   The popularity and scope of the ballad is astonishing.  When Winston Churchill visited the victorious Highland Division in Tripoli after their victories in Tobruk during  World War Two, the troops greeted him with a refrain that he did not recognise at first.  As soon as he recognised the obscene refrain however his expression changed from a puzzled frown to a broad grin.  It was perhaps the war which disseminated ‘The Ball o’ Kirriemuir’ to a wider audience than just bawdy Scots.  An officer in that conflict, later to be an MP and minister, could boast that he knew a version of the epic in Latin, guaranteed to slip beneath the radar of censorious prudes.  His name?  Denis Healey.  Even in ‘mainstream’ performing arts the names of some of those who gave us versions of the Ball are surprising:  who would have suspected the upright national icon Kenneth McKellar of leaving his semi-secret rendition to posterity?  (You may readily find it on YouTube these days.)  Another unlikely singer to grace us with it was the late, lamented American singer songwriter Jim Croce.

   In recent times the song has become popular with rugby clubs the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and beyond.  But its influence even extends into the arena of the high brow.  The great American poet T. S. Eliot entered into the arena in 1996 when some of his unpublished bawdy verses came to light.  (Or rather, some critics entered the arena, Eliot being long dead.)  It was argued by some that the poet had adapted some lines in his ‘Fragment’ from either ‘The Ball o’Kirriemuir’ or else the equally ribald ‘The Jolly Tinker’.

   What is the truth of the ballad?  Several works have aimed at finding a genuine event at the root of the song, insisting there really was a barn dance which ended up in a veritable orgy.  The most widespread version of this ‘founded in fact legend’ runs as follows:  prior to the dance some wily character had sprinkled rose hip seeds on the open floor, designing to target the women present who wore ‘free trade’ open crotch drawers.  The resultant intimate itching, combined with the aphrodisiac qualities of spanish fly deposited in the punch bowl resulted in an orgy of epic proportions.  To cap it all - so to speak - some canny body put turds in the lamps to effect a useful blackout when things got out of hand.

Oh, the ball,
The ball o' Kirriemuir,
Where folk o' high and low degree
Were screwin' on the floor.

Singin' "Wha'll dae ye, lassie,
Wha'll dae ye noo?
The mon wha did ye last nicht
Cannae dae ye noo."
'Twas on the first of August
The party, it began.
Noo, ne'er shall I forget, me lads,
The gatherin' o' the clans.
 'Twas the gatherin' o' the clans, mon,
And everyone was there
A-playin' wi' the lassies
An' twinin' curly hair
*   * *
The chimney sweep was also there,
But soon he got the boot,
For every time he farted,
He filled the room with soot.
* * *
Four and twenty virgins
Came doon frae Inverness,
And when the ball was over
There were four and twenty less.
* * *
And when the ball was over,
The opinion was expressed:
The music was exquisite but
The screwin' was the best.

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