Loch Lomond is a famous location in Scotland for many reasons but one of them is definitely to do with a song - a poignant anthem of loss and sadness that is known throughout the world. This song seems to have meaning for people who have never been to Loch Lomond, but find the sentiment or the melody inspires them to visit! But what is the real meaning and origin of this song, so popular on the world stage?
Some call it ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, some just ‘The Banks of Loch Lomond , while simply ‘Loch Lomond’ is also usual. And if the title is varies, so do the explanations of the origins of the song.
John Purser in his monumental work, ‘Scotland’s Music’ (1992), says the event it commemorates is the Jacobite army’s return from their most southerly point, Derby, in England, to Carlisle, still south of the border, in1745. He claims the tune is a variant of an earlier one: ‘The Bonnie Hoose o’ Airlie’ - and this is based on the opinion of Bertrand Bronson in the ‘The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads III’ (1966). Nevertheless, others, notably Johnson in his ‘Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteen Century’ (1972), makes a link between the tune and the equally venerable ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ – so that all we can be absolutely certain is that the melody has direct links into the traditional balladry of Scotland.
Returning to what the song is actually about; Purser suggests the lyrics are younger than the tune. In fact, the song first appears in ‘Vocal Melodies of Scotland’ published in 1841. No source seems to have definite proof of an individual composer of the lyrics, instead usually attributing them to a Jacobite prisoner, languishing in Carlisle prison, awaiting his fate. Instead of the Jacobite army moving through Carlisle right at the end of 1745, other explanations suggest the prisoner was taken to Carlisle in 1746, after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden.
If so, the words with variations must have been sung for almost a century before being collected for the 1841 publication. Whatever the detail, the high road and low road allusions are usually said to be the ‘high road’ as in the main road, as opposed to the ‘low road’ of death, where the spirit of the soldier returns immediately to his homeland. In short, the lack of a definitive connection with the song-writer allow a variety of interpretations.
Like ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the melody is iconic – just the first few bars are enough to evoke an image of Scotland, so well known is the tune!
The more serious students of Scottish music claim that the song itself is, more often than not, musically misinterpreted. The subject matter of the verses is tragic, dealing with loss and yearning. Yet plenty of versions exist where the tempo is definitely upbeat and positively jolly! (Purser – see above - describes this as ‘inane chirpiness’!) Certainly, such is the song’s popularity that it has been interrpreted by a wide variety of musical genres – including punk and heavy metal!
The words themselves comprise a number of variations, while verse three is less commonly sung.