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The Terror Time

[Ewan MacColl]

The Terror Time is a song from Ewan MacColl's 1964 radio ballad The Travelling People.

Archie Fisher sang The Terror Time in 1968 on his eponymous Transatlantic album, Archie Fisher.

The Terror Time is one of Ewan MacColl's stark song vignettes from the radio ballads. I learned this version from my sister Audrey who had learned it at school.

Jean Redpath sang The Terror Time in 1975 on her eponymous album Jean Redpath. She noted:

Ewan MacColl is responsible for this, and other fine songs, about the travelling people and their place—or lack of it—in the present world. It was published under the title Winter Song with one more verse, not sung here:

The shaw winna lift and the stove winna draw
There's ice in the water churn
In the mud and snaw you're sloshing
Trying to do a bit o' washing
And the kindling winna burn

MacColl's own introduction is more than enough explanation, if indeed any is necessary.

“Winter—that's the terror time—no place to go nor doesn't know where to go. Doesn't know any place to go and sit. And it doesn't matter whether it's snowing or blowing. You've got to go.” (Maggie Cameron, Inverness travelling woman. Recorded in a bow tent at Cookson's field, Alyth, Perthshire, 1964.)

I have taken liberties with the repetition of the first verse and word changes therein. Abby [Newton] created such incredible tension with her cello accompaniment here that a song I have been singing as a lament became much more of an accusation.

June Tabor sang Terror Time in an 23 July 1978 recording for a BBC Radio 1 John Peel Session. It was included in 1998 on her Strange Fruit CD of BBC Radio sessions, On Air.

The Tannahill Weavers sang The Terror Time in 1981 on their Plant Life album Tannahill Weavers IV. They noted:

For many years our favourite songwriter in the traditional style has been Ewan MacColl and for the first time we have tackled one of his songs on album. The song concerns the ‘travelling people’ of our country who have been not only a living source of material for countless performers but also an endangered culture well worth saving by the might of the pen and the melody (if not by stronger means).

This is by way of a lament for the beauty of their life style which has been, and is, constantly spoiled by legislation and, in many cases, non-understanding people.

Old Blind Dogs sang Terror Time in 1991 on their first and eponymous album, the cassette Old Blind Dogs, and in 2007 on their CD Four on the Floor.

Janet Russell and Christine Kydd sang The Terror Time in 1994 on their Greentrax CD Dancin' Chantin'. They noted:

Ewan MacColl's fine song written in support of the tradition-bearing travelling people. Many wonderful tales and songs might have been lost, but for the continuing oral tradition of the travellers. Tragically for all of us their way of live is being systematically denied them.

Stravaig sang The Terror Time in 1994 on their Greentrax CD Movin' On. They noted:

In Scotland we have to thank the travellers for keeping a lot of the tradition alive. We just had to sing this song.

Sue Mills sang Terror Time in 1998 on the CD of Martyn Wyndham-Read and company's show Maypoles to Mistletoe.

Heather Heywood sang The Terror Time in 2000 on her Tradition Bearers album of Scots songs and ballads, Lassies Fair and Laddies Braw.

Karine Polwart sang The Terror Time in 2015 on the Ewan MacColl centenary anthology, Joy of Living. The album's liner notes cite the Inverness traveller Maggie Cameron:

Winter … that's … the terror time. No place to go nor doesn't know where to go. Doesn't know any place to go and sit. And it doesn't matter whether it's snowing or blowing, you've got to go.

Ken Wilson and Jim MacFarland sang The Terror Time in 2017 on their CD Here's a Health to the Company!. They noted:

Written in 1964 by Ewan MacColl for his ‘Radio Ballad’ series, in support of Britain's many nomadic ‘Travelling People’.


Ewan MacColl sings The Terror Time

The heather will fade and the bracken will die
Stream will run cold and clear.
And the small birds will be going,
And it’s then you will be knowing
That the Terror Time is near.

Whaur will ye turn noo, whaur will ye bide
Now that the wark’s a’ done?
For the fairmer doesna need ye
And the Council winna heed ye,
And the Terror Time has come.

The woods give no shelter, the trees they are bare
Snow falling all around.
And the children they are crying
And the bed in which they’re lying
Is frozen to the ground.

The snow winna lift and the stove winna draw,
There’s ice in the water churn,
In the mud and snaw you’re sloshing
Trying to dae your bit o’ washing
And the kindling winna burn.

Needing the warming of your own human kind,
You move near a town, but then
Well, the sight of you’s offending,
And the police they soon are sending…
And you’re on the road again.