This was one of the first songs I learned in the USA in 1961. Ken and Rochelle Goldstein had gathered me in when I found myself adrift in Philadelphia. Theirs was the first of many generous households over the years that welcomed me in my peregrinations and helped me earn my position of professional house-guest. When I expressed my intentions of heading for New York, they passed me into the hands of friends who were passing through and heading in that direction. I rode into Manhattan for the first time in the back of a VW perched on top of Bob Beers' psaltery. The Beers family had the song from Bob's great-great-grandmother, Annie McManus, and he and Evelyne and their daughter Martha sang it as no one has since.
The text first appeared in print in 1724 in Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany, but not with a tune until Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius of 1733. That melody was quite different from this version. I have been saying for years that the song had disappeared from oral tradition in Scotland until I took it “home” again in the early 60's, but quite recently I had a letter from a lady at home whose mother had taught it to her as a girl. The melody she knows seems to be akin to that printed by Thomson. Such isolated survivals help to underline just how tenacious the folk memory is.
The Franco-Scottish Alliance took Scots abroad in great numbers—many of them as soldiers. The strongest regiment in France was Hepburn's. After his death, leadership passed to two Douglases in succession, and it was when the second, George Douglas (c. 1619-1692, son of William Douglas, 11th Earl of Angus) was created 1st Earl of Dumbarton that the regiment was brought back to help suppress Monmouth and Argyll in the uprisings of 1685. It then became known as the First Foot Regiment and later as the Royal Scots whose march past Dumbarton's Drums recalled the last colonel in France, who died in exile in 1692.
Moira Craig sang Dumbarton's Drums on her 2000 album On ae Bonny Day. She noted:
The Earl of Dunbarton served in a British regiment during the reign of Charles II and James II. The young man referred to in the song is the Earl of Dunbarton's caddie or servant / messenger. This is one of my mother's favourite songs.
Jean Redpath sings Dumbarton's Drums
Chorus (after each verse):
Dumbarton's drums they sound so bonnie
When they remind me o’ my Johnnie;
What fond delight can steal upon me,
When Johnnie kneels and kisses me.
Across the fields of bounding heather
Dumbarton tolls the hour of pleasure;
A song of love that knows no measure
When Johnnie kneels and sings to me.
Tis he alone that can delight me,
His graceful eye, it doth invite me;
And when his tender arms enfold me,
The blackest night doth turn and flee.
My love he is a handsome laddie,
And though he is Dumbarton's caddie
Some day I’ll be a captain's lady
When Johnnie tends his vow to me.