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Fhír a Bhata (The Boatman)

[ Roud 4356 ; Henry H834 ; Ballad Index HHH834 ; DT FBHATA ; Mudcat 10577 ; trad.]

Fear a’ Bhàta (translated The Boatman) is a Scots Gaelic song from the late 18th century, written by Sìne NicFhionnlaigh (Jean Finlayson) of Tong who was courting a young fisherman from Uig, Dòmhnall MacRath. The song captures the emotions that she endured during their courtship. The part of the story that is rarely told is that they were married not long after she composed the song. [Wikipedia]

Lorna Campbell and he Ian Campbell Folk Group sang The Boatman in 1962 at the Jug of Punch folk club at the Crown, Station Street, Birmingham. A recording of this concert was released on their Topic EP Ceilidh at the Crown, and this track was also included in 1966 on the Topic sampler no 5, A Prospect of Scotland.

Sandy Denny recorded the traditional Scots Gaelic song Fhír a Bhata for the BBC World Service radio programme “Cellar Full of Folk”, hosted by Alex Campbell, on 2 December 1966. It was broadcast on 11 January 1967. She sang it in English with the chorus partly in Gaelic, but jokes that she spares the audience from joining in. This recording was made available in 1989 on the fan club cassette The Attic Tracks Vol. 3, in 2007 on the Live at the BBC 3CD+DVD set, and in 2008 on her Island anthology The Music Weaver: Sandy Denny Remembered.

Canterbury Fair sang Fhir a’ Bhata on their eponymous 1977 album Canterbury Fair. They noted:

This beautiful lament of a rejected girl is from Scottish tradition, though it is also now found in Ireland. The version we use here is a composite of both Irish and Scots translations. It can be found in M. Maclean’s The Literature of the Highlands (2nd edition, London 1925), and in A Celtic Miscellany (Penguin Classics). The girls wish to make due apologies for their pronunciation of the Gaelic chorus. ‘Fhir a’ Bhata’ means ‘O my boatman’ and ‘na horo eile’ is a call.

Silly Wizard sang Fhear a Bhata (The Boatman) in 1978 on their second album, Caledonia’s Hardy Sons. They noted:

A song known all over the Highlands and Islands of Scotland telling of a young girl’s love for a man whom she could never hope to keep. The version Andy [M. Stewart] sings is a translation from the Gaelic by Malcolm Lawson.

Rhiannon sang Fhír a Bhata in 1985 on their Fellside album The Birds of Rhiannon.

Isla St Clair sang Fear a’ Bhàta in 1993 on her CD Inheritance and in 2004 as The Boatman on her CD Looking Forward to the Past. Her first album’s liner notes commented:

From the Gaelic, the title is Man of the Boat. The tune is one of the sweetest of the old love songs, a lilting sway that conjures in the imagination the slap of waves on the bow. The story is not uncommon… the girl alone on the shore awaiting her love, her boatman, and he a rover, a man she has been warned about—called fickle, called false one… yet she waits as maidens have done since time immemorial. It would be nice to know her wait was worthwhile and the ending was a happy one.

Misalliance sang Fear an Bhàta on their 1996 WildGoose album Fortune My Foe.

Niamh Parsons sang Fear a Bhata in 1999 on her Green Linnet album Blackbirds & Thrushes. A 2001 live recording from the Arsenaal Theatre in Vlissingen was released in 2021 on her download album So Here’s to You. She noted on the original album:

One of my favourite songs. This version comes from Rathlin Island and was given to me by Éanna Mac Fhionnlaoigh who found it in an old book and who provided the English translation.

This video shows Niamh Parsons at the Irish Sea Sessions at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 22 October 2010:

Julie Abbé sang The Boatman (Fhir a Bhata) on her 2020 album Numberless Dreams. She noted:

Based on Sandy Denny’s version. I slightly changed the lyrics to transform the story into that of a man who dies at sea. Dedicated to L&S with all my love.

Anna Tam sang Fear a’ Bhata on her 2021 CD Anchoress. She noted:

Written in Scottish Gaelic in the late 18th century by school teacher Sine NicFhionnlaigh of Tong, Isle of Lewis, for her fisherman Dòmhnall MacRath of Uig. Although the song tells only of her sorrow and longing for his return, they were married soon afterwards.

The Norfolk Broads sang Fear a Bhata on their 2021 album Yonder Green Grove.


Sandy Denny sings Fhír a’ Bhàta

How often haunting the highest hilltop,
I scan the ocean, a sail to see.
Will it come tonight, love? Will it come tomorrow?
Or ever come, love, to comfort me?

Chorus (after each verse):
Fhír a’ Bhàta no hóró eile, [Boatman, no one else]
Fhír a’ Bhàta no hóró eile,
Fhír a’ Bhàta no hóró eile,
O fare thee well, love, where’er thou be.

They call thee fickle, they call thee false one
And seek to change me but all in vain.
Thou art my dream yet throughout the dark night
And every moment I watch the main.

There’s not a hamlet, too well I know it,
Where you go wandering or stay awhile.
But all its old folk you win with talking
And charm its maidens with song and smile.

Doth thou remember the promise made me,
A tartan plead, a silken gown?
That ring of gold with your hair and portrait?
That gown and ring I will never own.

Anna Tam sings Fear a’ Bhàta

Chorus (after each verse):
Fear a’ bhàta, na hóro eile
Fear a’ bhàta, na hóro eile
Fear a’ bhàta, na hóro eile
Mo shoraidh slàn leat ’s gach àit’ an téid thu

’S tric mi sealltainn on chnoc as àirde
Dh’fheuch am faic mi fear a’ bhàta
An tig thu ’n-diugh na ’n tig thu màireach
’S mar tig thu idir gur truagh a ta mi

Tha mo chridhe-sa briste brùite
’S tric na deòir a ruith o m’ shùilean
An tig thu nochd na ’m bi mo dhùil riut
Na ’n dùin mi ’n doras le osna thùrsaich?

Chorus (after each verse):
O boatman, no one else
O boatman, no one else
O boatman, no one else
My farewell to you wherever you go

I often look from the highest hill
That I might see my boatman
Will you come tonight, or will you come tomorrow?
Oh sorry will I be if you do not come at all

My heart is broken, bruised
Often tears are running down from my eyes
Will you come tonight, or will I wait up for you
Or close the door with a sad sigh?