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Updated 02/26/2020


Laird o' Cockpin

The Laird o' Cockpen is a song by Scottish songwriter Carolina Nairne, Baroness Nairne (1766–1845), which she contributed anonymously to The Scottish Minstrel, a six-volume collection of traditional Scottish songs published from 1821 to 1824.

Carolina Oliphant was born at the Auld Hoose, Gask, Perthshire on 16 August 1766, the fourth child of the three sons and four daughters of Laurence Oliphant (1724–1792), laird of Gask, and his wife Margaret Robertson (1739–1774); the Auld Hoose was her father's ancestral family home. Margaret was the eldest daughter of Duncan Robertson of Struan, the chief of Clan Donnachie, which fought on the Jacobite side in the uprisings of 1715 and '45. Carolina's father Laurence was also a staunch Jacobite, thus she was given the name Carolina in memory of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.

Following the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745 the Oliphant family – along with the Robertsons and the Nairnes – were accused of high treason, exiled to France, and their estates seized. They remained in France for nineteen years, during which time Carolina's parents were married at Versailles, in 1755. The government eventually allowed Laurence's kinsmen to buy back part of the Gask estate, and the couple returned to Scotland two years before Carolina's birth. Both of her parents, who were cousins, were grandchildren of Lord Nairne, who had commanded the second line of the Jacobite army at the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745 and subsequently been sentenced to death the following year.

The upbringing of Laurence's children reflected his Jacobite allegiance and their everyday lives were filled with reminders that he considered the Stewarts the rightful heirs to the throne. A governess was employed to ensure the girls did not speak with a broad Scottish dialect as their father did not consider it ladylike; general tuition was provided by a local minister – the children's prayer books had the Hanoverian sovereign's names obscured by those of the Stewarts – and music and dance teachers were also engaged. Delicate as a child, Carolina gradually developed into a genteel young woman, much admired by fashionable families; she was well educated, able to paint and an accomplished musician familiar with traditional songs.

As a teenager, Carolina was betrothed to William Murray Nairne, another of Lord Nairne's grandchildren, and who became the 5th Lord Nairne in 1824. Born in Ireland to a Jacobite family from Perthshire whose lands had also been forfeited, he regularly visited Gask. It was only after he was promoted to the position of assistant inspector-general at a Scottish barracks that the pair were able to be married on 2 June 1806. The couple settled in Edinburgh, where their only son, also named William Murray Nairne (1808–1837), was born two years later. He was a sickly child and, following her husband's death in 1830, Lady Nairne lived with her son in Ireland and on the continent. The change in climate was not as beneficial to his health as hoped; he died in Brussels in December 1837. She returned to Gask in 1843, but following a stroke her health deteriorated; she died on 26 October 1845 and was buried in the family chapel.

Carolina began writing songs shortly after her father's death in 1792. She was a contemporary of the best-known Scottish songwriter and poet Robert Burns. Although the two never met, together they forged a national song for Scotland, that in the words of Dianne Dugaw, Professor of English and Folklore at the University of Oregon, "lies somewhere between folk-song and art-song." For both, Jacobite history was a powerful influence. Carolina could read music and played the harpsichord, which allowed her to contribute some of her own tunes. Three tunes almost certainly written by Carolina are those to "Will "Ye No Come Back Again", "The Rowan Tree", and "The Auld House", as no earlier printed versions have been found.

What was probably her first composition – The Pleughman (ploughman) – may have been a tribute to Burns. Just like him, Carolina's songs were at first circulated by being performed, but her interest in Scottish music and song brought her into contact with Robert Purdie, an Edinburgh publisher. Purdie was gathering together "a collection of the national airs, with words suited for refined circles" to which Carolina contributed a significant number of original songs, all without attribution to her. The collection was published in six volumes as The Scottish Minstrel from 1821 to 1824, with music edited by Robert Archibald Smith.

The bulk of Carolina's more than 80 songs have Jacobitism as their backdrop, perhaps unsurprising given her family background and upbringing. Examples of the best known of such works include "Wha'll be King but Charlie?" "Charlie is my darling", "The Hundred Pipers", "He's owre the Hills", and "Will ye no' come back again?". In part she wrote such songs as a tribute to the mid-18th century struggles of her parents and grandparents, but the Jacobite influence in her work runs deep. In "The Laird o' Cockpen", for instance, Carolina echoes the Jacobite distaste for the Whiggish displays and manners of the noveau riche in post-Union Scotland, as does "Caller Herrin'".

Most of Carolina's songs were written before her marriage in 1806. She completed her last – "Would Ye Be Young Again?" – at the age of 75, adding a note in the manuscript that perhaps reveals much of her attitude to life: "The thirst of the dying wretch in the desert is nothing to the pining for voices which have ceased forever!" Indeed Carolina's songs often focus on grief, on what can be no more, and romanticize a traditional way of Scottish life. Her contemporary Burns, on the other hand, had an eye on a global future – "a brotherhood of working people 'the warld o'er' that's 'comin yet'".

Perhaps in the belief that her work would not be taken seriously if it were known that she was a woman, Carolina went to considerable lengths to conceal her identity when submitting work for publication, even from her husband. Early on she called herself Mrs. Bogan of Bogan, but feeling that gave too much away she often attributed her songs to the gender-neutral B.B., S.M., or Unknown.   

The Laird o' Cockpen was a real historical figure, with an estate in Cockpen. Cockpen is a parish in Midlothian, Scotland, containing at its north-west corner the town of Bonnyrigg - Cockpen is agreed to be a Cumbric name cognate with Welsh coch 'red' + pen 'peak'.  Having fought on the Royalist side at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the final battle of the English Civil War, he accompanied King Charles II to Holland after the defeat by Parliamentary forces. He became one of the King's favorites, but following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Cockpen discovered that his estate had been confiscated, and that an ungrateful King refused to answer his petitions for its return. But by a strategy he succeeded in re-establishing his familiarity with King, who restored him to his lands.

Carolina probably wrote "The Laird o' Cockpen" as a young woman, still living in her birthplace, the Auld Hoose in Gask, Perthshire.    The song as written by Carolina is in seven stanzas, set to the tune of "O when she cam' ben she bobbit".


The laird o' Cockpen, he's proud an' he's great,
His mind is ta'en up wi' the things o' the State;
He wanted a wife, his braw house to keep,
But favour wi' wooin' was fashious to seek.

Down by the dyke-side a lady did dwell,
At his table head he thocht she'd look well,
M’Leish's ae dochter o' Clavers-ha' Lea,
A penniless lass wi' a lang pedigree.

His wig was weel pouther'd and as gude as new,
His waistcoat was white, his coat it was blue;
He put on a ring, a sword, and cock'd hat,
And wha could refuse the laird wi' a' that?

He took the grey mare, and rade cannily,
And rapp'd at the yett o' Clavers-ha' Lea;
‘Gae tell Mistress Jean to come speedily ben, -
She's wanted to speak to the laird o' Cockpen.’

Mistress Jean she was makin' the elderflower wine;
‘An' what brings the laird at sic a like time?’
She put aff her apron, and on her silk goun,
Her mutch wi' red ribbons, and gaed awa' doun.

An' when she cam' ben, he bowed fu' low,
An' what was his errand he soon let her know;
Amazed was the laird when the lady said ‘Na’,
And wi' a laigh curtsie she turned awa'.

Dumfounder'd was he, nae sigh did he gie,
He mounted his mare - he rade cannily;
An' aften he thought, as he gaed through the glen,
She's daft to refuse the laird o' Cockpen.