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Updated 06/19/2020


Whistle O'er the Lave O't

Whistle Oer the Lave O't is most commonly used in Highland dance for the slow steps of the Seann Truibhas. Seann Triubhas is a Gaelic phrase which means "Old Trousers". It is called this because the Scottish wanted a way of celebrating getting their Scottish culture back from the British.

There has been a widely accepted story that the kicking or sweeping movements of the legs in the first step represented the attempt of the dancer to shake off the 'despicable' trews, but D.G. MacLennan writes in Traditional Highland and Scottish Dances that 'this first step has nothing to do with the idea of kicking off the trews, new to the dance and was composed by myself'. The Seann Triubhas, then, is simply about a pair of old trews which may or may not have been a subject of distaste or fun to the wearer, and may or may not have something to do with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Trews were anciently associated with the Celts. Tartan trews were part of the Highland wardrobe for chieftains and gentlemen whilst on horseback from the early 17th century onward. Some Seann Triubhas steps seem to have originated from hard shoe dancing, and the dance was taught to be performed in regular shoes with heels by dancing masters in the 19th century.

In the late 18th century, the dance was performed to a fiddle tune called 'Seann Triubhas Uilleachan' (Gaelic for 'Willie's old trousers'), previously and more scurrilously called 'The De'il Stick the Minister'. When the dance began to be incorporated into Highland Dance competitions, which were usually played for by pipers, the tune was changed to 'Whistle O'er the Lave o't', which could be played on the bagpipe and is the tune commonly used for the dance today.

A manuscript in James Scott Skinner's hand (above), for the Dance Seann Triubhas, indicates the tune is by John Bruce. Skinner hasn't given detailed bowing, but tells the player to use '4 bows' to each bar. The printed bass line uses only octave crotchets. Along the right margin he wrote 'The composer died in Dumfries Poorhouse.' Bruce (c. 1720-1785) was a Jacobite soldier, played for dances, and was a 'remarkable Reel Fiddler'.


Whistle oer the lave ot" appears to have been an all-purpose chorus to any number of bawdy tunes.

Robert Burns

Let me ryke up to dight that tear,
An go wi me an be my dear;
An then your every care an fear
May whistle owre the lave ot.

I am a fiddler to my trade,
An a the tunes that eer I played,
The sweetest still to wife or maid,
Was whistle owre the lave ot.

At kirns an weddins wese be there,
An O sae nicelys we will fare!
Well bowse about till Daddie Care
Sing whistle owre the lave ot.


Sae merrilys the banes well pyke,
An sun oursels about the dyke;
An at our leisure, when ye like,
Well whistle owre the lave ot.


But bless me wi your heavn o charms,
An while I kittle hair on thairms,
Hunger, cauld, an a sic harms,
May whistle owre the lave ot.



Her charms had struck a sturdy caird,
As weel as poor gut-scraper;
He taks the fiddler by the beard,
An draws a roosty rapier-
He swoor, by a was swearing worth,
To speet him like a pliver,
Unless he would from that time forth
Relinquish her for ever.

Wi ghastly ee poor tweedle-dee
Upon his hunkers bended,
An prayd for grace wi ruefu face,
An so the quarrel ended.
But tho his little heart did grieve
When round the tinkler prest her,
He feignd to snirtle in his sleeve,
When thus the caird addressd her


1789 publication

First when Maggie was my care,
Heavn, I thought, was in her air,
Now were married-speir nae mair,
But whistle oer the lave ot!

Meg was meek, and Meg was mild,
Sweet and harmless as a child-
Wiser men than mes beguild;
Whistle oer the lave ot!

How we live, my Meg and me,
How we love, and how we gree,
I care na by how few may see-
Whistle oer the lave ot!

Wha I wish were maggots meat,
Dishd up in her winding-sheet,
I could write-but Meg maun seet-
Whistle oer the lave ot!

"Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads"

My mither sent me to the well,
She haed better gane hersel,
I got the thing I daurna tell,
Whistle ower the lave ot.

My mither sent me to the sea,
For to gaither mussels three;
A sailor lad fell in wi me,
Whistle ower the lave ot.