The tale told in the “The Trooper and the Maid” usually involves a soldier who spends the night with and then leaves a young woman, heading off to war and usually leaving her pregnant. Sometimes she follows him for a while, but eventually has to stay behind due to advanced pregnancy. Commonly, the end involves some question about when he’ll come back, and his response involves something like “when heather bells grow cockle shells” – i.e., when hell freezes over. Variations include:

  • As I Roved Out
  • My Pretty Fair Maid
  • The Trumpet Sounds at Burreldales
  • The Laird of Kellary
  • Irish Dragoons
  • Pretty Peggy
  • Seventeen Come Sunday
  • The Soldier Traveling from the North

It’s Child Ballad #299, but as usual, things spin off when you’re talking about the melody and not the plot or motif or theme anymore, so it gets confusing quickly.  If you’re into the looking up of things, see the source at the end. [1] There are sad versions, there are bawdy versions, and there are numerous branches and cross-references.

Here are some notable members of the song family.  Always in progress.

  • The Corrie Folk Trio (and Paddie Bell) – The Trooper and the Maid.  A version  dripping with Scottish ballad tradition.
  • Dillard Chandler – The Soldier Traveling from the North. In this version, the woman knows the soldier ahead of time: “The lady knew the gentleman’s horse / Because she loved him dearly.” This version also shares a phrase you’ll hear in Henry Lee: “She took him by the lily-white hand…”
  • Fiddler’s Green – As I Roved Out. Fiddler’s Green is a German band that plays rock versions of traditional Irish tunes (!). This version has a young, rather insouciant female character: “And will you come to me mother’s house / when the moon is shining clearly / I’ll open the door and I’ll let you in / and divil the one would hear us.”
  • Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Maid of Fife. Related thematically, as is The Bonnie Lass o’Fyvie – another branch of the family tree. In this version, Captain Ned wants Pretty Peggy to become a “captain’s lady” (he asks to go to her chamber, she demurs, and only then does he bring up marriage). In any case, she – unlike most of the girls playing maid to the trooper in this song family – says “no thanks,” citing what her mother would think if she “heard the guineas clink / if I followed a soldier laddie-o.” Captain Ned leaves and apparently dies of a broken heart.
  • Tim O’Brien – Fiddler’s Green & Pretty Fair Maid. This version of Pretty Fair Maid really may belong to a different family (never mind the tune); the story is of a girl waiting for her lover to come back from the army. A soldier rides through town and asks her to marry. She can’t, she says – she’s waiting on her soldier. He tests her loyalty and, after she passes the test, then reveals himself to be the lover who left seven years before.
  • Wake the Dead – Pretty Peggy-o. The version arguably made famous by Jerry Garcia. In this version, which is very similar to the Maid of Fife, above, there’s an interesting addition detailing the captain’s response to having his offer of marriage turned down: “When I return, Pretty Peggy-o / When I return, the city I will burn / And destroy all the ladies in the country-o.” Then the captain – here named Sweet William – leaves, but dies of a broken heart as in the Maid of Fife, which I suppose means the city is spared from his “if I can’t have her, nobody can gets to live” mentality.

In The Songs of Robert Burns, No. 187, “Whare are you gaun, my bonie lass,” is linked with No. 288, “A waukrife minnie.” Burns says he picked it up in Nithsdale, Scotland, but the editor thinks he may have written or changed some verses all on his own. In any case, this version (that likely sprang out of the “where are you going” etc banter of the Seventeen Come Sunday versions), involves two young lovers being interrupted first by the cock crowing at dawn and then by the awakened mother of the “bonie lass,” who beats the daughter with a hazel branch. The young suitor decides the mother is reason enough for him to move on.

There are some versions in this song family that are more bawdy than sad, some more about smut than unwed mothers, but it’s one of those tales that keeps being retold because there’s always a need for the telling, and anyway, many versions make for a delightful fiddle tune. One of the older versions I’ve heard and played ends with this bit of (cynical?) wisdom:

Cheese and breid for girls and dames
Corn and hay for horses
Aye cups o’ tea is for auld wives
Aye an’ lads for bonnie lassies

The above lyrics and several others are archived at


[1] Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish popular ballads. Courier Dover Publications, 2003.


last link check: 15 Oct 2018