A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Seven


Aiken Drum

Today’s rhyme is more of a regional favourite, coming from north of the border. It is quite long, by nursery rhyme standards at least, and is relatively recent in origin, the first version appearing in print in 1820 by James Hogg in Jacobite Reliques. It goes as follows, “there was a man lived in the moon/ lived in the moon, lived in the moon/ there was a man lived in the moon/ and his name was Aiken Drum”. This is then followed by a chorus, “and he played upon a ladle,/ a ladle, a ladle/ and he played upon a ladle/ and his name was Aiken Drum”.

Subsequent verses follow the same formula but explore Aiken Drum’s body parts and clothing. So in verse two his hat is made of good cream cheese, in verse three his coat was made of good roast beef, his buttons are made of penny loaves in verse four and his breeches are made from haggis bags in the final verse, the only ostensible reference to its Scottish origin.

This rhyme seems little more, at least at first glance, than an entertaining way of teaching the wee bairn about clothing and the names of parts of the body. Aiken Drum, for it is he, is the man in the moon, the facial pattern made by the dark patches of the lunar seas contrasted against the lighter highlands of the moon which are visible at full moon and are familiar to children across the world.0

Hogg printed the rhyme in his collection of songs and poems associated with the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715 when James Stuart, the Old Pretender, tried to seize the crown. Specifically Aiken Drum is attributed to a Jacobite song about the rather inconclusive battle that was Sheriffmuir.

Sir Walter Scott, the arch romanticiser of Highland lore, makes a fairly oblique reference to the rhyme in the Antiquary which was published in 1816. When enquiring about the perceived Roman origins of what he takes to be a fort, the protagonist is put right by a beggar. It was built by the beggar and some of his friends for “auld Aiken Drum’s bridal” and one of the masons carved the shape of a ladle on to one of the stones as a joke at the groom’s expense. If nothing else, this can only be a reference to the chorus of our rhyme and suggests that it was sufficiently well known, even before its first printed appearance, for the reader to understand the reference.

Aiken Drum is the name ascribed to the Brounie o Bledenoch in William Nicholson’s poem of the same name published in 1825. A brounie was a small creature, with a wrinkled face, curly brown hair and who wore a brown mantle and hood. Is Aiken Drum a reference to the British fairy folk mythology. Tempting as it may be to be seduced by this line of enquiry, there is nothing in the rhyme to suggest that that is a correct interpretation.

Aiken is Scots for oak and drum for hill, words that are resonant of the countryside and strength. Hogg’s Jacobite Reliques includes another reference to Aiken Drum, although the two words are elided. “Ken you know how a Whig can fight/ Aikendrum, Aikendrum?”  Perhaps all we need to conclude is that Aiken Drum is a generic name for a Highlander or, perhaps, a Highland rebel.

And quite what tune you could get out of a ladle, a spoon used for serving broth, is anyone’s guess but was sure to be a blessed relief from the caterwauling of the wretched bagpipes!”


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