Nicky Tams

John Valentine, Aberdeen: On Autumn Harvest ah011: Old Songs & Bothy Ballads 8: The Little Ball of Yarn Live from the Fife Traditional Singing Festival May 2011.

This song originates from around 1900 when the term nicky tams came into use. The phrase derives from the fact that when the farm servants trousers were tied up with straps or cords (taums) below the knee they looked similar to the then fashionable knickerbockers. The straps are sometimes called walltams - leather cords. The tune, a variant of a Gaelic air common both in Scotland and Ireland, is very popular, probably because it adapts so readily to many different types of song.

The "grip and word" (verse two) is the authoritative command and hand shake of the fully-fledged horseman, obtained, allegedly, by gaining initiation in The Horseman's Word. The society, a primitive form of union, had ceremonies with witchcraft - the initiation ceremony involved "Shakin hands wi the Devil" - and supposedly gave the "made" horseman powers over horses and, for that matter, over women.

1: Fen I wis only ten year aul I left the pairish squeel,
Ma faither fee'd me tae the mains tae chaw his milk an meal;
I first pit on ma nerra breeks tae hap ma spinnle trams,
Syne bukkelt roon ma knappin knees a pair o nicky tams.

2: But first I got on for bailie loon an syne I got on for third,
An syne, of course, I hid tae get the horseman's grip an word;
A loaf o breid tae be ma piece, a bottle for drinkin drams,
Syne ye canna gang throw the calf-hoose door athout yer nicky tams.

3: The fairmer I am wi ay noo, he's wealthy but he's mean.
Though corn is cheap, his horse are thin, his harness fairly deen;
He gars us load oor cairts aye fu an his conscience has nae qualms,
When breist-straps brak there's naethin like a pair o nicky tams.

4: I'm coortin bonnie Annie noo, Rob Tamson's kitchie-deem,
She is five-and-forty an I but seiventeen;
She clairts a muckle piece tae me wi different kinds o jams,
Aye, an tells me ilkie nicht that she admires ma nicky tams.

5: Ae Sunday mornin I set doun, the kirkie for tae gang,
Ma collar it was unco ticht ma breeks were nane ower lang;
I had ma Bible in ma pooch, likewise ma buik o Psalms,
Fen Annie roart, "Ye muckle gype, tak aff yer nicky tams."

6: Though unco sweir, I took them aff, the lassie for tae please,
But aye ma breeks they lirket up aroon aboot ma knees;
A muckle wasp crawled up ma leg in the middle o the Psalms,
Aye, nivir again will I enter yon kirk athoot ma nicky tams.

7: I've affen thocht I'd like tae be a bobby on the force,
Or mebbe I'll get on the cars tae drive a pair o horse;
Fitever it's ma lot tae be, the bobbies or the trams,
I'll ne'er forget the happy days I wore ma nicky tams.

c p 2012 Autumn Harvest :