W3C Let's Mak a Merry Neet On It SONGS



Once “the day was done” it was not uncommon for the huntsman, master and followers to retire to a local pubic house for the remainder of the day. The author as a child remembers a certain fell pack killing at 9.40am and arriving at the pub by 10.15 to celebrate. Some hunts however were held at specific public houses where a meal would be provided after the hunt. The following piece written in 1952 gives a “flavour” of what went on.

* * *

After the day’s work is over (he is speaking of the hunt) the fox hunters forgather in some old village inn, a host of merry lads young and old. This dark evening we are driven from the hills by driving snow, and even in the valley the flakes hover, then scud in the frequent gusts. Our little inn among the tall sycamores, with the mill wheel clacking near, is very welcome. Hounds are fed and bedded down, after which a great bowl of hot-pot, mutton and potatoes, comes onto the board. At the top table, there is a semblance of service, but “below the salt” manners are rather primitive and each man “howks” for himself-generously. The next dish is apple dumpling, but it does not quite go to the end of the crowd. “We can allus de wi’out what we don’t git, missus, I maed a belly-ful at that tatie-pot.”

“Let’s mak a merry neet on it,“ is declared; “by gow, but its wild outside.” Certainly by this time the gale roars in the bare trees and rattles the windows. So after various futile arguments, the best supporter of the hunt is voted to the chair, and the tray goes round. “There’s a godly bit o’ small silver coming,” hints the chairman, “some of these lads are not too well off for wark.” He gives a good share to redress the balance. “They’re decent chaps and nut ale cadgers: they’ll sup quiet, and gae haem quiet, that they will, I’ll upho’d the.” The little gathering is interesting to a student of character. “That chap with a face like a red moon’ll walk back near to Skiddaw Forest, dark and wild as it is.” Shepherds, quarrymen, a raffish fellow like a gypsy or potter, farmhands, the postman in uniform, a few visitors and the huntsman in his “other” pink coat sit around the table, smoking, and talking quietly, until the real fun begins. Then the chairman rises “I’se nut gaen to mek na speech; aye, lass, just see whedder twea gallon o’ ale will gi’e em glasses round, and than, Jim, thou mun sing.” After a rattle of mugs and glasses, to me-“Thee tak’ a sma glass if thou can ‘cos it doesn’t dew to fill pots agenst some of these ale suppers.” Then comes a hunting ditty. The soloist turns his eyes and chin towards the ceiling, and then “gi’es mouth” as the chairman calls it. But really he is only a bit in the lead of the rest, for practically every man is audibly following on - “just so as to be in time t’ chorus” says the miller lad with a wink when he finds that the practice has been noted. “Noo, chorus, lads,” he yells, “an give it weft.” If there had been more chorus, the windows would have cracked, for at a certain catch note the whole gang screech, howl, and hallo their hardest like a pack in full cry on the hillside. And the huntsman joins in with his horn.

When the applause ends in a thumping of iron-bound boots on the flags, the old chairman fills another measure for the perspiring Jim - “Thou deserved it lad, one-and-twenty verses, and nivver boggled at yan on em.” Another empty pot is pushed forward: “Nay, nay, them as dusn’t sing mun wait for t’ next round. I keep this jug for the singers.” The next “merry” item is a soldier song, at the first words of which the old chairman calls “Noo, Jack, that wain’t dea here; there’s some o’ t’ lasses about. ”But Jack merely grunts and waves his hand. He omits the broader verses. “That’s clever, lad,” says the chairman, “thou can sing ‘em as thoo gans owe t’ moss, if thou’s any wind left by that time.” The old room rings to the marching chorus: “We’re dewin nicely to-neet! Whe’ll sing next? Ey, Willy.” This last to a big lad of a shepherd, who clears his voice and in a too-high tenor warbles a very, very sentimental song. “That’s my nevvie,” says the old man, “but he might ha’ sung summat wi’ a bit o’ sense.” Next follows an argument about the weight and stamina of mountain foxes, in which a variety of dates, figures and runs are quoted. “That was the biggest o’ a’.” “Na, na it wasn’t; thr’s a bigger yan fund droon’d in t’ lake; surely that’s counted, for the dogs were oot hunting it a’ night afore.”

The merry lads are getting a bit out of hand, so the chairman calls them to order. “Ye’re makin that much row as they can’t hear me ordering more ale; there’s plenty o brass left in t’ kitty.” A sudden silence fell. “Nay, I’s nut gaen to spoil good quietness that way, anyway. Postie, come on wi’ Sally Grey. These new fangled sangs are ayther durty or daft to me, but ‘Sally’ - cush man, it’s like a swipe o’ cold watter on a het summer day in hay time.”

The postman’s voice is just of that dainty, old sweetness which suits the blithest love plaint a Cumberland lad ever sung about his lass; as the chairman says, the dialect words were written a century and a half ago (in 1802) by Robert Anderson, a poet who lived in this country between Skiddaw and Carlisle. Here are the first two verses.


Come, Deavie, I’ll tell you a secret,
But tou mun lock’t up i’ thee breast,
I wadden’t for aw Dalston Parish
It com to the ears o’ the rest;
Now I’ll hod to a bit of a weager,
A groat to thy tuppens I’ll lay,
Tou cannot guess whe I’s in liuve wi”,
And nobbet keep off Sally Gray.

There’ Cumwhitten, Cumwinton, Cumranton,
Cumrangen, Cumrew and Cumcatch,
And mony mair cums “ i the county,
But nin wi” Cumvidivvock can match;
It’s sae neyce to luik owre the black pasture,
Wi” the fells abuin, far away –
There is nee secc pleace, nit in England,
For there lives the sweet Sally Gray!

After “Sally Gray” there is demand for a frog-step, a quaint old dance which still lingers in some of the dales; this is tried by two youths who sit almost on their heels and then spar at uncertain intervals at each other with their feet. They are not experts, and in a moment the fun is over. “Afore it began” comments the chairman dryly. “It’s a pity the dance is being lost, but us old uns can’t quite manage to get down to it now. Fetch in another jug; lass we want summat to slocken our throats.” He scrapes together the last coins in the tray before him, and then declares: “its tuppence short – I’ll pay it.”

While the glasses are being charged, there is a shepherd’s discussion about some flock ailments. The man with the red moon face is sure - “it cu’s and it gaes, it doesn’t bother ivvery farm ner ivvery ship’erd. Old Jack at the Owlriggs hed a fine cure for it, but he’s dead, and it’s lost.” Up speaks the chairman. “Lost – nut it. I can tell tha, Ike, what his cure was, for he telled me. “Don’t thee ga’ee off to them chemists for it - it’s nobbut a stink o’ paraffin in a bit of gre-ease. That’s what he said to me. if the ship’erd took it to ivvery sheep ivvery day, what they were cured.” ”Well, by gow; I h’ard it was simple.” “Ike, old Jack dudn't care a toss whether his ship’erd salved the flock we’ it er nut, he said to me it’s the ship’erd’s foot that maks the difference. If ship’erd leuk well after their flock’s ther’s never such trouble at all.”

A hard-faced quarryman leans forward - “it’s just on closing time; be sharp, man and propose the health of the chairman as the last afore goon neet.” The hint is taken, and a few words clear the way for a “standing drink - the chairman.” “Nay,” says the old man. “I’se nut gaen to answer him, he’ telt ower many lees aboot me and ta ma face at that.” (No doubt the flattery was a bit strong.) “I’ve been at many a shepherd’s met in this house, and at many a good hunt from Helvellyn to Carrock Fell, from Skiddaw to Cross Fell, across the Eden. We’ve had some rare jovial times here, and to-neet has been as merry as they mak em, but that’s your job and not mine. The lads have had a fine hunt and a merry neet, and what else can a man want? Here’s Bob the landlord howivver, ettling aboot like a hen on a het girdle, and that it’s time to go. Why-o Bob, be a bit patient wi’ the lads, ould uns as well as the younger end. We knew this public when there was no closing time except when everybody was asleep, and the police won’t grudge a minute or two tonight.”

In a few minutes the inn was almost empty, and the old man took his departure, bemoaning a little the days when strength was great and the pub didn’t close except at its own behest, when a “merry nee” might be kept up til morning and ended when, in the words of Robert Anderson:

Now full to the thropple, wi’ head-warks and heart aches,
Some crap to the clock-kease instead o’ the dure;
Then sleepin’ and snowrin’ tuik pleace o’ their rwoarin’,
And teane abuin tudder they laid on the flair.

Byways in Lakeland by William T. Palmer
Robert Hale 1952

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