Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dick Gaughan: Now Westlin Winds

SONG Now Westlin Winds

SONGWRITER Robert Burns (1759-1796)


APPEARS ON Handful Of Earth (1981), Live In Edinburgh (1985), The Definitive Collection (2006), Gaughan Live! At The Trades Club (2008)

NOTES 1. The "westlin winds" are the west or western winds. 2. A moorcock is also known as a red grouse. 3. As used in "Now Westlin Winds," a fell is an upland stretch of open country. 4. Because birds play such an important role in this song, I've linked to a photograph or drawing of each bird mentioned in the lyrics.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns collected and wrote songs, among them "Now Westlin Winds," interpreted here by the great Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan. On his notes for the song, Gaughan wrote of "Now Westlin Winds":
Learned over a period of years, a verse at a time, from Geordie Hamilton -- a man who tantalizes other singer by singing them a verse or two of a gem, then saying, "Ah, you don't really want to hear that", and singing something else. A song learned from Geordie is a testimony to patience, a great man and a giant of a singer. Burns is often regard as a poet of little significance by those ignorant of his finest work. It is sad that his greatness are better appreciated in other places and other cultures. (From Handful of Earth)
The lovely melody of "Now Westlin Winds" cloaks its lyrical complexity, for Gaughan sings of environmental lover's paradise that is also a hunter's dream. Burns contrasts the "sportsman's joy" with the "charms of nature," creating a world large enough for "the savage and the tender." Against this backdrop, the poet pursues his own game, the charms of "Peggy dear." The question arises as to whether he is lover or seducer, whether his professions of love are actually flattery as dangerous to Peggy as "slaughtering guns." Gaughan's interpretation of "Now Westlin Winds" is so delicate as to argue for the poet's sincerity; in the end it has the effect of playing love and seduction against one another.

Burns' ecological vision is startlingly contemporary. In addition to the simple beauties of birds in autumn, he recognizes a complex avian ecosystem in which "Some social join and leagues combine/Some solitary wander." That is, some birds fly in flocks while others toil alone. All live in risk of "the cruel sway/Of tyrannic man's dominion." As far back as the 18th Century, Robert Burns perceived the dangers of man to nature and warned against them: "Avaunt! Away!"

In "Now Westlin Winds," the masculine figure of the hunter represents mankind as both lover and exploiter of nature. Which brings us back to the poet and his Peggy: The poet is lover and seducer, and Peggy must discern which is which and when. In this sense, she not only represents nature but conflicted human nature as well, walking the eternal tightrope between the savage and the tender, searching for the nexus of love and seduction. For who among us does not want to be loved and seduced?


Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn's pleasant weather
moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the
blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o'er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer
The partridge loves the fruitful fells
plover loves the mountain
woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring
hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the
cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
hazel bush o'erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the
Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man's dominion
The sportsman's joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory
But Peggy dear the evening's clear
Thick flies the skimming
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow
Come let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature
We'll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I'll grasp thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer


  1. Great post Paul. Dick couldn't have said it better himself:

  2. Ahhh! Now that's a nice combination for a dreary Sunday afternoon - Gick Gaughan and the songs of Robbie Burrrrns. I'm spoiled; there's a most excellent Celtic music radio program every Saturday from noon to 3 out of Boston on WGBH called "Celtic Sojourn" hosted by Brian O'Donovan. Brian plays Gaughan's music regularly, so I get to hear him often.

  3. Joe: Thanks for the kind words and the excellent link. It's easy to see how Dick can feel that he's still learning this song. As I listened to it over and over and read and reread the lyrics, the prospect of writing about it became irresistible and intimidating at the same time. On the version you linked to, I love how Dick snarls out "savage", "tyrannic", and "gory"!

    The ambiguity between who is the charmer and who is the charmed is quite striking, and is at the heart of the song's subtlety. Nature charms us as man attempts to subdue it. Peggy charms the poet as his words seduce her. I think that in the end the mysteries of the feminine prevail -- they at least get the last word. But that's just me.

    Roy: Dick is a treasure, isn't he. The performance T. and I saw in one of Ireland's most areas was truly memorable.

  4. Gorgeous song & performance--really lovely fingerstyle accompaniment too. & a great write-up. Thanks for introducing me to Mr Gaughan, & finding a Burns' poem I missed in my younger days.

  5. John: You're more than welcome. The Gaughan album to track down is Handful Of Earth. It's on iTunes, so it shouldn't be too hard to find. Re his guitar playing, when we saw him in Ireland last summer, he featured a pair of impressive instrumental interludes.

  6. Hi again K: Something for you at RF Banjo, specifically in reference to "Just a Song."

  7. Hi - Does anyone know of a hseet music (tablature ) of Now Westlin Winds? I've learned the song, up to a point, but I need a wee help on with it. I've tuned to DADGAD and it sounds ok, but just not uite there yet - anyone help?

    1. Did you figure it out? Please share tuning
      As I am learning tonite.

  8. Delighted tae see Dick Gaughan in Dublin last night. Still singin with passion. He sang this song. Perfect. daithi in Dublin

  9. daithi: Just the other day, we listened to Westlin Winds over and over. It really is one of the greats. We were lucky enough to catch Dick Gaughan in Belmullet a couple years. We were in Ireland for a couple of weeks and saw an ad in the Mayo News. We were the only Americans present -- for all I know, the only Americans on the entire peninsula. A very special and unforgettable evening.

  10. I know this an old post I'm responding to but seen as how there are some more of Dick's fans on here I thought it might be important note an upcoming North American appearance dick will be making here in Canada.

    He'll be at the Vancouver Island Musicfest. Here's the link:

    The date is confirmed from Dick himself and will be posted on the event's website soon.

  11. Oooh, and I live in Seattle, too! Iwas lucky enough to see Dick at a small community center in Belmullet, Ireland. If Belmullet isn't the most remote place in Europe, it's close to it. A totally memorable evening.

    Thanks for the heads-up!