The story of The Spring o’ Twenty Eight

The Spring o’ Twenty Eight

Having made a good job of the lambing at the Dubh Choirein Farm at the tender age of fourteen, my father was sent on another lambing expedition the following year, in the spring of 1928.

At the foot of Glen Lochay, just out side Killin, a crofter called Tom Proctor broke his leg in a motor bike accident. Tom ran a small croft called Moirlanich and was a long standing friend of my grandfather, Peter McNab. With the lambing season just about to start, a broken leg was a major problem for him. So, Tom sent a message to Glen Artney asking Peter if he thought his 15 year old son, Pat, could help him out by doing the lambing for him. Having been given the responsibility of his first lambing season at the age of 14, Pat had proved his worth and was considered more than capable of the task.

Tom Proctor

As the crow flies it is only 14 miles from the head of Glen Artney to Moirlanich. The road journey however is over 30 miles long and at that time there was no public transport. So young Pat set out on his adventure, carrying his bag, walking the 8 miles down the twisting glen road to the village of Comrie. From there he got a lift with a bakers van, along the shores of Loch Earn, up through Glen Ogle to Lix Toll near Killin. This left him with a four and a half mile stroll, over the Falls o’ Dochart, through the village of Killin, and on to the small croft that would become his home for the next three months.

The Falls o’ Dochart, Killin

The croft house at Moirlanich still stands and is open to the public since being bought by the National Trust for Scotland (in 1992) as an excellent example of a cruck frame longhouse. In 1928 the croft was not only home to Tom, but also to his older aunt and two uncles.


At the southern end of the building was the ‘Best Room’ which contained the two box beds where the uncles slept. It was a room that was forbidden territory for Dad. Through a small lobby lay the kitchen. An impressive hingin’ lum jutted out into the room over the open fire. Legs of ham hung on hooks from the dark rafters while hens scratched around for scraps on the kitchen floor. In one corner was another box bed where Tom’s aunt slept. A tiny box room with two bunk beds lead off from the kitchen and this is where Dad shared with the injured Tom.

The box bed in the kitchen

Next to the aunt’s box bed in the kitchen, a door leads through into the byre. As well as housing some of the croft’s livestock, the byre doubled up as the only toilet. As Dad put it, “You just went ben intae the byre and squatted by the coo’s”

When I heard my father use that phrase I instinctively knew there was a song in this story.

Over the years I have written many songs based on my own experience of growing up on the farm, but this song was going to be very much about Dad. So I sat him down, poured him a dram,  and got him to elaborate on life at Moirlanich in the Spring o’ 28. Although I wrote the song, I used Dad’s words and expressions wherever possible and in a very short period of time I had the bones of several verses and the all important chorus whirring around in my head.

A Harry Sutton Palmer painting of Moirlanich and Glen Lochay

One feature of the story was a young Clydesdale mare which Dad took a great shine to. He had always enjoyed working with horses and despite his youth, he was a very experienced horseman. He had been involved in ‘breaking’ the wild ponies gathered in from the hills of Glen Artney before they were sent of by train from Comrie Station to all the main shooting estates around Scotland.

As well as working at the lambing he did the ploughing, working with that bonnie mare. He also got into trouble from Tom for being soft and giving her too much feed. One Sunday Tom and his family left Dad in charge while they went to church. Young Pat took the opportunity to try hitching the mare to a cart. This was a new experience for the big horse but she responded well as Pat walked her up the narrow glen road towards Daldravaig. To minimise the noise from the cart and reduce the risk of spooking the mare, he kept one wheel of the cart on the grass verge. The horse took to towing the cart as if she had been doing it all her days. So at Daldravaig Pat turned her around and climbed up onto the cart. Feeling pleased with himself he enjoyed the trip back down the glen to Moirlanich. But as he arrived back at the croft he was met with a furious Tom Proctor. It may have been Sunday, and Tom may have just returned from church, but Dad recalled getting the biggest swearing of his entire stay. The horse could have reacted badly, bolted, damaged the cart or broken a leg, raged Tom. Dad took his telling off, but secretly he was really pleased with himself and the bond he had established with the Clydesdale mare.

Despite getting into bother with the cart incident, Pat was non the less trusted to do the ploughing. Having ploughed the ‘haugh ablaw the hoose’ he went on to do the sowing using a fiddle sower to scatter the seeds.

“The haugh ablaw the hoose”

“He fiddled and he bowed. The seeds they flew frae side tae side until they aw were sowed.”

Tom was a hard task master and Dad worked from dawn till dusk every day fuelled by a breakfast cooked by Tom’s aunt. She would take a few slices from one of the hams hanging from the rafters and throw it into the biggest frying pan Dad had ever seen. That would cook over the fire and then some eggs from the nest boxes in the kitchen would be added. Fresh milk was available just through the byre door for his porridge.

In 2002 I was dispatched to carry out armed night shift patrols at a top secret military installation in England. The night shifts were 12 hours long and mostly very quiet. To kill the time I started to run through my ideas of how to put the song together relating Dad’s time at Moirlanich. By the end of my two week detachment I had composed the song in my head, rehearsed  singing it as I drove around in my police patrol vehicle, but I had never written any of it down. Back home in Scotland, I typed the lyric out and entered the song into the Edinburgh Folk Club annual Song Writing Competition. To the delight of both my Dad and myself, it won the competition. The song brought me more success at the Killin Folk Festival the following year.

Ewan Sutherland presenting me with the Traditional Singing Trophy at the Killin Folk Festival 2003

It was rather special to win the festival’s singing competition performing the song no more than half a mile from Moirlanich itself.

The song had the ring and feel of a bothy ballad so I entered it at a bothy ballad competition at Auchtermuchty Folk Festival in 2005. The song came up trumps again as the judge, and well known bothy ballad singer Jock Duncan, placed it first. Unbeknown to me, by winning this competition I would be invited to take part in the most prestigious event in the world of bothy ballads, the annual Battle of the Champions at Elgin.

In February 2006, in front of a capacity audience in Elgin Town Hall, I won the Macallan’s Porridge Bowl and Spoon and became Champion of the Bothy Balladeers for that year, all thanks to a wee song about a 15 year old shepherd who went to Moirlanich in the Spring o’ Twenty Eight. It is hard to say who was the prouder that night, myself, or a certain 93 year old retired shepherd who could still picture that bonnie Clydesdale mare as if it were yesterday.

The Macallan’s Porridge Bowl  and Spoon Champion of the Bothy Balladeers 2006

Some years later, I sang the song in Blair Atholl for a group of American tourists. They were on a musical tour of Scotland organised by Ed Miller. When I finished the song, an American lady commented that they had driven up through Fife that day and had seen some Clydesdale horses there. When I enquired where about in Fife, Ed told me the horses were at Collessie. I smiled, and explained to the group that the Clydesdale horse in the song was sold at the end of 1928 to ‘Blacks’ of Newton of Collessie for one hundred guineas as a breeding mare. It was therefor more than likely that some of the horses they had seen in the morning, were direct descendants of the horse they had just heard about in the song. The Americans were amazed and thought that this had all been deliberately organised for their benefit.

Ronnie Black of Newton of Collessie with one of his Clydesdale stallions.

I have my own memories of Tom Proctor. When I was about 6 years old my Aunt Mary and Uncle Davy were going to take my grandfather up to Glen Lochay to visit his old friend Tom, and I got to tag along.

Tom could see my fascination with the hingin’ lum in the kitchen. He asked me if I wanted to know how he swept the chimney. I shyly nodded.

“Well the first thing I do,” he said, “is I light the fire. Then I get my double barrel shotgun and look up the chimney to the sky. Then I wait for a pheasant to fly over the house and I fire both barrels up the chimney. That blows all the soot out, it kills the pheasant and the pheasant drops down the clean chimney and lands on the fire and cooks for my tea.”

At six years old I never doubted a single word.

The hingin’ lum in the kitchen

Click the link below to hear the song.

The Spring o’ Twenty Eight sung at Glenfarg Folk Club

“The Spring o’ Twenty Eight”

 When Tom Procter fell and broke his leg, his ewes were all in lamb

So he sent up tae Glen Artney for tae hire me as his man

For Tom well kent that ewes in lamb just weren’y goin’ tae wait

And that’s why I went tae Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight

 Noo the first eight miles I walk’t, then I caught the baker’s van

I piled inside amongst the bread, the broon, the plain, the pan

And he dropped me of ootside Killin wi’ a half loaf and a cake

And I walked oot tae Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight


Where the hams hung frae the rafters, the swee was over the fire

The hens were in the kitchen and the coos were ben the byre

And the bonniest mare that ever ye saw was standing by the gate

When I landed in at Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight


Well I was just a laddie, only fifteen years of age

But I could dae a day’s hard graft for a pittance o’ a wage

I’d lamb the ewes and twin the lambs from dawn richt through tae late

When I landed in at Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight

 Well my days were a’ways busy, my days were a’ways fu’

And how I loved tae work the mare when I hitched her tae the ploo

We blackit the haugh abla’ the hoose and man those dreels were straight

When I landed in at Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight


 Well I walked up and doon the haugh and I fiddled and I bowed

The seeds they flew frae side tae side until they a’ were sowed

And every nicht I’d groom the mare nae matter how I ached

When I landed in at Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight

 If ye felt the call o’ nature there weren’y ony loos

Ye just went ben intae the byre and squatted by the coos

But man those days were happy and of that make no mistake

When I landed in at Moirlanich in the spring o’ twenty-eight


 Well Tom Procter’s leg it mended, and the summer it had come

The crops they a’ were planted and the lambing it was done

So a clapped the heid o’ the bonnie mare as she stood there by the gate

And I bid fareweel tae Moirlanich and the spring o’ twenty-eight


 Sung to the tune…“If you’ve never been tae Kirrie”

5 thoughts on “The story of The Spring o’ Twenty Eight

  1. Veronica MacDonald (Fleming now) pl

    I was taken by surprise on finding this wonderful story. Pat McNab was a name I’d heard many times from my father. They knew each other well and I knew he stayed at Mailermore. My father was a shepherd most of his life as was his brother Hughie. My father then became a roadman and lived in Blairnroar at the crossroads. This was where I was brought up and on leaving school in 1970 came to Stirling, where I’ve been eversince. This is just a beautiful song as well. Well done. Veronica. By TV

  2. Robert Harrison

    Lovely story Duncan. Your dad played that song on a cassette? when I visited one time when he moved from Escullion to Comrie. He was very proud of you and the song. Well done.

  3. Kay MacKinnon

    Such a wonderful song.
    My father Alasdair Monk often spoke of Escullion & Pat. My granny was the teacher at Blairinroar school.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *