The thread about the Bawbee; what links a 16th century coin, a farmstead in Fife and a 19th century Borders confectioner?

Today’s auction house artefact was this 16th century “Bawbee”, an old Scottish Coin. This dates from the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. The front features the royal crown and cipher (Maria Regina) around the Scottish thistle, surrounded by the Latin legend Maria D. G. R. Scotorum (“Mary, By the Grace of God, Queen of Scots”)

The back features the St. Andrew’s Cross impaling the crown, with cinquefoil flowers either side. These represent James Hamilton of Châtellerault, Regent Arran, who ruled in Mary’s minority years. The lettering is Oppidum Edenburgi, “Town of Edinburgh”, where it was struck.

The Bawbee was a low value, coin made from an alloy called billion (9 parts copper to 3 parts silver) that was hammered, explaining why it looks roughly and cheaply made – it was. They were introduced by Mary’s father – James V (or I5 in cipher from the Latin Iacobus). The fleur de lis on either side of the crown and cross were part of the Royal Arms of Scotland, introduced by James I. The face says Iacobus D. G. Rex. Scotorum. (“James, By the Grace of God, King of Scots”) with the reverse again saying Oppidum Edenburgi.

When James Hamilton was replaced as Regent by Mary Queen of Scot’s mother – Mary of Guise – she also ad Bawbee’s struck. These had the Jerusalem Cross of Lorraine (not the Lorraine Cross) on the back. It was the last Scottish coin to be minted outside Edinburgh; Oppidum Stirlingi.

The Bawbee name (which has nothing to do with the common term “Bob” for shilling) takes its name from a farm variously known as Sillebawbie (or Silverbarton) in Burntisland Parish, Fife.

Silverbaby, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Map of Fife, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
“Silverbaby”, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Map of Fife, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Babee, Roy's Highland Map of Scotland, c. 1750. Silverbaby, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Map of Fife, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
“Babee”, Roy’s Highland Map of Scotland, c. 1750. Silverbaby, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, Map of Fife, 1654. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

When James V had the first of his new coins minted, the Master of the Mint in Edinburgh was Alexander Orrock (a good old Fife name), Laird of Sillebawbie. The Orrock’s had been the lairds here since at least the first half of the 14th Century, the earliest record being Simon Oroc of Sybbalbe. The -balbie component has an unknown meaning, but Bal- is a frequent start to the name of an estate. Syb- may be from the Gaelic Sliabh– or Seileach-, moor or willow. The placename possibly corrupted to Silver– via Siller- because of its association with the silver-coloured coins named after it – in Scots, silver is siller.

The monarchs following Mar, James VI and Charles I, did not mint Bawbees, but Charles II did, featuring his likeness on the face (or “head”) side surrounded by Car. II. D. G. Sco. An. Fr. Et. Hib. R, or “Charles II, by the Grace of God, King od Scotland, England, France and Ireland.” On the flip side is the thistle and crown surrounded by the Motto of Scotland, Nemo Me Impune Lacesset (“No one shall hurt me with impunity” in literal English, but properly in Scots Wha daur meddle wi’ me?) and the date.

Charles II copper Bawbee of 1679

Bawbees were also minted for William & Mary in 1691-92 and William II of Scotland (III of England) in 1695-96, in a very similar style to those of Charles II but with the relevant likenesses and legends. William II’s Bawbees were the last genuine Bawbees in old Scottish money. After the Pound Scots was withdrawn following the Act of Union of 1707, the exchange rate was 1 English penny to 12 Scottish pennies (a shilling) which is 1 Bawbee (6d Scots) to the English half penny. The Bawbee name thus transferred itself to the English ha’pennies introduced into Scotland. Except for listeners in Gaelic that is, where the word for a shilling simply became the word for a penny – Sgillin. It still is, having survived decimalisation. Each Not (pound) has ceud (100) Sgillin (pennies) in it.

The word Bawbee remained in popular used in Scotland thanks to it being transferred to a more modern coin. It became the subject of a number of popular songs and poems and thus has survived long after it became obsolete as a financial unit. There are many folk songs that feature the word Bawbee, such as The Crookit Bawbee or a personal favourite of mine, Johnny Lad:

I bought a wife in Edinburgh, For a bawbee,
And then I got a penny back, Tae buy tobacco wi

And wi you and wi you, And wi you Johnny Lad,
I’ll dance the buckles off my shoon, Wi you, my Johnny Lad

Now Samson was a michty man, Wha fed on fish and chips
He bauchled round the Gallowgate, Just pickin’ up the dips

And wi you and wi you, And wi you Johnny Lad,
I’ll dance the buckles off my shoon, Wi you, my Johnny Lad

Traditional, a version used by The Corries

But perhaps the most endearing use of the word Bawbee is in the folk song cum nursery rhyme by Robert Coltart called Ally Bally Bee. The legend goes that Coltart was a weaver turned travelling confectioner from Melrose who made his living peddling his wares around the bustling market towns of the Scottish Borders. He sold aniseed flavoured sweets, the recipe of which is long lost in the depths of time, and to drum up business he sang a song of his own composition as he went;

Ally bally, ally bally bee,
Sittin on yer mammy’s knee,
Greetin for a wee bawbee,
Tae buy some Coulter’s candy

Poor wee Jeanie’s gettin awfy thin,
A rickle o’ banes covered ower wi skin,
Noo she’s gettin a wee double chin,
Wi sookin Coulter’s candy

Ally Bally Bee, Robert Coltart

The Coulter in this song is the same name as Coltart. The basic premise of the song is that there is nothing in life that cannot be solved by buying some of the advertisers’ wares. Crying baby? Coulter’s candy. Underweight child? Coulter’s candy. The song extols fathers to work hard so that their children should have money for Coulter’s candy; that children should run crying to their mothers for money when they see him coming; and when they’ve had their fill of Coulter’s candy? They should cry to their mothers again and ask for more! In this respect, Coltart’s advertising tactic of a catchy jingle mixed with pester power were remarkably prescient. Sadly it did not make him his fortune and he died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave. But he had spread his song to every child in every town and village in the Borders and they kept it alive, and it has passed on through subsequent generations and has become known around the world.

Coltart is known to have died in 1880 in Galashiels, earliest written references to him is an article in the Sunday Talk newspaper in 1885, much of which might be pure fancy. However, it does give us a description:

Dressed in fancy style, Coulter – for that was his name – made his living by selling candy, and at times did a roaring trade. Of abstemious habits, his character was unassailed, and seldom did a Sunday pass but he was found in his seat in the little Independent Chapel

And a reference to the song appears in the Jedburgh Gazette of 1898, at which time it is stated to be from “a generation ago”. The subject is about a tame blackbird which could whistle his tune:

Coulter was a peculiar veteran pedlar, who frequented all the fairs and markets on the Borders a generation ago – oddly dressed in a quaint showy garb – and the tones of whose unique voice uniformly drew around him a large juvenile circle, vending his sweeties.

Jedburgh Gazette, February 5th 1898

The words to the song first appear in newsprint in 1884, in the Ayr Observer, but modified with a different name as it is being used in a reprinted script for a play called “The Unexpected Honeymoon. A Comedy in Three Acts”. This suggests that the words and tune were widely known at this time well away from Coltart’s home territory.

Ally ally, ally bally bee
Sittin on yer mammy’s knee
Seekin aye anither bawbee
Tae buy Jim Findlay’s candy

In 2019, a statue was erected in Coltart’s honour in Galashiels.

Coltart's statue, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Walter Baxter
Coltart’s statue, CC-BY-SA 2.0 Walter Baxter

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