british folk tradition

Edmund Leighton (1852-1922)
“The King and the Beggar-maid” (1898)
Oil on canvas
Currently in a private collection

“The King and the Beggar-maid” tells the story of King Cophetua and his love for the beggar Penelophon. According to tradition, Cophetua was known for his lack of any sexual attraction to women. One day while looking out a palace window he witnesses a young beggar (Penelophon). Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua decides that he will either have the beggar as his wife or commit suicide. Walking out into the street, he scatters coins for the beggars to gather and when Penelophon comes forward, he tells her that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen. The couple lives a “quiet life” but are much loved by their people. Eventually they die and are buried in the same tomb.

The duration of the working relationship between a cunning man or woman and their familiar could range from a few short weeks to several decades…The situation was similar for witches…Given the fact that these figures represent relationships which were mostly brought to a close through imprisonment or execution, it seems reasonable to surmise that long-term relationships between both types of magical practitioner and their familiar spirits were the norm.

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits by Emma Wilby


Promo video from Troy Books. Spells from the Wise Woman’s Cottage, a collection of spells and historical practices from Devon and Cornwall.


Lecture by Yale Professor Wrightson on Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern England.


“The Gallant Forty Twa” a traditional Scots folk song about the 42nd Foot, the Black Watch.

You may talk about your lancers, or your Irish Fusiliers,     
The Aberdeen Militia or the Queen’s Own Volunteers;  
Or any other regiment that’s lying far awa'  
Come gie to me the tartan of the gallant Forty Twa. 

Strolling through the green fields on a summer day  
Watching all the country girls working at the hay,  
I really was delighted and he stole my heart awa'  
When I saw him in the tartan of the gallant Forty Twa. 

Oh I never will forget the day his regiment marched past  
The pipes they played a lively tune but my heart was aghast,  
He turned around and smiled farewell and then from far awa' 
He waved to me the tartan of the gallant Forty Twa. 

I stood there on the dockside as his ship pulled out to sea 
And pray’d that my own bonnie lad would soon return to me 
But many the pipe will sound no more and many the lad will fall 
When fighting for the tartan of the gallant forty twa

Once again I heard the music of the pipers from afar  
They tramped and tramped the weary men returning from the war  
And as they nearer drew I brushed a woeful tear awa'  
To see my bonnie laddie of the gallant Forty Twa.  


Twa Recruitin’ Sergeants - a traditional Scots songs about the promises of the recruiting sergeants of the famed 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, the Black Watch. 

Twa recruitin’ sergeants come fae the Black Watch
To merkits and fairs, some recruits for tae catch
But a’ they’ve enlisted is forty and twa
So ‘list, bonnie laddie, and come, come awa 

It’s over the mountain and over the main
Through Gibraltar, tae France and tae Spain
Get a feather tae your bonnet, a kilt abin your knee
Enlist, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me 

O laddie dae ye ken o’ the danger your in
If your horses was tae flegg and your owsen tae rin
This greedy auld farmer widna pay your fee
So 'list, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me 

It’s over the mountain and over the main
Through Gibraltar, tae France and tae Spain
Get a feather tae your bonnet, a kilt abin your knee
Enlist, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me 

It’s intae the barn and oot o’ the byre
This auld fairmer thinks you’ll never tire
It’s a slav'ry job of lowly degree
So 'list, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me 

It’s over the mountain and over the main
Through Gibraltar, tae France and tae Spain
Get a feather tae your bonnet, a kilt abin your knee
Enlist, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me 

O laddie dae ye hae a sweetheart an’ bairn? 
Ye’ll easy get rid o’ that weel spun yarn
Twa rattles o’ the drum an’ that will pay it a’
So 'list, bonnie laddie, and come, come awa' 

It’s over the mountain and over the main
Through Gibraltar, tae France and tae Spain
Get a feather tae your bonnet, a kilt abin your knee
Enlist, bonnie laddie, and come awa’ wi’ me

Name that tune! Can you guess the Christmas carol from just one line?

Think you know your Christmas carols? Take our lyric test to find out if you know your Jingle Bells from your Little Donkey…

1.“The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay”

Answer: Away in a Manger

No Christmas song is more well-loved than this children’s classic! It was first published in the late 19th century and is one of the most well known carols, sung throughout the English speaking world. The most renowned version of Away in a Manger is composed by Sir David Wilcocks, and it has been made even more popular with covers by stars such as Petula Clark and Katherine Jenkins. It was one of the first records to be issued in the new ‘stereo’ format of the 1950s, but has surprisingly only been recorded twice in the United States!

2. “In heav’n the bells are ringing”

Answer: Ding Dong Merrily on High

This jolly tune first appeared under the title Branle de l’Official, with the English lyrics being written and published by George Ratcliffe Woodward in 1924. Woodward was very interested in church bell-ringing, which inspired his writing of this merry carol, and it’s still played every year in the Service of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

3. “Glory to the newborn King”

Answer: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

First appearing way back in the 1739 collection of Hymns and Sacred Poems, this jolly carol was actually intended to be very slow and solemn by its writer, Charles Wesley. He would never have guessed that his song about an official messenger delivering some important news would become the joyful melody that we all recognise today!

4. “Sweet singing of the choir”

Answer: The Holly and the Ivy

This traditional British Folk Christmas Carol has been adapted into both a play and a film by Wynyard Browne. The original lyrics to The Holly and the Ivy were published in Birmingham in the early 19th century, and the main essences of the song have remained as classic Christmas decorations for years!

5. “Bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright”

Answer: Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells is one of the most popular and commonly sung American Christmas songs in the world. Written by James Lord Pierpont and published in the Autumn of 1857, it was never actually supposed to be about Christmas! The rhythm of the tune mimics the trotting of horses hooves, rather than that of Santa’s reindeer. Over the years Jingle Bells has been performed by a variety of stars, including Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Nat King Cole, and Barry Manilow.

6. “Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare Him room”

Answer: Joy to the World

The lyrics to this feel-good Christmas classic were written by English hymn-writer, Isaac Watts, and first published in 1719. In the late 20th century, Joy to the World went on to become the most published Christmas hymn in North America, with a cover version recorded on Mariah Carey’s 1994 Merry Christmas album!

7. “Got to keep on plodding onwards with your precious load”

Answer: Little Donkey

This popular carol, following Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, always finds its way into a Nativity play! It’s previously been recorded by Gracie Fields and The Beverley Sisters, and is also famous in the stand-up comedy world, with acts such as Russell Brand and Alan Carr featuring sketches in their shows.

8. “Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel”

Answer: Good King Wenceslas

Set to the melody of a 13th century song about the arrival of spring, this classic carol is popular among young and old due to its catchy lyrics and is more than certain to make an appearance at the school Christmas concert. Written in 1853 by English hymn writer John Mason, the carol is actually based on a 10th century duke.

9. “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here”

Answer: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

The unofficial carol singers’ anthem, this carol originates from the south west of England, this classic coined a 17th century Christmas greeting and turned it into arguably the most popular – certainly one of the easiest to sing - Christmas carols.

10. “Mine are riches from your poverty…”

Answer: Calypso carol

This carol takes the award for the funkiest re-telling of the nativity. With its groovy rhythm, many around the world enjoy this infectious jingle - an impressive feat considering that it is relatively new compared to other carols on the list. It first gained notoriety in the 60s after it was accidentally included in a radio playlist, the rest as they say is history.