The bonny moorhen, song

Hugh Somers, singing in English
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[My bonny moorhen has] feathers again
Of different colours but few of them blue;
She changes them often to cheat the young men
and [then they do] call her the Bonny Moorhen

My bonny moorhen she flies high in the sky
Above her degree [and] she cheats the young men by the wink of her eye;
And if ever I chance to come this road again
I’ll ruffle the feathers of my bonny moorhen.
            (This verse sung twice)

I [neither] shot high nor yet very low
But fair in the middle and down she did go;
And if ever I chance to come this road again
I’ll ruffle the feathers of my bonny moorhen.


The erotic meaning of this song, as orally transmitted in Ulster versions, overshadows any possible political interpretation. So textually slight is their tradition that it is hard to say whether they may be substantially identified with another hunting allegory of love which shares text with them: ‘The bonny brown hen/black hare’. On the other hand, Hogg’s ‘My bonny moorhen’ is unmistakably Jacobite in sense: the Moorhen is one of the Pretenders and one gets the impression that an older love song has been adapted. Burns referred to a tune entitled ‘The bonny moorhen’ and wrote a ‘Hunting song’ with a ‘bonie moor-hen’ in its refrain: textually unlike our song but in similar lyric style and the same verse form – Burns1 p. 169, Burns2 I 377–8, cf. III 1257. There also exists, on broadsides, a North of England miners’ song ‘The bonny moorhen’ which seems both formally and textually inspired by a Scots ‘Moorhen’, whether political or erotic.

No doubt the Ulster ‘Moorhens’ could descend from an old Scots love song unknown to us but known to the authors of these various pieces. Or more simply, they could renew some Jacobite ‘Moorhen’ less literary than Hogg’s – who has only two lines agreeing closely with the Ulster texts – at the same time perhaps borrowing text from ‘The bonny brown hen’ because of its similar title.