When First I Came to Caledonia | Folk from the Attic

Spread the word

Like most modern performers, I think I first heard ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ sung by Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy on their first Waterson:Carthy album. For years, in fact, it was pretty much the only song I’d return to again and again. The melody is haunting, and given that I was in my early twenties and living in southern Japan – an old mining and coastal region, warmer but not dissimilar to the place in the song – there was something very familiar about the story of a young man working far from my family, homesick but fascinated in equal measure. 

While there are certainly lines that I don’t understand (I prefer to imagine that the line about “starving slaves” is the singer describing himself, his comrades and their condition – but that’s probably wishful thinking*), there’s so much to love in this story – characters that briefly flit in and then disappear again, but add so much personality while they’re there.

Here’s a young man arriving at the Caledonia Mines (possibly the Reserve Mines), not in Scotland as many singers assume, but to the west of Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. We’re not told where he has come from, but he’s clearly there through a need to work, having travelled with his brother, Charlie. They may be poverty stricken, as many who worked in these places were, but they’re buoyant – “two bigger shavers you’ve never seen”, he boasts (‘shaver’, it turns out, is possibly from Romany ‘chava’, meaning ‘young lad’, and may even be the root word for the British slang term, ‘chav’).

Together, they find lodging with the fatherly Donald Norman, a chap who is not particularly forthcoming with the brogues he’s selling, but whose daughter makes a wonderful mug of tea. While she shows up in the first and last verses, she’s not the love interest in the song. A maid from the Nova Scotian community of Boularderie turns up three verses later and it’s love at first sight.

It’s here that the song goes in several directions, depending on whose version you’re listening to. Martin Simpson, Jon Boden and a host of others all follow Norma Waterson out onto the deepest ocean, where they find the young shaver reminiscing on time he has spent previously at sea, where romantic troubles rarely bothered him. However, if you go back to the source of this song – a collection called Songs & Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton, put together around the fragmented memories of a local chap called Amby Thomas – you’ll find a selection of verses that may have gone missing around the time of Waterson’s interpretation.

At least one of the verses (possibly two) appear to be sung by a female narrator, the most obvious being:

I wish I were but I wish in vain
I wish I were a young maid again
A young maid again I will never be
‘Till an orange grows on an apple tree

The verse that follows this (which I have used in my own version) could either be from the same female narrator, or a stern note-to-self from the young lad in the song – and that’s certainly how I’ve chosen to interpret it, as a natural bridge between being smitten and a sharp turn into the nearest pub, where he attempts to drown his sorrows in brandy.

The sweetest apple will soon get rotten
The hottest love it will soon grow cold
Young maidens promise will be forgotten
Take care young man do not speak so bold

Whichever version of the song you chose to follow, at some point or other the trip to the pub occurs, with the young shaver trying to banish thoughts of the Boularderie maiden from his mind. Presumably she spurned his attentions somewhere between verses six and seven. We’ll never know.

* Since writing this, I’ve been directed to a thread on Mudcat that has quite a discussion on the use of the word ‘slaves’ in this song. Suggestions include the idea that the original song may have actually sung about ‘starving souls’ but the publisher made a mistake, or that the starving slaves may have been ex-slaves, now itinerant workers, from the southern States. Folk singer, Ronnie MacEachern, recalls hearing Amby Thomas singing it, and that he was indeed singing of ‘starving souls’, as in: we are starving souls being put to work. He also recalls hearing local singers Mike and Mary-Ann MacDougall singing this version. 

Amby Thomas

Amby Thomas, from whom the song was collected, seems to have been a partially blind lobster fisherman born in Deep Cove around 1906. It doesn’t appear that he travelled much in his life, so his collection of songs and stories focus very much on the Cape Breton region. Of ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ (collected from Thomas as ‘When I First Went to Caledonia’), the old man remembered:

“I just heard it you know. People singing it at home. Different people had it. Once a new song would come out everybody would have it. You’d hear everybody singing it around home and at parties. There’s a lot of it mixed up with another song. They put them words in it about Cape Breton. I have no idea who wrote it. It seems this fellow he left the country and he went down to Glace Bay, Caledonia mines it was that he got work in. According to the song he made it himself: “When I first went to Caledonia I got loading at number three”. That’s the pit it was, number three.”

While unquestionably beautiful, the song isn’t quite as well known as some of the others I’ve examined on this blog. According to that wonderful repository of folksong knowledge, the Mainly Norfolk website, the song has been performed by Norma Waterson, Martin Simpson, Jon Boden and Sarah Hayes. Spotify also throws up a version by Tony Cuffe, as well as a couple of instrumental performances.

If there are other versions of ‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ floating about, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, I humbly offer up my take on this wonderful song, which you can hear via the Soundcloud stream below, in the Youtube video at the top of this article, or on the album I’ll be releasing next month (more on that here).

When First I Came to Caledonia

When first I came to Caledonia
And I got loading at number three
And I got lodging with Donald Norman
He had a daughter who made good tea

And it was me and my brother Charlie
Two bigger shavers you’ve never seen
We’re spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scatarie

I went to Norman to buy some brochan
A cake of soap and a pound of tea
But Norman said that I couldn’t have them
‘Til fish got plenty on Scatarie

So I went over to the big harbour
I only went for to see the spray
I saw a maid from Boularderie over
She looked to me like the Queen of May

If I had pen from Pensilvania
And I had paper so snowy white
And I had ink from this rosy morning
A true love letter to you I’d write

The sweetest apple will soon get rotten
The hottest love it will soon grow cold
Young maiden’s promise will be forgotten
Take young man, do not speak so bold

I set my head to a cask of brandy
And it’s so dandy I do declare
That when I’m drinking I’m seldom thinking
How I would win that one lady fair

 When first I came to Caledonia
And I got loading at number three
And I got lodging with Donald Norman
He had a daughter who made good tea

‘When First I Came to Caledonia’ was collected from Amby Thomas in Cape Breton. The illustrations in this video are by Ellison Robertson and are taken from the pamphlet, “Stories & Songs from Deep Cove Cape Breton”, published in 1979 by College of Cape Breton Press. Black and white photos of Nova Scotia by Claire Dennis. Other images from Miners Museum, Clace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Spread the word


8 responses to “When First I Came to Caledonia | Folk from the Attic”

  1. Jamie Davidson Avatar
    Jamie Davidson

    The last few verses of this song, in whichever version you quote, are known as “floating verses” or “floaters”, a feature very common in traditional song from across the british isles (lower case b used very deliberately), and probably elsewhere. They rarely have anything to do with the song in question except in as much as they express either a general sadness or regret – a sort of “if only” sentiment – or a sense of relief at a mistake avoided.

    1. Jon Wilks Avatar
      Jon Wilks

      Thanks Jamie. That’s great to know. You live and learn!

  2. Mat Watkinson Avatar
    Mat Watkinson

    This is wonderful, Martin, beautifully written. I love the song and the Waterson/Carthusian family – they live up the road from Scarborough, as you probably know. Hope to read more from you – any news on a new album? Some years ago, a security guard where I was working, told me Kind Letters was one of his favourite collections.
    Many thanks for the Tweet
    Mat Watkinson

    1. Jon Wilks Avatar
      Jon Wilks

      Hi Mat. Unfortunately, you haven’t got through to Martin here. While he has been a subject and friend of this blog, he isn’t directly affiliated with it. We’ll drop him a line and let him know you commented. In the meantime, he has a new album called Trails and Tribulations coming out on Topic Records later in the year. You can pre-order it here.

  3. Ron MacEachern Avatar
    Ron MacEachern

    hello…..so this song was sung to me by Amby (a nickname for Ambrose) in his living room…..the first time he sang it he said starving staves and I did not know what that was so I asked him and he said he didn’t know and suggested that perhaps he had the word wrong….the next time he sang me the song he sang starving slaves…I think Amby “fixed” the line to make sense to him, but that is just my thought….I think he was right the first time with “staves” ….a stave is a long pole used to catch eels. (if you can imagine Neptunes pitchfork) with two side to trap the eel and one sharp point in the middle to spear the eel….so I think the writer ( I think it was probably Lauchie MacNeil) of the local verses was saying they caught so many eel there wouldn’t be any left for the people in Scattarie……just a little hyperbole fun………Big Harbour is the name of a harbour near boulanderie. “I went over to their Big Harbour just on purpose to see the spray…..

  4. Like so many I’ve listened to Norma Waterson sing this for years, and puzzled at the lyrics. “Shaver” never set right. Looking through a dialect dictionary from Newfoundland–pretty close to Cape Breton!–I find “shaver” as meaning someone who’s really tight with money. In context that makes better sense to me.

  5. James Thurgood Avatar
    James Thurgood

    A ‘shaver’ is just an old, once widely-known term for a ‘young lad’ or a boy. Of course, “me and my brother Charlie” would have been young men at the time, but it would be just like saying, “we were two big boys” in a light-hearted way.

  6. Bruce Day Avatar
    Bruce Day

    Thanks for this discussion. I first heard this by Jim Malcom on his Corncrake album. The lyrics are beautiful but confusing .
    My native tongue is Appalachian English that has kept many older British words. Here shaver is indeed a young lad.

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