Posted by: travelrat | December 19, 2008

Carols and Ilkley Moor

A few Christmases ago, I met my friend Arjan Singh in the supermarket. As we queued at the checkout, the loudspeakers played Christmas Carols.

And, Arjan wanted to know, if this was such a happy time for Christians, why did they play such doleful songs?

He was quite right. According to my OED, a carol is a happy, joyous song. Sometimes, they are, but many singers and choirs, in an attempt to ape Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and the like … or just to show how well they can sing, have reduced the carol to a dreary droning that sounds like the Regimental Slow March of the Graves Registration Corps.

My mind went back several years, to when I attended a carol concert at my kids’ school. They sang ‘While Shepherds Watched’, not to the usual tune, but that of the Yorkshire dialect song ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah’tat’. Most of the parents were horrified, but I remembered William Booth’s ‘Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?’ and did a little research.

I found that the carol was originally sung to this tune, called ‘Cranbrooke’!

One summer day in 1886, a horse-drawn charabanc came to the Cow and Calf Rocks, above Ilkley. On board were members of a Huddersfield church choir on a day-trip. As the day wore on, the prolonged absence of a young couple in the party was noted.

When the young man eventually returned with the lady, he was questioned about his whereabouts, as befits a good choir, in song.

To the hymn tune ‘Cranbrook’, they sang: ‘Wheer were ta bahn when Ah saw thee..’ or, roughly translated: ‘I say, old chap! What were your intentions at our previous encounter?’ Rather a silly question, really, considering the circumstances!

I’m reliably informed that the more usual rendering ‘Where asta bin sen’ Ah saw thee’” is a Southern affectation, and the true Yorkshireman will have none of it. The ‘bah’tat’ business should properly be written ‘bar t’ ‘at’, or, as they say in Cheltenham, ‘devoid of one’s headgear’.

An American friend pointed out that, to him, ‘courting Mary Jane’ had a slightly different connotation. Try translating her name into Spanish, and you get ‘Maria-Juana’! Instead of dallying with his lady friend, could the lad have possibly been having a spliff behind the Cow and Calf Rocks? Surely not!


  1. You’re right about carols often being doleful. Give me something cheery at this time of year, I say. I’d rather have ‘Sleigh Ride’ over ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ any day!

    • That’s the Leroy Anderson ‘Sleigh Ride’, right? Because ‘Troika’ from Provokiev’s ‘Lieutenant Kijé’ is sometimes called ‘Sleigh Ride’, and I’d be hard put to say I like one better than the other.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: