Monday, 19 September 2011

Bells and Monkeys

There is, let's be charitable and call it "a friendly rivalry" that exists between Greenock and Port Glasgow, epitomised in the phrases. “Who hung the monkey?” “Aye well who boiled the bell”

While the phrases themselves have fallen out of common usage, there are many variant stories told locally regarding the legends which inspired them. Most popular amongst these is the suggestion that silly Greenockians hung a shipwrecked monkey believing him to be a Napoleonic soldier, while daft Portonians boiled away their town bell trying too hard to clean it. There are many folk who believe that neither story is true, and a whole lot of Port folk who think that Greenock people hung a monkey AND biled a bell...cos Greenock folk are like that.

Regardless, the stories of the hanging of the monkey and the boiling of the bell have been commemorated in two local folksongs, widely distributed across the West of Scotland in the nineteenth century as broadside ballads. The first, “The Fisherman and the Monkey”, deviates dramatically from the traditional local legend; this ballad tells the story of the fisherman, Dunkey, and his brother, the sailor, who returns from distant shores with a monkey. Neglecting to warn his brother of the monkey's existence, the young sailor travels to Glasgow to visit a sweetheart, leaving the monkey behind in Dunkey's house. The ballad ends with Dunkey and some fellow fisherman hanging the poor monkey. Although humorous in tone, this ballad ends on a rather grisly note - only adding to its appeal amongst audiences! Upon its publication, strains of this ballad would probably have been heard issuing forth from the alehouses and taverns of Greenock and its environs..

“Now the fishermen they laughed like
Such fun before they never had
When a wild young chiel whose name was Rab
Proposed to hang the monkey O
Then round it’s neck a rope they threw
And through a cleek the end they drew
And quickly to the riff it flew
For the fishermen hung the monkey O”

Conversely, “The Bilin’ o’ the Bell” is actually a very proud and celebratory affair, where the fortunes of the town are linked to the fate of the Port Glasgow bell.

There's a Wee Port, an' three things are its pride,
First is the auld Newark Castle;
Neist, whaur the Comet was launched on the tide
First paiddle steamer toply on the Clyde,
 The ootcome o' John Wood's sair wrastle.

Fill up your glass! Let the toast pass
"The couthie Wee Port whaur I got me my lass!"
Up tae your feet! let it go roun'
"The couthie Wee Port! May Good bless the auld Toun!"

Stories of hanged monkeys and boiled bells are replayed in coastal towns up and down Britain, often serving to highlight cultural and religious differences between neighbouring ports and villages. The most famous hanged monkey apparently met his end in Hartlepool. Indeed, there, the legend actually forms part of the town’s tourism strategy. The monkey has even been elected town mayor. Recently, a bone supposedly from the monkeys leg was displayed in a local heritage centre. It just goes to show you don’t have to take heritage tourism so seriously. People love a good yarn.

"The Bilin' o the Bell" was recorded for our Downriver CD by Marky : Boy of Destiny.

Marky : Boy of Destiny - The Bilin' o' The Bell by Auld Dunrod

The song also gave its name to a Port Glasgow heritage project, which produced a book "Newark to Newark", charting the social history of Port Glasgow. The full book is available for download here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.