Category Archives: Scottish folksongs

Poetry Friday: The Water Is Wide

Another old Scots ballad I’ve been humming almost incessantly lately.

The water is wide,
I canna cross o’er.
Neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row,
my love and I.

A ship there is,
And she sails the sea.
She’s loaded deep as deep can be.
But not so deep
As the love I’m in…
I know not if I sink or swim.

I love these old songs so very much.
This one goes way, way back, and has many variations, some Scottish,
some English. The most common version, the one I’ve quoted above, goes on to tell a very sad tale
of love lost, betrayal, faithlessness. But I like the song best just
like this: these two simple verses, which by themselves seem to me to
speak to a true love, a real love, the kind between two people who,
pulling together, can navigate stormy waters no matter how burdened the

If you’d like to listen to the melody—perhaps even more beautiful than the lyrics—here’s a lovely version by Jewel, Sarah MacLachlan, and The Indigo Girls. (YouTube clip.)

Or here’s James Taylor.

The singer in this YouTube clip sounds like Charlotte Church to me, though she isn’t credited. The visuals are scenery.

This week’s Poetry Friday round-up can be found at Read. Imagine. Talk.

“For My Heart’s a Boat in Tow”

Of all the haunting, achingly beautiful Scottish ballads, this one may be the most aching and the most beautiful. The melody is gorgeously poignant in its own right, but add the words, the raw, profoundly moving outcry of a sailor spurned by his nighean ruadh—his red-haired girl—and your heart just might break along with his. Oh I cannot live without her…for my heart’s a boat in tow…This is one of the loveliest bits of poetry ever uttered.

Loch Tay Boat Song

When I’ve done my work of day,

And I row my boat away,

Doon the waters of Loch Tay,

As the evening light is fading

And I look upon Ben Lawers

Where the afterglory glows;

And I think on two bright eyes

And the melting mouth below.

She’s my beauteous nighean ruadh,

She’s my joy and sorrow too;

And although she is untrue,

Well I cannot live without her,

For my heart’s a boat in tow,

And I’d give the world to know

Why she means to let me go,

As I sing horee horo.

Nighean ruadh, your lovely hair

Has more glamour I declare

Than all the tresses rare

‘tween Killin and Aberfeldy.

Be they lint white, brown or gold,

Be they blacker than the sloe,

They are worth no more to me

Than the melting flake of snow.


Her eyes are like the gleam

O’ the sunlight on the stream;

And the songs the fairies sing

Seem like songs she sings at milking.

But my heart is full of woe,

For last night she bade me go

And the tears begin to flow,

As I sing horee, horo.

Today’s Poetry Friday roundup can be found at Mentor Texts & More.