Nicky Tams

George Smith Morris

When I wis only ten ‘ears aul’ I left the pairish squeel
Ma father fee’d me tae the mains tae chaw his milk an’ meal
I first pit on ma nerra breeks tae hap ma spin’le trams
Then bucklet room ma k-nappin’ k-nees a pair o’ nicky tams

First I got on for bailie loon an then I got on for third
An’ yne, of course, I hid tae get the horseman’s gripping word
A loaf o’ breid tae be ma piece, a bottle for drinkin’ drams
Bit ye canna gae throw the calf-hoose door without yer nicky tams

The fairmer I am wi’ the noo, he’s wealthy but he’s mean
Though corn’s cheap, his horse is thin, his hairness fairly deen
He gars us load wir cairts aye fu’, his conscience has nae qualms
When breist-straps brak there’s neething like a pair o’ nicky tams

I’m coortin’ bonnie Annie noo, Rob Tamson’s kitchie-deem
She is five-and-forty an’ I am seiventeen
She clorts a muckle piece tae me wi’ different kin’s o’ jam
An’ tells me ilke nicht that she admires ma nicky tams

I startit oot ae Sunday till the kirkie for tae gyang
Ma collar it was unco ticht ma breeks were nane ower lang
I had ma Bible in ma pooch, likewise ma book o’ Psalms
Fan Annie roart: “Ye muckle gype, tak’ aff yer nicky tams”

Though unco sweir, I took them aff, the lassie for tae please
But aye ma breeks they lirket up aroon aboot ma knees
A wasp gaed crawlin’ up ma leg in the middle o’ the Psalms
An’ nivir again will I rig the kirk withoot ma nicky tams

I affen thocht I’d like tae be a bobby on the force
Bit maybe I’ll get on the cars tae drive a pair o’ horse
Wherever it’s my lot tae be, the bobbies or the trams
I’ll never forget the happy days I wore ma nicky tams

This song originates from the early 1900s when the term nicky tams came into use. The phrase derives from the fact that when the farm servants trousers were tied up with straps or cords (taums) below the knee they looked similar to the then fashionable knickerbockers. The tune, a variant of a Gaelic air common both in Scotland and Ireland, is very popular, probably because it adapts so readily to many different types of song.

The gripping word (verse two) is the authoritative command of the fully-fledged horseman, obtained, allegedly, by gaining initiation in The Horseman’s Word. This society, a primitive form of union, had ceremonies with witchcraft hangovers (eg. Shakin hands wi’ the Devil was an initiation ritual as was gya throw the calf-hoose).

pairish squeel = parish school
fee’d = hired
mains = farm
nerra breeks = narrow trousers
hap = cover
spin’le trams = skinny legs
k-nappin’ k-nees = knock knees
bailie loon = cattleman
third = third horseman
yne = then
gae = go
calf-hoose = chaff house
the noo = meantime
deen = worn out
gar = makes
wir = our
breist-straps = part of a harness
kitchie deem = scullery maid
clorts = spreads liberally
ilke nicht = every night
till = to
kirkie = church
gyang = go
unco ticht = very tight
muckle gype = big idiot
unco sweir = very unwilling
rig the kirk = dress for church