The Lea Rig Again – April 1921

“Anglo-Scot” may again ask, “Why all this pother about the lea-rig?” The answer is simple. A reader some weeks ago wrote to the effect that he and others had engaged in discussion on the exact meaning of the term, could not agree, and asked us through the columns of The Scottish Farmer to settle it authoritatively for them.

I called in the aid of experts in the Scots tongue with the inevitable result: opinions differ. It is not an important point. On the other hand, it is not wholly unprofitable to speculate on the history of our native tongue.

In a postscript “Anglo-Scot” says that he referred to his Burns. This is what I have been desiring all these weeks, that someone would trouble to do. One of my Burns’ volumes — roped up unfortunately at a distance from my present abode —- contains the entire correspondence of the poet with Thomson — I hope my memory does not err in the name — who conceived the project of publishing a book of Scottish songs with their melodies.

The characteristic old Scottish airs were in too many instances attached to verses whose coarseness of language and sentiment offended the finer taste of a later age, and it was the task of Burns to re-write these songs and purge them of their grossness. Sometimes he preserved only a line here and there, or a verse of the original; sometimes he discarded it altogether.  He frankly confides to Thomson the method of his working and sends him notes on most of the songs he is recreating.

Most of the finest songs of Burns are re-creations. The original sentiment is borrowed but refined and elevated by the truest national and poetical feeling. The old titles were retained, although the wording was modernised. And here “Anglo-Scot” has hit upon the right clue to “The lea rig.”

This was the title of a very old song. Probably the names of composer and poet alike are forgotten. Even in the day of Burns — roughly speaking, from 130 to 150 years ago — it may have been that the expression “lea rig” was not in common use, as it is quite obsolete in our generation. At any rate, the expression is not his. He borrowed it from an earlier composition.

It conjures up a picture of an earlier stage of agriculture when small farmers cultivated in patches, such as we see now in parts of Ireland and the Highlands. There were probably few fences, hedges, or dykes in those days when the original verses were written. It is fairly certain that the ploughland and the grass would not be ringed round into separate fields as they now are.

There would be a few rigs of corn, then some rigs of potatoes — almost certainly no turnips in those days! — and then the “lea rig.” Yes! I have quite abandoned any leaning towards the meaning of “shelter” as I should have done at first could I have had access to the correspondence of Burns.

By the way, as for the speculation of “A.S.” whether “the tune was composed for the song, or the song written to fit the tune” –there is no doubt here. Burns tells us that he crooned over the tunes to himself when he was writing the songs.

“Pinwherry” attributes to me something I did not say: “Margaret” is wrong when she writes lea is a grassland ploughed.” It was “Clayboddie” who said that was the meaning of “lea” in his district. Let us allow each locality to use words as it likes.

“LEE,” A SHELTER. As one might expect, if their lineage is traced far enough back, lee and lea come from the same root which means to lie down. Last week I endeavoured to show how grassland might appear to our ancestors, just learning to tame the wilderness, as something that lay flat.

They called it lay, then ley, now lea. Similarly there emerged such words as low from hleow, a shelter. The lown o’ the dyke is low down, lying down. Maurice Hewlett uses the expression” lew of the lane” from which it appears that lew is a provincial form of lee in England, as well as in Scotland. The derivation from liegen, to lie, is quite obvious in the case of lee, for the rational way of seeking shelter is to lie down behind some natural screen.

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