​Robert Coltart’s sweet lullaby legacy - Christine Grahame

Ally Bally Ally Bally Bee sittin’ on yir mammy’s knee. Yes, many of you ken that children’s lullaby but did you know the story behind it? Well here goes.
Christine Grahame MSP.Christine Grahame MSP.
Christine Grahame MSP.

​Robert Coltart was the Galashiels weaver turned candy man who composed perhaps one of the first advertising jingles ever, to sell his homemade boiled sweets.

He lived with his large family in Overhaugh Street Galashiels and there is now a statue to him in Market Square nearby. It is a life-sized tribute to a larger than life character. Beside him are the figures of two children: poor wee Jeannie and Little Jock, names lifted from verses of the song.

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He never had a shop but decked out in a coat of many colours, with a Lum hat and carrying a tray draped with ribbons he displayed and sold his sweets to the accompaniment of his jingle, often just outside confectioners’ shops, poaching their trade.

Christine Grahame visits Robert Coltart’s statue in GalashielsChristine Grahame visits Robert Coltart’s statue in Galashiels
Christine Grahame visits Robert Coltart’s statue in Galashiels

The tune is much older with a similar musical notation to twinkle twinkle little star, Bobby Shaftoe and Johnny Todd but he made it his own.

For too long his connection to Galashiels and the song remained a well kept secret and it was a Japanese satellite TV programme, part of a project to research children’s songs and lullabies throughout the world which knew what even Gala folk did not know, that Coltart and the song were from Galashiels.

The story is then taken up by, among others, local amateur historian Graeme McIver to whom I am grateful for much of the information here.

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Robert Coltart’s life was a colourful as his coat with court cases involving him where the public gallery at Selkirk Sheriff court cheered as he removed his dreary raincoat to emerge butterfly like in his brightly coloured clothes; where he gets involved in fights with drunk men at Gala railway station and with children who were mocking his clothes.

There was even a cheeky variation on the song written by shopkeepers in Selkirk for a boycott of his candy:

‘Colter is a lazy man, He tries to cheat folks when he can, But Selkirk has a very guid plan, No tae buy his candy’.

There is also evidence that compared to the rogues of the day he was a decent and honest man, appealing for police protection from local youths. There was even a report of a blackbird that whistled "Ally Bally Bee.”

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His story is also the story of Galashiels. At the time of his birth in 1833 near Castle Douglas in Galloway, the population of Galashiels numbered in the low hundreds. By the time of his death in 1880 it approached 20,000,much bigger than today.

In Overhaugh Street in Galashiels, thousands of textile workers lived in cramped and squalid conditions. Robert and his wife Mary had eight children of whom three died at a very young age. That was not uncommon for poor families at the time.

He died at 48 from, it is thought, a brain tumour. But that ditty has long and will long, outlive him and brought this ordinary but extraordinary man to world-wide renown with Ally Bally Bee lulling children to sleep worldwide.

Yet his grave in Eastlands Cemetery in Galashiels where he is buried with many family members remains unmarked.

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That is why a Crowdfunder has just been launched to erect that much deserved headstone and if you can contribute here is the link: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/ally-ballys-frae-guid-auld-galae

Christine Grahame is MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale