This two-part Scots reel is named after the Tarbolton Lodge, the Masonic Lodge in the village of Tarbolton, South Ayrshire, Scotland, near the River Ayr. The name “Tarbolton” is from Tor-Bealtiunn in Gàidhlig, meaning “Hill of Beltane,” where Beltane is a Druidic festival held on April 30th or May 1st celebrating the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Robbie Burns (1759-1796) and his Bachelor’s Club used to meet at the Tarbolton Lodge, where Burns was initiated into Freemasonry. (Fiddler’s Companion)
The renowned Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman (1891-1945), also a respected step-dancer, would play this tune in a set: “The Tarbolton/The Longford Collector/The Sailor’s Bonnet,” and it has become ensconced as a set in the sessions in Sligo, New York City, and many other places ever since. Coleman emigrated to NYC in 1917 after doing a three year stint with a vaudeville company playing the fiddle while dancing. It could be that Coleman learned the tune in America, from Scottish fiddlers on Cape Breton playing in Boston. In addition to its popularity in Ireland and the States, the tune is played in sessions around Québec, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and Ontario. On Coleman’s 78 rpm recording of this set, in 1934, Coleman plays “The Sailor’s Bonnet” ABAB rather than the usual AABB, as the whole recording could be no more than three minutes. The Bothy Band recorded this tune on their eponymous album The Bothy Band (1975). The Chieftains have it as first in a set on the first rack of Chieftains 7 — which is worth purchasing for the cover alone.
In many sessions across the world it has become almost requisite to play the Coleman set (e.g., this Wexford session). In the Irish sessions in New York City the set, and Coleman’s Sligo-style playing, became a central part of the playing of four celebrated heritage fiddlers: Andy McGann (1928-2004), who recorded A Tribute to Michael Coleman (1965), Paddy Reynolds (1920-2005), Tony DeMarco (b. 1955), and Brian Conway.
The tune is in The Athole Collection of Scottish Dance Music (1884), compiled by James Stewart Robertson of Edradynate, Perthshire, and collected by The Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society. It contains 870 strathspeys, reels, jigs, hornpipes, and country dances. It is also in Keith Norman MacDonald’s The Skye Collection (1887) — Meg Denton let me borrow her copy a while back, but I finally own my own now — though there it is entitled “Hatton Burn.” It is called “Cooleen Bridge” in co. Clare, or “Droichead na Ciulin.” It is also #780 in O’Neill’s 1001 (1907), in Phil Rubenzer’s Midwestern Irish Session Tunes (2000), and is #125 in Lesl Harker’s 300 Tunes from Mike Rafferty (2006).
For the ABC click Tarbolton
Tarbolton, slow tempo (fiddle, Dave Agee)
Tarbolton, med tempo (fiddle, Dave Agee)