When former Galashiels weaver Robert Coltart (1832-1880) penned Coulter’s Candy in the 19th century it became a lullaby for generations of young families. Today, his words remain equally meaningful and his memory lives on with a statue in Market Square, Galashiels.
Ally bally, ally bally bee,
Sittin’ on yer mammy’s knee,
Greetin’ for anither bawbee,
Tae buy mair Coulter’s candy
Coltart (the ‘coulter’ of the song), who lived in Galashiels’ Overhaugh Street, was well known for selling his boiled sweets throughout his home town and at fairs and festivals across the Borders.
Dressed in colourful, extravagant clothes, wearing a ‘big lum hat’ and playing a penny whistle, he tied bright ribbons to his sweet tray and sang his much-loved song to attract customers and advertise his wares.
His song, Coulter’s Candy, took off beyond the Borders when Norman Buchan, a politician and expert in folk music, published it in The Weekly Scotsman in the late 1950s. In his book 101 Scottish Songs, Buchan stated: “This song probably produced more correspondence than any other when I printed it…”
Today, Coulter’s Candy is recognised across the world. It triggers memories of Galashiels; of grandparents and lullabies; of the challenges of parenthood and the exuberance of youth.
Following its rise in popularity, it was recorded by a number of musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, including Scottish folk singer Jimmie McGregor.
McGregor – who says he’s sung the song in almost every folk club across Great Britain, as well as Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada – was present at the unveiling of a beautiful bronze Coulter’s Candy statue produced by sculptor Angela Hunter, in Galashiels in 2019.
Statues of a boy (Little Jock) and girl (Wee Jeannie), names lifted from the verses of the lullaby, were later added, completing a magical picture dedicated to Coltart which captures the sheer joy in the children’s faces, and which appeals to all ages.
The statues, commissioned by Scottish Borders Council, now form part of a new town trail which includes a plaque at Coltart’s former home on Overhaugh Street.
They sit alongside a tribute to another song, Kayleigh, by Marillion. Lyrics from the song, which were inspired by lead singer Fish’s girlfriend – who was a student at the former Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels at the time he wrote it – are carved into paving stones in Market Square.
Robert Coltart died of a brain tumour in 1880 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Eastlands Cemetery, Galashiels.
While the recipe for his candy is no longer known, the song Coulter’s Candy – recognised as one of the most famous and loved children’s songs of all time – lives on in the hearts and minds of young and old from Galashiels, throughout the UK and across the world. His colourful character is missed, but his legend remains, his beautifully captured presence inspiring future generations.