Isobel ‘Tibbie’ Pagan was born in New Cumnock and as a teenager moved to the parish of Muirkirk. In her later years she lived in a cottage on the banks of the Garpel Water and for a living she composed poems and songs and kept a howff for the selling and drinking of whisky and other strong drink. Tibbie is considered to have composed the opening stanzas of “Ca’ the Yowes”, later made popular by Robert Burns – however her contribution to this work is now under question. Nevertheless, no matter the author or authoress, the chorus remains a Scots classic.
“Ca’ the yowes to the knowes ,
Ca’ them where the heather grows,
Ca’ them where the burnie rowes ,
My bonie dearie”
It is from the following auto-biographical verse that some insight into her early life is gleaned. From the age given on her headstone Tibbie’s date of birth is therefore calculated as ca. 1741 and her place of birth four miles from the source of the River Nith.
“I was born near four miles from Nithhead,
Where fourteen years I got my bread;
My learning it can soon be told,
Ten weeks when I was seven years old,
With a good old religious wife,
Who lived a quiet and sober life;
Indeed she took of me more pains,
Than some does now with forty bairns.
With my attention and her skill,
I read the Bible no’ that ill,
An’ when I grew a wee thocht mair,
I read when I had time to spare,
But a’ the whole tract of my time,
I found myself inclined to rhyme;
When I see merry company,
I sing a song with mirth and glee,
And sometimes I the whisky pree,
But ‘deed its best to let it be.
A’ my faults I will not tell,
I scarcely ken them a’ mysel’;
I’ve come through various scenes of life,
Yet never was a married wife”
A search of the available Old Parish Records of New Cumnock reveal that an Isabel Pagan was born not in 1741 but two years later in 1743 at Polquhirter.
- 1743 Dec 11 ‘Isabell daughter to an unknown father , Betsy Pagan in Polquhortur’
Polquhirter, as the crow flies, is closer to six miles from the source of the Nith than four, and on 5th November 1821, the date of her death , Tibbie would have been a month short of her 78th birthday and not 80 years. Granted, describing Polquhirter’s location from the Nithhead, rather than say from the kirk of New Cumnock seems rather odd!. However, it’s surely not stretching poetical licence too far in order to stake a claim that Isabell Pagan of Polquhirter as the celebrated Tibbie Pagan.
Chris Rollie in “New Cumnock and Robert Burns” identifies some potential candidates that were born closer to Nith-head. He refers to James Paterson in “Contemparies of Burns” (1840) and his view that Tibbie was born in 1741, in the vicinity of Nith Lodge. Presumably Paterson’s own interpretation of “near four miles from Nithhead”. Chris considers the most likely candidate to be daughter born to Janet Pagan in Righead some 5 miles away from the Nithhead. He identified that Janet had a son to John Brown at Righead in 1740 but by 1743 she was in Lithans with John Shaw and suggests that between times Janet Pagan gave birth to an illegitimate daughter Isabel (not baptised) at Righead. However, further analysis of the Old Parish Records reveal that Janet Pagan the wife of John Brown and Janet Pagan the wife of John Shaw were two different people.
During the period of interest, John Brown and Janet Pagan had three children at Righead – John (1740), Margaret (1742) and Isabel (1746) and all were baptised with their father’s surname Brown. While John Shaw and Janet Pagan had two children baptised at Lithans – Thomas (1840) and John (1743).
Chris Rollie “Robert Burns and New Cumnock”(1996)
Scotland’s People Old Parish Records. New Cumnock