Farewell to Nova Scotia / The Nova Scotia Song

Helen Creighton collected a number of versions of The Nova Scotia Song beginning in 1933, from Ann Greenough of Petpeswick. Creighton’s account (in August 1989) of finding the song is printed in Allister MacGillivray and John O’Donnell’s book, The Nova Scotia Song Collection (Sea-Cape Music Ltd. 1989, p. 176):

“I usually traveled alone but, when Miss Doreen Senior was with me, she could write the music down immediately. We often took picnics with us but this day in 1933 it was pouring rain and I believe we had our picnic in the car. Still we managed to get wet anyway, especially our feet, walking through the muddy road to the house. Of course the roads were not paved then; they were all mud. I hadn’t heard of Mrs. Dennis Greenough before, but she had heard of me because I had been down that way before [i.e., the Petpeswick-Chezzetcook district]. People are so hospitable, you know. Mrs. Greenough said, ‘Why didn’t you bring your picnic in the house and have it here?’ Now, I don’t remember whether Miss Senior did or not, but I put my feet in the oven to get them warm and dry. While I was sitting there, Mrs. Greenough sang ‘The Nova Scotia Song’ for us. We liked it right away but at that time we weren’t overly enthused; we didn’t know then that the song was as special as it has now become. The song was very popular in that area. I was told that a singing-master taught it in the schools around Chezzetcook and Petpeswick. They all knew it — all the old people knew it because they would have gone to school at the turn of the century. So, I made a compilation — something I’d never done with any other song. You see, I’d get a verse here and a verse there. I’d write these verses down and put them in order. They all had pretty much the same tune. I published it in Traditional Songs From Nova Scotia.”

By Creighton’s time, it had become standard for folklorists/ethnomusicologists to publish variants of songs and tunes that were written precisely the way they were sung by particular performers rather than edited versions of songs. Academic song/tune collections are different in this way from general song/tune books; the transcriptions are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In most cases, Creighton picked one to three variants of a song to publish. However, in the case of Farewell to Nova Scotia, she found that combining different versions of the lyrics produced a more coherent song. She noted this exception clearly in Traditional Songs of Nova Scotia (1950):

”I have combined the variants to make one song, taken from the following contributors: Mr and Mrs Thomas Young, Mr. Garvie Young. Mrs. Dennis Greenough, Petpeswick; Mrs James Owens, Chezzetcook; Mrs Annie C. Wallace, Halifax; and Mr. Ben Tupper, Scott’s Bay. The melody is from the singing of Mrs Greenough.”

There is no sound recording of Creighton’s earliest find, because she did not have an audio recorder at that time; her colleague Doreen Senior transcribed the melody on paper:

There is a Library of Congress recording of Walter Roast singing this song.

The Nova Scotia Song sung by Walter Roast, Dartmouth, 1943.
In her autobiography, Helen Creighton wrote that Walter Roast sang as he plowed (1975, A Life in Folklore, pp. 97,104).

In the 1940s in Beauce county Quebec, folklorist Marius Barbeau found a related song, On the Banks of Jeddore. As notated in Come A Singing!, published by the National Museum of Canada in 1947, the melody seems related to that of The Nova Scotia Song, but phrased differently. Some of the lyrics are similar as well.

When Helen Creighton met Queen Elizabeth when the Queen visited Halifax in 1976, the Queen asked whether Farewell to Nova Scotia might have Scottish origins, but Creighton was not able to tell her until two years later that it did indeed.

A 1978 article by Linda Christine Craig traced the origins of the song lyrics back to The Soldier’s Adieu, by the Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), which was published in 1808 in a Glasgow newspaper. Craig also found an intermediate song in a chapbook. (Craig, Linda Christine. 1978. “The Scottish Origins of ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia.’” Dalhousie Review, Vol 58 No. 3.)

The Soldier’s Adieu
By Robert Tannahill (1774-1810), Paisley, Scotland.

The weary sun’s gane doun the west,
The birds sit nodding on the tree,
All nature now inclines for rest,
But rest allow’d there’s none for me:

The trumpet calls to wars alarms,
The rattling drum forbids my stay;
Ah! Nancy, bless thy soldier’s arms,
For ere morn I will be far away.

I grieve to leave my comrades dear,
I mourn to leave my native shore,
To leave my aged parents here,
And the bonnie lass whom I adore.

But tender thoughts must now be hushed,
When duty calls, I must obey;<
Fate wills it so that part we must,
The morn I will be far away.

Adieu! dear Scotland’s sea-beat coast!
Ye misty vales and mountains blue!
When on the heaving ocean tost,
I’ll cast a wishful look to you.

And now, dear Nancy, fare-thee-weel!
May Providence thy guardian be!
And in the camp, or in the fiel’,
My constant thoughts shall turn to thee.
The Nova Scotia Song
Collected and arranged by Helen Creighton (published 1950).

The sun was setting in the west,
The birds were singing on ev’ry tree,
All nature seemed inclined for rest
But still there was no rest for me.

chorus:Farewell to Nova Scotia the sea-bound coast,
Let your mountains dark and dreary be
For when I am far away on the briny oceans tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me.

I grieve to leave my native land,
I grieve to leave my comrades all,
And my aged parents whom I always held so dear,
And the bonnie, bonnie lass that I do adore.

The drums they do beat and the wars do alarm,
The captain calls, we must obey,
So farewell, farewell to Nova Scotia’s charms,
For it’s early in the morning, I am far, far away.

I have three brothers and they are at rest,
Their arms are folded on their breast,
But a poor simple sailor, just like me
Must be tossed and driven on the dark blue sea.


Notice that Farewell to Nova Scotia has a chorus, whereas the original is without repetition.

Linda Craig observed that the song became more intense in Nova Scotia due to compression and the skillful editing of folk artists. It also had a completely new stanza added to it, one that made it the song of a sailor rather than a soldier. This new stanza, which Creighton placed last in her composite version of the song, adds a sense of fatalism to the mood.

Carrie Grover (ca.1878-1959) lived in Nova Scotia as a child and later privately published the songs of her own family in A Heritage of Songs. She gives a variant of The Nova Scotia Song under the title Adieu to Nova Scotia, which recalls the original wording by Tannahill.

Dalhousie University music professor, Elvira Gonella, has noted a resemblance between the melodies of Farewell to Nova Scotia and an old Scottish song, When the Kye Come Hame. Certainly the final phrases are similar. According to James Hogg in Songs by the Ettrick Shepherd (1831, p.51), When the Kye Come Hame was sung to the air of Shame Fa’ the Gear and the Blathrie O’t. Graham notes that the latter air as used by Hogg was “considerably altered.” Indeed, the last phrase of The Blathrie O’t is not as similar to that of Farewell to Nova Scotia as is that of When the Kye Come Hame.

When the Kye Comes Hame from The Popular Songs and Melodies of Scotland by G. Farquhar Graham (1900, pp.344-5).

Farewell to Nova Scotia, as performed by New Brunswick singer Catherine McKinnon, became a theme song in 1964 for the CBC television program “Singalong Jubilee” (CBC Halifax, 1961-74). This must have pleased Helen Creighton, who had hoped for more local, traditional music on the program.

Farewell to Nova Scotia sung by Catherine McKinnon (Library and Archives Canada, ©1975 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

Farewell to Nova Scotia has been recorded by many musicians in Atlantic Canada and beyond: Diane Oxner (1956), Ian and Sylvia (1964), the Sons of Erin, Ryan’s Fancy, the Irish Rovers, Ann Murray, Stompin’ Tom, John Allan Cameron, Harry Hibbs, Clary Croft, Barleycorn, McGinty, Rita McNeil, Oscar Brand, Touchstone, Tommy Makem, Gordon Bok, Paddy Reilly, Jimmy Sweeney, Dan McKinnon, Bruce Guthro, Dave Gunning, Dusty Keleher, Ardyth & Jennifer, Alex Beaton, Schooner Fare, Finnigan, the Pogues, the Battlefield Band, Oisin, Wild Mountain Thyme, the Wicked Tinkers, Highland Heights, the Real McKenzies etc.

Video: Catherine McKinnon sings Farewell to Nova Scotia, Lunenburg, 2012.