Song Stories: Lullaby Of Robert Landreth

In 2010 my friends from the Landreth family in Owaka in Otago in New Zealand were hosting a reunion of the descendants of Robert Landreth, a stonemason from The Borders region of southern Scotland, who travelled to New Zealand in 1850. I wrote them this song, Lullaby Of Robert Landreth, about him and his journey and it was performed by one of his descendants, baritone Matthew Landreth on that occasion at Larnach Castle.

Lullaby Of Robert Landreth for SATB choir as recorded in April 2021

Shortly after that I arranged the song into a choral piece and this is the version you can hear on this new video from April 2021, which Jamie and I have recorded in time from my wonderful friend Glenda Landreth’s birthday. The photographs on the video are Glenda’s own. She shared them with me in 2012 to use for this very purpose, but alas, I’ve only just got around to it!

The song is a gentle lullaby with a wide-ranging and lilting melody. The original song had four verses, each outlining an aspect of Robert’s journey to New Zealand:

  1. Robert’s packing and departure from Helen and his home in Scotland.
  2. Things he may have seen in the harbour prior to his ship’s departure from the Clyde.
  3. His hopes and dreams for his new life as he journeyed across the oceans.
  4. The arrival two years later of his wife and son to join him in his new life.

All four verses are included in this recording, but it would be feasible to omit verse 2 to make the song a more suitable length for performance. The music for verses two and three are the same. If you choose to perform all four verses, you may want to add variety with the use of soloists now and then, or perhaps for a whole verse.

I include here the lyrics and some of the programme notes from the score.

He watched as dear Helen packed his collars and breeches
And folded his shirts with a gentle caress.
He stowed all the tools of his stonemason’s craft:
Coxcombs and boasters and mallets and rifflers.
Their parting, a hand on her cheek
and a kiss on wee Jamie’s forehead.
He bade the Borders farewell.
It’s the clop of the ponies, the scrape of the cartwheels,
The nose-snort, the rein-clank, the whistle of the coachman.
These sounds of his dray-ride and thoughts of his Helen
Will comfort and croon him and rock him to sleep.

He watched as the crew loaded firkins and cartwheels,
Pieces of pavement, pianos and hams,
The wives and the bairns of the sailors and colonists,
A-weeping and whimpering and waving good-byes.
He gathered his duffle and courage and memories
all warmly around him.
The Storm Cloud’s anchor’s aweigh!
It’s the clattering of barrels, the backing and filling,
The line-rasp, the chain-clash, the bellowed farewells.
These sounds of the harbour, and hopes for his laddie
Will comfort and croon him and rock him to sleep.

He watched as the headlands all faded behind him,
He looked straight ahead at the grey, reeling sea.
With schemes and ideas for his life in Otago:
He’d build drywalls, boulder dykes, churches and cottages,
With a cow in the byre
and muckle sheep in the round, stone folding,
And a castle commanding the sea!
It’s the thrum of the rigging, the growl of the rollers ,
The sail-flap, the rope-crack, the hollering of the shell-backs.
These sounds of his cruising and dreams of his Helen
Will comfort and croon him and rock him to sleep.

He watched through two years to the Eastern horizon,
While albatross wheeled on the sea-ruffling breeze.
Each clipper appearing sent heart-drums a-pounding
In time with the mallet as the chisel made his mark.
First glimpse on the quay,
scooped-up son in his arms doesn’t know him,
Quietly smiling, together again.
It’s the swish of her skirts, the lilt of their claver,
The boy-laugh, the sleep-breath, the lightness of footsteps.
These sounds of his kin in his house, in this room with him,
Will comfort and croon him and rock him to sleep.

Robert Landreth’s initials in the stonework of one his buildings in Otago.

Robert Landreth left his beloved Helen and their son James to emigrate to Otago in New Zealand from the Borders region of South-East Scotland in 1860. He was a stone-mason. His ship, “Storm Cloud” sailed from the River Clyde out into the Atlantic Ocean. There is a record of the other passengers and goods brought from Scotland to Otago – things useful to new settlers, as well as several pianos. Robert’s “duffle” is his bag of possessions. “Backing and filling” is the bobbing up and down of the ship at its mooring. It’s possible to remove the 2nd verse for the choir version of the song, as four verses seem to make it too long for some choral directors, but the words are still relevant to the history of the Landreth family in Otago and all verses are included in this recording.

One of Glenda’s wonderful photos of the places where Robert Landreth made his mark in Otago.

There are dry-stone walls (of which boulder-dykes are an example) on Otago Peninsula, where Robert Landreth settled, that are reminiscent of Scottish dry stone walls. He was involved in the building of Larnach’s Castle. A “byre” is a round, stone-walled pen for containing farm animals. “Muckle” in the Border country means many. “Shell-backs” is a 19th century slang word for sailors. Two years after Robert came to New Zealand, Helen and James followed. James was just a baby when he last saw him, and I imagine the family members were tentative with each other upon their re-meeting in Otago. The albatross is a large sea-bird which also makes its home on the Otago Peninsula. There is still a stone wall, built by Robert Landreth and his family, which bears his mark. “Claver” means chatter.

If you’d like to purchase the score of Lullaby Of Robert Landreth, click here!

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