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The Howff o' Tibbie Pagan

Written by Lainey Dempsey (2021)

The Howff of Tibby Pagan

In Ayrshire born twas thought a sin

Ma back a’ bent ma fit turned in
Ma e’en looked tae twa different winds
Ma mither’s still in hidin’
But fortune brought me persons kind
a razor wit, a sharpened mind
and noo within ma howff ye’ll find, the finest folk abiding

Welcome and come awa’ in
I’ve wine and I’ve rum,
I’ve whiskey and gin
Pour the ale fae the pail
and I’ll tell ye my tale
In the howff o’ Tibbie Pagan

They come fae afar and they come fae aroon
Fae the farms and the villages, cities and toons
Gents and philosophers

workers and loons
A’ fer tae drain their purses
They praise my sangs and laugh at much
But oan my charms they

darene touch
fer fear I dunt them wi my crutch
and slay them wi ma verses

I loved a lad Campbell by
His hert proved fause when bairnie came
We were betrothed but he was gane
the nicht afore the weddin
A hell tae him I hae nae need
His wits were dim, saft wis his heid
I mak the gowd that buys ma breid
He wisne worth the beddin

James Paterson whit a disgrace!
Tae cry me a witch in my ane
I’ll wad yer bride beheld that face
and spent the lang nicht greetin
Noo Mr Burns wid aft drap by
Wi a muckle drouth and a

wandrin eye
He ca’d ma yowes as they tottered by
Noo I barely hear them bleatin’

I’ve no had wealth but ma
life’s been lang
I’ve stitched I’ve scrubbed I’ve drunk I’ve sang
I have roasted them wha’ did me wrang
and blessed a’ them wha’ loved me
Contented I’ll gang tae ma grave
Fer I hae never been a slave
Tae ony privileged ranting knave
That thocht himsel above me

I’ll sing ye a sang if ye pu’ up
a chair
it micht mak ye laugh or ye
micht shed a tear
Be you rich be ye poor
there’s a place fer ye here
In the howff o Tibbie Pagan

In New Cumnock 1741, Isobel (Tibbie) Pagan was born into poverty and abandoned by her mother. One of her feet was formed in such a way that she had difficulty walking. She had a squint in one eye and a large benign tumour on her side. In a time when a woman’s place in society depended almost entirely on marriage, prospects were not looking good for Tibbie. Thankfully, she surmounted her difficulties. Her beautiful singing voice, intelligence and sharp wit endeared her to those around her and with some help along the way, she was able to live in her own home and bring in modest earnings by opening it as a howff (an unofficial public house).


Tibbie’s howff was popular amongst the thinkers of The Enlightenment Era and Tibbie by all accounts was a funny and formidable woman who was a gifted satirist. Everyone wanted to hear her witty recitals. If someone in society offended Tibbie, she would write a scathing song about them, if someone in her howff offended her, she dealt with it more directly by giving them a smack with her crutch.


Robert Burns frequented Tibbie’s howff, and there has been a long running debate as to whether he or Tibbie can claim authorship of the song, ‘Ca’ The Yowes’. From a less than thorough bit of my own research it looks likely to me that they were both carriers of a song that existed in some form before either of their versions. Both writers seem to have added to and taken away as they saw fit to reflect their own sentiments. Interestingly, Ca The Yowes does not appear in Tibbies only book, ‘A Collection of Poems and Songs.’ (1805)


Tibbie lived to be 80yrs old and in her old age is said to have reflected on her physical differences as having been a blessing as she had never had to serve a husband. At the time of her death she had no immediate family and so friends, locals and admirers made sure she had a respectable headstone. Garpel’s Bridge, not far from her howff in Muirkirk in Ayrshire was renamed ‘Tibbie’s Brig’ in her honour.

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