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Origins: Wee Willie Winkie

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown,
Tapping on the window and crying through the lock;
Are the children in their beds? It’s past eight o’clock!

Wee Willie Winkie is a partial translation of a poem in Scots by William Miller (1810-1872).  First published in 1841, suggestions that Willie Winkie represents William of Orange, and that the poem is a satirical commentary on his Act of Toleration, which promised (but did not deliver) freedom of worship to Non-Conformists and Catholics, are often made.

The poem continues:

Hey Willie Winkie, are you coming in?
The cat is siniging purring sounds to the sleeping hen,
The dog’s spread out on the floor, and doesn’t give a cheep,
But here’s a wakeful little boy who will not fall asleep!’
But sleep, you rogue! Glowering like the moon,
Rattling in an iron jug, with an iron spoon,
Rumbling, tumbling round about, crowing like a cock,
Shrieking like I don’t know what, waking sleeping folk.

Hey Willie Winkie – the child’s in a creel*!
Wriggling from everyone’s knee like an eel,
Tugging at the cat’s ear, and confusing all her thrums**
Hey, Willie Winkie – see, there he comes!’
There are a further 13 verses.

Some see Wee Willie Winkie as a town crier for children, but to me he appears to be a Sandman-like character, bringing sleep to kids. It is most likely that Wee Willie Winkie is nothing more than a bit of fun, written purely for entertainment.

*A type of basket, more commonly used for fish. Or, a busy state of mind (See comments)

** Fringing, loose end or tuft of thread. Or, a purr (see comments)

Thank you Alison for your help with translation from the Scots.

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5 responses »

  1. Cool. I think the translations in the footnote are off though – thrum would be purr, in context, and creel is more an indication of a busy state of mind, or fidgeting.

    Reply
    • Thanks for that, I’ll update. I had trouble tracking down thrum, so I did wonder if I might have got it wrong. For creel though, I was imagining a basket being used in place of a crib. This is the joy of poetry!

      I recently read Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and it’s left me more confused by Scots than ever before!

      Reply
      • Sunset Song is written in Doric, which is a completely different dialect to Lowland Scots, so it’s not surprising its confusing! What did you think of it? I studied it for Higher English and remember loving some bits and being deeply frustrated by others.

        Reply
        • I studied it too so it’s difficult to be fair, but I loved Chris Guthrie. I’d like to read the other books in the trilogy, though, so it must’ve been doing something right!

          Reply
  2. Wow, you’ve written so much since I was last here! I have checked the ‘notify me of new posts by email’ box. The second verse I like – especially the image of a cat purring at a hen.

    Reply

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