Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose

In celebration of St Valentine’s day, the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century team take a look at the Bard’s universal love song, ‘O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’.

Burns Rose‘O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’ is one of Burns’s most famous love songs, and a perennial favourite for performers and listeners alike. However, despite being instantly recognisable to modern audiences, the marriage of the lyrics to the tune is a complex and intriguing relationship which started during Burns’s life and continued after his death.

In her recent article, ‘O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’: does Burns’s Melody Really Matter’, in Studies in Scottish Literature 37 (2013), (and freely available here online) Dr Kirsteen McCue investigates the history of the many melodies selected to accompany the lyrics of Burns. Below you can see examples of the musical settings for the piece in addition to recordings of each of the melodies by Dr McCue.

The song itself is not a completely new piece written by Burns, but is rather an example of his unparalleled ability to synthesise available poetic materials into a lyrical tour de force. Previous scholars have identified the wealth of chapbook and broadside literature available to Burns which furnished his composition. For example, in The Hornfair Garland published before 1780, there are lines similar to those in the third stanza:

The Day shall turn to Night, dear Love,
And the Rocks melt with the Sun,
Before that I prove false to thee…

While The Two Constant Lovers (c. 1690) has echoes of the fourth stanza:

Now I am gone away from thee,
Yet I’ll stay but a little while;
And I will come again to thee,
If that it was five hundred Mile.


The song set to the tune of ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’ in The Scots Musical Museum

At first Burns originally gave his reworked composition, not to his best known musical collaborators, James Johnson or George Thomson, but instead to the Italian singer Pietro Urbani (1749-1816), who published it in his work A Collection of Scots Songs (1792-1804). For a more in depth analysis of Urbani’s involvement with Burns in relation to this song as well as his original arrangement of the piece click here.

The song first appeared in Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum shortly after Burns’s death in 1796. Johnson added under the title that the song was, ‘Written for this Work by Robert Burns’, although, as has been noted, it was not a wholly Burnsian creation. Burns himself chose a melody by the Scottish fiddler Niel Gow, entitled, ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’, which appeared in Gow’s A Collection of Strathspeys and Reels (1784). As Dr McCue notes, in this rendition, ‘the lyrics take on a certain emphasis not shared by the later, and more popular, choice of tune to which the lyric is normally sung.’


Play ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’:

Download ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’:

O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose 'Major Graham's Strathspey' (2800 downloads )



The song set to the tune of ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ in The Scots Musical Museum

Johnson added a second version of the song entitled ‘Old Set, Red red Rose’, of which the ‘Old set’ referred to a tune called ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.








Play ‘Old Set’:

Download ‘Old Set’:

O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose 'Mary Queen of Scots' (1450 downloads )


In 1799 George Thomson DSC_0353 included a new version in his work A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. This is somewhat surprising as part of the reason that Burns had sent the piece to Urbani originally and not Thomson, was his fear that Thomson would find it ‘ludicrous and absurd’. Unlike Johnson who gave Burns the full writing credit, Thomson decided to note only that the song came from ‘a ms. in the editor’s possession.’ Thomson opted not to set the song to Burns’s original choice of ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’, but instead chose to marry it to the air, ‘Wishaw’s favourite’, which was composed by the north-east fiddler William Marshall.

Thomson had been working with the Bohemian composer Leopold Koželuch (1747-1818), who added additional intros and conclusions to the music, and it was he who provided the additional material for this song.


The lyrics in George Thomson’s A select collection of Original Scottish Airs

Thomson’s selection of this tune is not a perfect match for the lyrics – evidenced by Thomson’s need to repeat words, notably with the phrase, ‘so deep, so deep, in love am I’ which he did in order to make the lyrics fit the tune.



Play ‘Wishaw’s favourite’:

Download ‘Wishaw’s favourite’:

O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose 'Wishaw's Favourite' (1450 downloads )



The song set to the tune of ‘Wishaw’s favourite’ in A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs

Ultimately though, it was neither Johnson’s nor Thomson’s choices of tunes that came to be associated with the lyrics. Instead, another eighteenth-century tune, ‘Low down in the Broom’ became the standard accompaniment to Burns’s words. Burns was aware of this tune, and even mentioned it to Thomson in a letter, but there is no indication that he ever considered it to be used in relation to ‘O My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose’.





Play ‘Low down in the Broom’:

Download ‘Low down in the Broom’:

O My Luve's Like a Red Red Rose 'Low down in the Broom' (1502 downloads )