The tale of the monkey hanged in the North East

The tale of the monkey hanged by North East fishermen has lingered long in the psyche of locals. PIC: Flickr/Creative Commons.
The tale of the monkey hanged by North East fishermen has lingered long in the psyche of locals. PIC: Flickr/Creative Commons.
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It is a story that has lingered over a North East village for more than 200 years and even today people of Boddam don’t really like to talk about it.

So strong was the tale of the monkey hanged by local fishermen that it underpinned a long standing local feud with “fa hangit the monkey?” a common jest directed at villagers, even until relatively recently.

Buchan Ness lighthouse at Boddam. Wreckers worked this stretch of coast to strip vessels of cargo and materials. PIC: Creative Commons.

Buchan Ness lighthouse at Boddam. Wreckers worked this stretch of coast to strip vessels of cargo and materials. PIC: Creative Commons.

It all began with a folk song written around 1800 which was based on a story long passed around this corner of Scotland.

The folk tale details how fishermen had climbed aboard a shipwrecked boat to strip it of cargo and material - only to find a monkey still on board.

READ MORE: Six ancient myths from the Western Isles

Laws of the day allowed ‘wreckers’ to claim booty from stricken vessels, as long as no living soul remained on the boat.

Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, folklorist and historian who is based in the North East.

Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, folklorist and historian who is based in the North East.

When Boddam wreckers found the monkey, the animal ran up the mast - with the men then choosing to hang it.

While this cleared the way for the booty to be taken from the boat, some versions of the story claim that the fisherman didn’t know what the monkey was and believed it to be the devil.

READ MORE: The Highland myth of the soul-stealing black cat

The Boddamers Hung the Monkey-O is rarely sung in the North East now given the offence it causes, according to Fiona-Jane Brown, a North East historian and folklorist who studied the song, its roots and traditions.

Dr Brown said: “People in Boddam still hate the song and the story. They really despise it. You will hardly ever hear the Boddamer song sung at a folk club - unless people are playing it to be really silly.”

Despite the strength of feeling the song evokes, there appears to be little evidence of truth in the story behind the comic ballad.

The earliest versions of the song refer to a ship called Annie with a boat of the same name wrecked off the North East coast in 1772, Dr Brown said.

The historian also pointed to a 1674 act of the Scottish Court of Session which set out that “if any living thing survived on board a vessel cast ashore it could not be considered a wreck.”

Whether the song reflects a true event or not, Dr Brown details how the story of the monkey became “embedded in the psyche” of people in this part of the North East.

She recalled how it was retold to her by the late George Cordiner, whose father was a native of Boddam.

She added: “George Cordiner was a joiner for the council in Aberdeen.

“He describes how, when he had newly started his job, he came back from a tea break in the morning to find a sock monkey sitting on his tool box with a rope around his neck.

“His colleagues were teasing him: ‘You’re a Boddammer, fa hung the monkey?’”

“And of course I have found out since that the response that a Boddamer is allowed to give to that is ‘why, have you lost your brither?”

The story became so powerful that several versions of its were to emerge as it travelled around the country.

In Hartlepool, music hall star Ned Corvan wrote a version which details how fisherman killed a monkey on a ship because they believed it was a French spy.

The town entered into the spirt of the song to such an extent that the people of the town are known as “monkey hangers” with the mascot for Hartlepool FC also a monkey.

Dr Brown said: “The Hartlepool version is that they hung a monkey thinking it was a French spy, implying that the Hartlepool fishermen were completely ignorant and didn’t know what a Frenchman looked like.

“The Hartlepool people took it up. The folk have adopted it and turned it around, but it never happened in Boddam.”

Dr Brown said the song in the north east fuelled a deep rivalry between Boddam and the neighbouring village Burnhaven, which sits around three miles away.

She added: “Burnhaven was a planned village but Boddam was an indigenous community.

“When Burnhaven was built, there was serious rivalry between the two and then the Boddamers in turn gave the Burnhaven folk the reputation of being inveterate liars.”

While these rivalries may have eased today, the legacy of the song could be felt for many years.

One prominent woman in the Boddam community earlier told Dr Brown that people were reluctant to talk about it, despite it being well known by adults and children alike.

The woman said that Boddamers disliked being ‘portrayed as murdering thieves’ who killed living creatures in order to claim salvage.

Dr Brown said: “The woman was picking up on that about 200 years on. That is something pretty serious if it is that embedded that deeply in the psyche.”