When I First Went to Caledonia is a love song that likely descends from a class of dramatic ballads of the troubadour/trouvère period in France. The main character of the poem is a young man who works at a coal mine in Caledonia and who yearns for a loving relationship.
This field recording was collected by Ronnie MacEachern in 1978.
When I First Went to Caledonia, 1978. Amby Thomas. T-1066. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.
In 1906, Amby Thomas was born in Deep Cove, a small Cape Breton fishing community between Gabarus and Louisbourg. In his early years, Amby attended ceilidhs where local and traditional folk songs were sung. He was especially interested in songs by local songwriter Lauchie MacNeil.
Amby lived and attended school in the village until 1916, when a local priest noticed he had a vision problem. He suggested that Amby move to Halifax to study at the School for the Blind. He attended the school until June 1919, when he moved back to Deep Cove to finish school.
After completing his studies, he worked in a lobster factory in Kennington Cove and then as a fisherman with his father until 1952. During this time, he also farmed near his family’s home and cut timber in the nearby woods that was used in coal mines in the area. From 1939-1945, he worked at the naval base in Point Edward, where he was responsible for railroading and other jobs at the base.
In 1967, the government forced Amby and the other residents of Deep Cove to move from their land so that the Fleur de Lis trail could be built. In 1969, he married Mary and moved to Sydney.
His interest in local and traditional folk songs led him to work with singer-songwriter and collector Ronald MacEachern to record the lyrics and sheet music for some of his songs. Together they released the book, Songs and Stories from Deep Cove, Cape Breton. As a result of their collaboration, these songs became accessible to future generations interested in learning more about Cape Breton’s rich songwriting tradition.
When I First Went To Caledonia
Collected by Ron MacEachern from the singing of Amby Thomas
Tune: “Mo Ruin Gael Dileas”
© From the collection of Ron MacEachern.
1. I wish I were but I wish in vain
I wish I were a young maid again.
A young maid again I will never be
‘Til an orange grows on an apple tree.
2. When I first went to Caledonia
I got loading at number three
And I got boarding at Donald Norman’s
He had a daughter could make good tea.
3. It was I and my brother Charlie
The biggest shavers you ever did see
Were spearing eels in the month of April
And starving slaves out on Scaterie.
4. I went to Norman’s for a pair of brochans
A cake of soap and a pound of tea
But Norman told me he wouldn’t give them
Till fish got plenty in Scaterie.
5. I went over to their Big Harbour
Just on purpose to see the spray
I spied a maiden from Boularderie over
I surely thought her the Queen of May.
6. I wish I were on the deepest ocean
As far from land that once I could see
A-sailing over the deepest ocean
Where woman’s love would not trouble me.
7. I’d lay my head on a cask of brandy
And it’s dandy I do declare
For when I’m drinking I’m always thinking
How can I gain that young lady fair.
8. If I had pen from Pennsylvania
If I had paper of truly white
If I had ink of the rosy morning
A true love’s promise to you I’d write.