“Robin Redbreast's Testament”


The singer asks the robin how long it has been there; it says twenty years, but now it's sick and would make its testament. He gives parts of his body to the Hamiltons, to serve them, and others to repair bridges. He scorns the wren who mourns for him


In the time-honored tradition of folklorists assigning big meaning to small verse, I suspect this has a political undertone. (Probably someone has talked about this before, but I haven't seen it yet.) My first thought was of the period at the end of the reign of Mary Stuart and the beginning of James I in Scotland, when the Hamilton and Lennox factions were struggling over the regency. But the Hamiltons were not yet Dukes.

Testing additional versions, I think the likely time period is c. 1649 and the end of the reign of Charles I. The robin is said to be "e'en like a little king," which fits, and his reign of "mair than twenty year" fits Charles, who came to the throne in 1625 and was executed in 1649.

In that case, the Duke of Hamilton is James, First Duke of Hamilton (1606-1649). An indecisive and ineffective figure, he finally ended up leading royalist forces at Preston in 1648, where he was crushed by Cromwell. He was executed about a month after Charles himself. - RBW


  1. SHenry H527, pp. 20-21, "Robin Redbreast's Testament" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Montgomerie-ScottishNR 194, "(Robin Redbreast's Testament)" (1 text)
  4. Roud #3900
  5. BI, HHH527


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1776 (Herd)
Found in: Ireland Britain(Scotland)