The melody is believed be very old, having been first published by John Playford in his "Musick's Hand-Maid" as A Scotish March (1663), then later in his "Musick's Recreation" (1669) as "Montrose's March". It appears as A Rock and a wi Pickle Tow in Mitchell's "Highland Fair" (1731) and as Rock and a wi Pickle Tow in publisher James Oswald's "Curious Collection of Scots Tunes" The melody was also used in other tunes (e.g. Pretender's March, and Carawith Jig).
The song describes a woman drop spinning, her frustrating problems with it and the inevitable loss of her temper.
Rock is a distaff or spindle for spinning.
Pickle refers to a small quantity of something, a little.
Tow is a small tuft, lock or bundle of fibre such as wool or flax, prepared for spinning by scutching.
There is also a Scottish country dance called The Rock And The Wee Pickle Tow.
I've wanted a sark for these aught years and ten,
And this was to be the beginnin' o't;
But I vow I shall want it for as lang again,
Or ever I try the spinnin' o't.
For never since ever they ca'd as they ca' me,
Did sic a mishap and mishanter befa' me;
But ye shall ha'e leave baith to hang and to draw me,
The neist time I try the spinnin' o't.
I ha'e keepit my house now these threescore o' years,
And aye I kept frae the spinnin' o't;
But how I was sarkit, foul fa' them that speirs,
For it minds me upo' the beginnin' o't.
But our women are now-a-days a' grown sae braw,
That ilk ane maun hae a sark, and some ha'e twa-
The warlds were better where ne'er ane ava
Had a rag, but ane at the beginnin' o't.
In the days they ca' yore, gin auld fouks had but won
To a surcoat, hough-syde, for the winnin o't,
Of coat-raips weel cut by the cast o' their bum,
They never socht mair o' the spinnin' o't.
A pair o' grey hoggers weil cluikit benew,
Of nae other lit but the hue of the ewe,
With a pair o' rough mullions to scuff through the dew,
Was the fee they socht at the beginnin' o't.
But we maun ha'e linen, and that maun ha'e we,
And how get we that but by spinnin' o't?
How can we ha'e face for to seek a great fee,
Except we can help at the winnin' o't?
And we maun ha'e pearlins, and mabbies, and cocks,
And some other things that the ladies ca' smocks;
And how get we that, gin we tak na our rocks,
And pow what we can at the spinnin' o't?
'Tis needless for us to mak' our remarks,
Frae our mither's miscookin' the spinnin' o't,
She never kenn'd ocht o' the gueed o' the sarks,
Frae this aback to the beginnin' o't.
Twa-three ell o' plaiden was a' that was socht
By our auld-warld bodies, and that bude be bought;
For in ilka town siccan things wasna wrocht-
Sae little they kenn'd o' the spinnin' o't!