“The Keel Row is a traditional Tyneside folk song evoking the life and work of the keelmen of Newcastle upon Tyne. A closely related song was first published in a Scottish collection of the 1770s, but may be considerably older, and it is unclear whether the tune is Scottish or English in origin.
The opening lines of the song set it in Sandgate, that part of the quayside overlooking the River Tyne to the east of the city centre where the keelmen lived and which is still overlooked by the Keelmen’s Hospital.
Versions of the song appear in both England and Scotland, with Scottish versions referring to the Canongate rather than Sandgate. The earliest printing was in the 1770s in Edinburgh in A Collection of Favourite Scots Tunes, edited by Charles Maclean, though the tune was also found in several late eighteenth-century English manuscript collections. Frank Kidson surmised that like many other songs collected by Maclean it may originally have been a Jacobite air from the time of the 1745 rebellion. Some versions of the song make reference to a “blue bonnet […] with a snowy rose upon it”, a clear attempt to evoke Jacobite symbolism, whether dating from 1745 or not.
An English origin may, however, be indicated by the fact that “keel” referred primarily to boats which carried coal on the Tyne; the word “keel”, meaning a type of boat, seems to have fallen out of use in Scotland before the mid-18th century.
Kidson stated that he had found the tune of The Keel Row associated with a dance called “The Yorkshire Lad” as early as 1748. The tune under its present title, together with a long and elaborate set of variations, also appeared in the John Smith manuscript, now lost, which was dated 1752. In about 1886-7, John Stokoe copied this and 19 other tunes; he commented “there are many of the old Northumbrian pipe tunes in it” and claimed “so far as I know or have searched, this is the earliest copy of our Tyneside melody extant.” Another early appearance of The Keel Row is in the William Vickers manuscript, dated 1770, also from Tyneside.
By the 19th century the tune was well associated with the River Tyne; a few years before the 1850s the keelmen had met yearly to celebrate the founding of the Keelmen’s Hospital, perambulating the town to the accompaniment of bands playing The Keel Row.
Due to its quick beat, the tune of “The Keel Row” is used as the trot march of the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry as well as of the Royal Horse Artillery. The writer Rudyard Kipling mentioned the tune in one of his accounts of army life in India under the British Raj: “The man who has never heard the ‘Keel Row’ rising high and shrill above the sound of the regiment…has something yet to hear and understand”. The tune is also used by the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and was used by The Light Infantry as its double past, and is used (as part of a medley with The Road to the Isles) by The Rifles.”