Gilderoy is a song that mutated when it crossed the Scottish border. Gilderoy (or his historical original) was a raider and an outlaw, but this fact isn’t greatly emphasised in the original – perhaps because it was common knowledge. Once the song gets into the English oral tradition, ‘Gilderoy’ becomes no more than a name and his criminal propensities get lost altogether. This makes for a rather puzzling song; in most of the English texts our man appears to have been hanged for having sex with his fiancee, which seems something of an over-reaction even by eighteenth-century standards.
If we go back to the Scottish song, the livestock thefts by which Gilderoy made his living do make an appearance, but the song remains a bit of a puzzle. In its original form it’s essentially an elegy for a particularly well-dressed gangster – one who was so handsome they even hanged him higher than the rest. One explanation I’ve seen is that it was written as a parody of Geordie; this would make a rather dry kind of sense if you mentally cross out ‘Gilderoy’ and substitute ‘Al Capone’ (or the contemporary gangster of your choice).
I learned it from Shirley and Dolly Collins’s recording, but here I’m singing a slightly different version, which goes heavy on the looks and charm but does at least mention the thieving. In this version of the song I think the mood is the main thing: thief or no thief, he was my one true heart’s delight… and now he’s dead.