Whistle While You Work

Whistle While You Work: Music of Maritime Life

An exhibition on board HMS Unicorn. Curated by Eilidh Lawrence and S.M Parker

Music has long been central to life at sea. Whether a song was sung to help with work, to reflect on life back home, or to communicate what those on the shore thought of sailors, they are key to our understanding of the lives of those at sea.

Songs of the sea take on many guises, and it is difficult to know much about them with any certainty. Like so much oral history, often there is no record of where a song came from, who it was written by, or where it was sung. Often, we must rely on the lyrics of the songs to solve some of these mysteries.

Most of the songs you will find here are shanties, which are work songs. They would be sung to help with difficult and repetitive tasks on board a ship. They are usually conversational songs with a ‘call-and-response’ structure, where one ‘shantyman’ would lead the group in singing. Others began their lives as broadside ballads, which were printed and therefore more available to the public. Another speaks of the anxious wait at Dundee harbour to see the ships returning from a long voyage.

The songs were reimagined for HMS Unicorn by Sheena Wellington and the Wighton Singers, and were recorded at Studio 2000, Dundee.

This exhibition was developed for HMS Unicorn by two postgraduate Museum and Gallery Studies students, Eilidh Lawrence and S.M Parker. Here, you can listen in to the words and tunes of times gone by that have brought Unicorn to life.

To learn more about each of our songs, click the links below:

The Sailor’s Alphabet 

Mochyn Du

Stand By Your Guns!

The Ballad of Captain Kidd

Rollin’ Home by the Silvery Moon 

Drunken Sailor

The Lang Awa Ship

Lady Franklin’s Lament




We would like to thank all the following people and organizations that made this exhibition possible.

Sheena Wellington
Wighton Singers
Studio 2000, Dundee
University of St. Andrews Music Centre
Seth Lakeman -Stand By Your Guns!
Mick Tems- Mochyn Du
Billy Rough- Voice Actor
Finlay Raffle- Voice Actor
Michael Grieve- Voice Actor