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A combat, though never so toughly and tedi-
ously maintained, is very briefly handled by the
poet. There is a sort of brachigraphy, or short-
hand, used in the description, quite startling to
the prosing of a modern versifier. The " nut-
brown sword/' which, at this moment, " hung low
down by the gair " of the one duellist, is, in the
next, sheathed "betwixt the short rib and the
lang " of the other. When swords were at every
one's thigh, it was of use to know how to wield
them effectively. And it may be remarked, that
the expressions of wiping on the sleeve, drying on
the grass, and slaiting owre the strae, always
occur in such ballads as indicate a dubious and
protracted and somewhat equal combat ; and I
take it these expressions were meant to convey
that idea to the mind, as opposed to cases in
which an individual has been overpowered by
superior numbers, or assassinated unawares.

This uniformity of phraseology in describing
incidents of a similar nature, which pervades all
our ancient ballads, might appear to argue a
poverty both of expression and invention in these


minstrel poets ; but if the compositions were nar-
ratives of real facts produced on the spur of the
occasion, as in most cases we have ventured to
suppose them to be, the use of such common-
places becomes abundantly obvious. They not
only assisted the memory in an eminent degree,
but served as a kind of groundwork on which the
poem could be raised. With such commonplaces
indelibly fixed in his memory, the minstrel could
with ease to himself, and with the rapidity of
extemporaneous delivery, rapidly model any event
which came under his cognisance into song.
They were like inns or baiting-places on a jour-
ney, from one to the other of which he could
speedily transport himself. They were the gene-
ral outlines of every class of human incident and
suffering then appropriated to song, and could be
fitted easily to receive individual interest as cir-
cumstances might require, and that without any
painful stretch of fancy or invention. Indeed the
original production of these commonplaces be-
tokens no slender ingenuity on the part of these
song-inditers. They were like a commodious gar-
ment that could be wrapped expeditiously round
every subject of whatever nature or dimensions.
Something of the same sort, though in a less
marked degree, may be discovered in the con-
struction of the longer metrical romances all
arguing that the composition of these pieces had
been reduced to a certain system, and subjected
to a peculiar mechanism necessarily arising out
of the circumstances under which they were pro-
duced and the incessant craving of the popular
taste for novel incident and fresh excitement.
Besides these peculiar forms of expression, estab-


lished epithets, and variety of commonplaces,
another means of assisting the memory, and pre-
serving the character of the melody unchanged,
was adopted. This consisted in the burthens
attached to the songs, many of which certainly
in our day appear totally unmeaning and extra-
vagant. But it is not unlikely that these " stiff
burdouns/' though abundantly curious and in-
comprehensible to us, had a significance, and
were a key to a whole family of associations and
feelings, of which we can form little or no con-
ception.* It is probable they may have been
fragments of still more ancient songs, to which
the Eamsays and. Cunninghams of these times
had fitted new words for the nonce. This seems
to be the fact with regard to the Danish ballads ;
and it is known, that it was a common practice
with the old French poets to make a particular
line of an old song the refrain or burden of a

In the popular poetry of the Northern nations
the same remarkable features are all to be found.
Not only these, but the very subjects of some of
the ballads appear to be the same with those of
our ancient ballads. Of this interesting fact,
many instances will be found in those pieces
of traditionary poetry which Mr Jarnieson has
translated from the Ksenipe Viser. In the work

* If we are to credit Jones, (see his " Welsh Bards,"
p. 128,) the common burden of "hey derry down," sig-
nified, "Let us hie to the green oak," and was the
burden of our old song of the Druids, sung by the bards
inviting the people to their religious assemblies in the

t Illustrations of Northern Antiquities. Burney's His-
tory of Music, vol. ii. Pinkerton's Tragic Ballads.


where most of these translations appear, that in-
genious writer observes, " There may be remarked
in all the Scottish and Danish traditionary bal-
lads a frequent and almost unvaried recurrence
of certain terms, epithets, metaphors, and phrases,
which have obtained general currency, and seem
peculiarly dedicated to this kind of composi-
tion. The same ideas, actions, and circum-
stances, are almost uniformly expressed in the
same form of words ; and whole lines, and even
stanzas, are so hackneyed among the reciters of
popular ditties, that it is impossible to give them
their due appropriation, and to say to which they
originally belonged/' To these peculiarities, in
what may be styled the mechanism of the ancient
ballad, and which appear to be thus common
to the traditionary poetry of other countries, may
be attributed the purity and integrity with which
a great body of it has been transmitted to the
present day, notwithstanding the many causes
which, for centuries, have been vigorously at
work to corrupt and annihilate it. " Time, which
antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make
dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor

The greater bulk of the ancient pieces with
which we are acquainted, neither in their names
nor in the incidents which they relate, contain
anything romantic or extravagant. Their heroines
have homely enough sounding names, seldom in-
dulging in a larger variety than what this slender
catalogue of Lady Margaret, Lady Marjorie, or
fair Janet affords. The same remark applies
with equal justice to the lords and knights, who
enact the parts of lovers or persecutors Sweet


William, Lord Thomas, Earl Richard or John,
are the favourite appellations. The subjects of
which they treat are evidently pictures drawn
from a state of society comparatively rude, in
which the distinctions of rank were few, but
deeply marked. The personages, however, who
figure in them move in the higher classes, which
is another proof of their antiquity, and places
them anterior to those circumstances that over-
threw the institutions of chivalry, and sapped
the foundations of feudal aristocracy, thereby in-
troducing the mixed aspect and form of society
now known in this country. In general they
present a series of domestic tragedies, which,
without any violation of truth, may be considered
as painted from actual life and every-day occur-
rences. The minstrel had no inducement to feign
a narrative calculated to awaken the dormant
sensibilities of his auditors, when the unsophisti-
cated material was ready made to his hand, and
that of a description, too, much more pregnant
with interest and variety than invention could
supply. Indeed, this appetite in the vulgar mind
for true incident is, in our time, remarkably
apparent in the avidity with which the miserable
rhymes hawked about the streets, and palmed off
as the poetic effusions of notorious criminals
under sentence of death, are perused, and the
facility with which easy melodies are fitted to
them for the purpose of singing. And it is a
received proverb in our language, no doubt de-
derived from the times when minstrelsy was in
its meridian glory, that there is no geste like a
real geste ; in other words, that there is no tale
like a true tale.


While there is an ample store of ballads which
appear to be referable to real incident and matter
of fact, those which record what Gawin Douglas
has characterised as

' ' Wilde auentouris monstouris and quent affrayis
Of uncouth dangeris,"

are comparatively few. But whether this class
of ballads be, as we have imagined them to be,
no more than metrical relations of certain pas-
sages occurring at different times in the great
drama of human life, or whether they be the
veriest creations of the poet and the fabulist, it
matters little, for whichever way the fact stands,
this much is certain, that their popularity has
arisen from, and their permanency among us
been owing, in no partial degree, to the received
and general impression that has obtained among
the people of their original derivation from
historical sources. This, independently of the
other attractions which many of them possess,
as simple and effective pieces of poetic composi-
tion, has seated them firmly in the hearts and
affections of the people, and secured them for
centuries from being swept away by the more
elaborated and artificial strains, which recent and
succeeding times have accumulated.

It is well known by all who have personally
undergone the pleasant drudgery of gathering
our traditionary song, that the old people who
recite these legends attach to them the most
unqualified and implicit belief. To this circum-
stance may be ascribed the feeling and pathos
with which they are occasionally chanted ; the
audible sorrow that conies of deep and honest
sympathy with the fates and fortunes of our


fellow kind. In the spirit, too, with which such
communications are made, in the same spirit
must they be received and listened to. The
audacious sceptic, who, in the plenitude of his
shallow worldly wisdom, dared to question their
being matter of incontrovertible fact, I may state,
for the information of those who may hereafter
choose to amuse themselves in the quest of olden
song, would eventfully find the lips of every
venerable sybil in the land most effectually sealed
to his future inquiries. Eeciters, moreover, fre-
quently assign special localities to the ancient
ballads, which they gladly indicate to the inquisi-
tive, and to these they appeal as a triumphant
refutation of every objection which learned scep-
ticism may urge to the accuracy of the facts thus
traditionally preserved. The wood or the water,
the tower or the town, the castle or the kirk, the
bridge or the bower, nay, even the good oak-tree
to which some doughty hero of elder times hath
leaned his back, and resolutely made good his
quarrel against tremendous odds, can all be
singled out and shewn to be in perfect accordance
with the history as delivered in the ballad. It
must be admitted, however, that these localities
are very accommodating, and that the evidence
which they afford is entitled to little or no weight.
For a ballad, when it has become a favourite of
the people in any particular district, is soon fitted
with localities drawn from the immediate neigh-
bourhood. This is more particularly the case
with any one which represents a class of similar
compositions. Thus Tomalin or Tamlane, which
may be looked on as the representative of the
whole class of ballads relative to " Faerye," and


which is claimed by the editor of " The Border
Minstrelsy" as a Selkirkshire ballad, in which
district it is stated to be completely located, will
be found clothed with every particular of local
habitation and name in many other counties far
distant from that which has sought to attach it
as exclusive property.

It has been usual to ascribe the composition of
this large body of traditionary poetry to the
minstrels, an order of professional poets and
musicians, whose history from various causes is
necessarily somewhat obscure, and which, till the
time of Dr Percy, had been wholly neglected.
The wide diffusion of our ballads over every part
of the country, both north and south of the
Tweed, and the various sets which are extant of
these, would (were there no intrinsic evidence
afforded by these compositions themselves) be
amply corroborative and confirmatory of such an
opinion. The minstrels were, as one of their
number informs us, accustomed to

" walken f er and wyde,

Her and ther in every syde,
In mony a diverse londe,"

with harp in hand, and thereto singing or recit-
ing, not only the Romance of price, but those
more succinct and veracious narratives which
have reached to our time in the form of ballads.

But when the age of chivalry passed away, and
the minstrel profession declined in importance,
or gradually assimilated itself to other callings,
and at length sunk into neglect and opprobrium,
through the influence of causes too numerous and
foreign from our purpose to trace ; the lower
ranks of the people became, as is always the case,


the rightful and undisputed heirs of the cast-off
tastes and literature of the higher orders. It was
not to be supposed, however, that all at once they
could either keenly relish or appreciate the more
refined and elaborated productions of the minstrel
muse. In fact, they could not understand them.
At least, we have the authority of Robert de
Brunne for hazarding this conjecture, who men-
tions expressly that he undertook his translation

"For the luf of symple men,
That strange Inglis cannot ken,"

and that he made it

" noght for no disours,

Ne for seggours, nor harpours,"

whereas, had he indulged himself in the " quainte
Inglis" of the minstrels, who addressed their
productions " for pride and nobleye/'

" fele men that it herde,

Suld not witte how that it f erde ; "

and he concludes his introduction by stating that

" men besoght me many a tyme,
To turne it hot in light ryme ;
Thai seyd if I in strange ryme it turne,
To here it many on suld skurne ;
For in it ere names fulle selcouthe
That ere not vsed now in mouthe;
And therefore for the comonalte,
That blithely wild listen to me ;
On light lange I it began,
For luf of the lewed man."

Neither could the "comonalte" spare so
much leisure as sufficed for the recitation of
pieces distinguished for prolixity, nor could their
circumstances enable them to remunerate the
disour, seggour, or harpour for such prolonged


enjoyments. A simpler intellectual fare was
required for the palate of a rude audience, and
this the historical ballad supplied. Their stub-
born sensibilities could only be excited by narra-
tives of real incident, suffering, or adventure,
distinctly, plainly, and artlessly told. With
confessedly fictitious woes, or fabulous deeds,
however brilliantly detailed, they could not sym-
pathise ; and a long period elapsed after the
romance had ceased to be heard in the halls of
the great, before it found its way to the fireside of
the hind and the artisan. When it did find its
way, however, it lived long in their remembrance
traces of which can be discovered as late as the
middle of last century.



This ballad lays claim to a high and remote antiquity.
It is supposed by Bishop Percy to be founded on some
event of real history; but in what age the hero of it
lived, or when the fatal expedition which it records
happened, he confesses himself unable to determine. Sir
Walter Scott and Mr Finlay, in their respective collec-
tions, concur in assigning it a like foundation, though
they disagree as to the historical incident whence it has
originated ; while, on the other hand, Mr Ritson asserts
that " no memorial of the subject of the ballad exists in
history." Sir Walter Scott inclines to think that the
ballad may record some unsuccessful attempt to bring
home Margaret, commonly called "the Maid of Norway,"
previous to that embassy despatched for her by the
Regency of Scotland, after the death of her grandfather,
Alexander III. And, though no account of such an
expedition appears in history, it is nevertheless ingeniously
contended, that its silence cannot invalidate tradition, or
form any argument against the probability of such an
event more especially when the meagre materials whence
Scottish history is derived, are taken into view. Mr


Finlay objects to giving the ballad, as it stands, so nigh
a claim to antiquity, but suggests that if it be referred to
the time of James ITT., who married Margaret, daughter
of the King of Denmark, it would be brought a step
nearer probability.

To both these opinions, however, Kitson's observation
applies with overwhelming force. There is no historical
evidence of this disastrous shipwreck, either in the em-
bassy for the Maiden of Norway, or in that for the wife
of James TIT. And meagre as the sources of our history
may be, it seems improbable that an expedition which
terminated so fatally, and to which so many of the choicest
gallants of the day, and highest nobles of the land, must
necessarily have been attached, should fail to be chronicled.
Had they fallen in the field of battle, would all memory
of them have been lost ? Certainly not. If they perished
on the ocean, why is history oblivious of their names?
The very circumstance of a national calamity like this
happening by shipwreck being of more rare occurrence
than one of equal magnitude in time of war, would, we
think, be a very mean of securing it a more prominent
place in the histories of the times. The ballad must
therefore be either wholly fabulous, or it must refer to
some other event than any yet spoken of.

Our own opinion is, that the ballad is founded on
authentic history, and that it records the melancholy and
disastrous fate of the gallant band which followed in the
suite of Margaret, daughter of Alexander III., when she
was espoused to Eric of Norway. According to Fordun,
in this expedition many distinguished nobles accompanied
her to Norway to grace her nuptials, several of whom
perished in a storm while on their return to Scotland.
Whoever studies the ballad attentively, and makes due
allowance for the transpositions, corruptions, and inter-
polations which must unavoidably have crept into its text,
must ultimately become a convert to the opinion we have
now advanced. The bitter taunt of the Norwegians to
Sir Patrick

" Ye Scottishmen spend a' our king's gowd
And a' our queenis fee,"

was without meaning and point formerly its application
is now felt. MOTHERWELL.



It has been asserted that Elizabeth Halkett, Lady Ward-
law, who died in the eighteenth century, and is known as
the author of " Hardy knute," inserted in Percy's Reliques,
was the author of Sir Patrick Spens. The assertion is not
supported by proof.

THE king sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine :

" where will I get a skeely skipper
To sail this ship of mine ?"

It 's up and spake an eldern knight,

Sat at the king's right knee :
" Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor

That ever sailed the sea."

The king has written a braid letter,

And sealed it with his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,

Was walking on the strand.

" To Noroway, to Noroway,

To Noroway o'er the faem ;
The king's daughter of Noroway,

'Tis thou maun bring her hame ! "

The first word that Sir Patrick read,

Sae loud, loud laughed he ;
The neist word that Sir Patrick read,

The tear blinded his ee.

"0 wha is this has done this deed,

And tauld the king o' me,
To send us out at this time of the year,

To sail upon the sea ?


"Be 't wind, be 't weet, be 't hail, be 't sleet,

Our ship must sail the faem ;
The king's daughter of Noroway,

'Tis we must fetch her hame."

They hoysed their sails on Monenday morn,

Wi' Si the speed they may ;
They hae landed in Noroway

Upon a Wodensday.

They hadna been a week, a week

In Noroway, but twae,
When that the lords o' Noroway

Began aloud to say :

" Ye Scottishmen spend a' our king's gowd

And a' our queenis fee/'
" Ye lie, ye lie, ye liars loud !

Fu' loud I hear ye lie !

"For I hae brought as much white monie

As gane* my men and me
And I hae brought a half-f ou f o' gude red

Out owre the sea wi' me.

" Mak ready, mak ready, my merry men a' !

Our gude ship sails the morn."
" Now, ever alake ! my master dear,

I fear a deadly storm !

" I saw the new moon, late yestreen,
Wi' the auld moon in her arm ;

And if we gang to sea, master,
I fear we 11 come to harm/'

* "Gane:" suffice.

t " Half-fou : " the eighth part of a peck.


They hadna sailed a league, a league,

A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew

And gurly grew the sea.

The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap,

It was sic a deadly storm ;
And the waves came o'er the broken ship

Till a' her sides were torn.

" where will I get a gude sailor

To take my helm in hand,
Till I get up to the tall topmast

To see if I can spy land ? "

" here am I, a sailor gude,

To take the helm in hand,
Till you go up to the tall topmast

But I fear you '11 ne'er spy land."

He hadna gane a step, a step,

A step but barely ane,
When a bout* flew out of the goodly ship,

And the saut sea it came in.

" Gae fetch a web o' the silken claith,-f-

Another o' the twine,
And wap them into our ship's side,

And let na the sea come in."

* "Bout:" a bolt.

t In Finlay's collection appear two stanzas, not else-
where to be found, that add the befitting incident of
superstitious belief to the tragedy recorded.

" Then up an' cam' a mermaid,
Wi' a siller cup iu her han' :


They fetched a wab o' the silken claith,*

Another o' the twine,
And they wapped them roun' that glide
ship's side,

But still the sea came in.

laith, laith were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heeled shoon !

But lang or a' the play was played
They wat their hats aboon.

And mony was the feather bed

That floated on the faem ;
And mony was the gude lord's son

That never mair cam' name.

The ladyes wrang their fingers white

The maidens tore their hair ;
A' for the sake of their true loves

For them they '11 see na mair.

lang, lang may the ladyes sit,
AVi' their fans into their hand,

Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the strand !

' Sail on, sail on. my gude Scotch lords,
For ye sune will see dry Ian'.'

' Awa', awa', ye wild woman,
And let your fleechin' be ;
For, sen your face we 've seen the day,
Dry Ian' we'll never see.'"

* In Buchan's collection of Ancient Ballads is this addi-
tional stanza, which appears justified by a subsequent
allusion :

" There are five-and-fifty feather beds

Well packed in ae room,
And ye '11 get as muckle gude canvass
As wrap the ship a' roun'."


And lang, lang may the maidens sit,
WT their gowd kaims in their hair,

A' waiting for their ain dear loves
For them they '11 see na mair.

Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,*

"Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,

Wi' the Scots lords at his feet.

* In Scott's "Border Minstrelsy," this line reads

" forty miles off Aberdeen ; "
but we are inclined to favour the reading
" Half owre, half owre to Aberdour."

For, with submission to the opinion of Sir W. Scott,
the meaning of this line is not that the shipwreck took
place in the Frith of Forth, but midway between Aberdour
and Norway. And, as it would seem from the narrative
at the commencement of the ballad that Sir Patrick sailed
from the Forth, it is but fair to infer that, in his disas-
trous voyage homeward, he would endeavour to make
the same port. This opinion will be corroborated if we
are correct in assigning the ballad to the historical event
mentioned in the introductory remarks. MOTHERWELL.



The following edition of the Battle of Otterbourne is
essentially different from that which is published in the
"Reliques of Ancient Poetry," and is obviously of Scot-
tish composition. The particulars of that noted action
are related by Froissart, with the highest encomium upon
the valour of the combatants on each side. This song
was first published from Mr Herd's "Collection of Scot-
tish Songs and Ballads," 2 vols. 8vo, Edin. 1774, but two
recited copies have fortunately been obtained from the
recitation of old persons residing at the head of Ettrick
forest, by which the story is brought out and completed
in a manner much more correspondent to the true history.

IT fell about the Lammas tide,

When the muir-men win their hay,

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Online LibraryWilliam MotherwellEarly Scottish ballads → online text (page 3 of 18)