The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Ambleside Evening: Scots Ballads.

by Dora L. Thomson.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 590-599

In speaking of ballads, the first thing that is necessary is that we should understand what a ballad really is, and perhaps the best and shortest definition is "A Song that tells a Story."

Ballads take us back to the very dawn of literature; the first literary compositions, if they may be called such, were poems, and this was a necessity from the nature of the case, for when there were no books nor writing of any sort, composition had of course to be carried about in the mind. In prose it would never have lasted, in its original form at least, but verse is much more easily remembered, and so the earliest histories were in the form of ballads, which were handed on from one person and from one generation to another, often varying considerably in the wording, but the story being on the whole the same.

These earliest poems were always narrative, because they were the history of the country, and also because it is a story that holds the attention of simple, uneducated people, such as those for whom they were composed; even savages are delighted with a narrative that presents a picture to their minds; and so, in these early times, a man who could tell and act a story in such a vivid way as to make it easily taken in and understood, was very highly valued. Accordingly as far back as history carries us we find traces of men to whom various names have been given, but who are best known as Bards. Their work was to tell, in what we should now call very rude verse, the exploits of great heroes, or the history of noble families.

For example, Sir Patrick Spens tells the story of the ineffectual expedition to bring Margaret, the Maid of Norway, to Scotland, on the death of her grandfather, Alexander III., in 1285, which made her Queen. A verse or two will be sufficient to give some idea of the ballad:--

       "The King sits in Dunfermline town,
       Drinking the blude-red wine;
       'Oh! Whaur will I get me a skeely skipper
       To sail this ship o' mine?'

       "To Noroway, to Noroway,
       To Noroway o'er the faem
       The King's daughter o' Noroway,
       'Tis we maun bring her hame."

In the well-known song The Earl o' Moray, we find an example of a favourite kind of composition with the Bards, namely that of putting the words into the mouth of one of the characters in the story. This ballad takes the form of a Lament on the death of the Earl of Moray, a prominent courtier in the reign of James VI., who was murdered by the Earl of Huntly, not without suspicion on the part of some that he acted by order of the king. The first verse runs:--

       "Ye Hielands and ye Lawlands,
       O, whaur ha'e ye been?
       They ha'e slain the Earl o' Moray,
       And laid him on the green.
       He was a braw gallant,
       And he rode at the ring;
       And the bonnie Earl o' Moray
       He micht hae been a king.
       O, lang will his ladye look frae the Castle Doune
       Ere she see the Earl o' Moray come soundin' through the toun."

Every great family had its own bard, who was generally himself a poet, and was always able to sing the ballads he had heard from others. On the death of any member of a well-known family, its bard composed a dirge, which was sung over the body while the mourners watched or "waked" it through the night, as the custom was. Among the more humble of the people there were dirges that could be used for all alike, and that were public property. One of the most famous of these is The Lyke Wake, or Dead-Watch, Dirge. The words were published in Scott's Border Minstrelsy, and, in a note about it, he quotes from an old manuscript of the Cotton Library, as follows:--"When any dieth, certain women sing a song to the dead bodie, recyting the jorney that the partye deceased must goe, and they are of beliefe (such is their fondnesse) that, once in their lives, it is good to give a pair of new shoes to a poor man, forasmuch as, after this life, they are to pass barefoote through a great launde, full of thornes and furzen, except by the meryte of the almes aforesaid they have redeemed the forfeyte; for at the edge of that launde, an aulde man shall meet them with the same shoes that were given by the partye when he was lyving; and after he hath shodde them, dismisseth them to go through thick and thin without scratch or scalle." Another belief that they held was that after death the soul passed to Purgatory, where it suffered nothing if, during life, the man had been charitable; but if, on the contrary, he had not, then "the fire would burn him to the bare bane." To give the real effect, the ballad should be sung in the stillness of night, with no light except that of the corpse candles round the bier. The last verses of the dirge are unfortunately lost. This is how it begins:--

       "This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
       Everie nighte and alle,
       Fire and sleete, and candle-light,
       And Christe receive thy saule.

       "When from hence away thou'rt past,
       Everie nighte and alle,
       To Whinny-muir thou comest at last,
       And Christe receive thy saule.

       "If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
       Everie nighte and alle,
       Sit thee down and put them on,
       And Christe receive thy saule.

Another example of a dirge, though of a different nature, is that sung over the body of a certain "Sir Bertram," who had evidently been murdered. There is a curious story connected with it: when Sir Walter Scott was compiling his Border Minstrelsy, a friend, Mr. Certees, sent him the words of Sir Bertram, saying that he had taken them down from the mouth of an old woman employed to weed his garden. Scott was delighted with the ballad, and published it in his Border Minstrelsy, firmly believing it to be genuinely old. Then his friend undeceived him, saying he had written it himself, never thinking such an authority on the subject would be taken in by it! Though only an imitation, yet it possesses the true spirit and style of the old ballads, and since even Scott was taken in by it, to ordinary people it is indistinguishable from them, and it is particularly beautiful. I will quote a verse or two:--

       "They shot him dead on the Nine Stane Rig,
       Beside the headless cross,
       And they left him lying in his blood,
       Upon the moor and moss.

       "They made a bier of the broken bough,
       Of the saugh and the aspen grey,
       And they carried him to Our Lady's chapel,
       And they waked him there all day.

       "A lady came to that lonely bower,
       And flung her robes aside,
       She tore her long long, yellow hair,
       And knelt by Sir Bertram's side." Etc.

Later we find an order of wandering bards, or Minstrels. We can understand how in the absence of all literature, their songs were valued everywhere. They sang to the harp, as did the bards before them. Many a time a minstrel would be found by the great wood fire in the Baron's hall when the day's work was over, and the servants and retainers, as well as the family, would be gathered round, listening eagerly to the tales of adventure and heroism told or sung by the wandering musician, who would in return receive a night's lodging and food, and possibly a little money, and then go on to the next castle or border peel, or sometimes to the more lowly farmhouses. Perhaps most of the ballads still surviving in Scotland owe their origin to this order of minstrels, for their songs became very widely known, as they wandered about over the country.

How can ye gang, lassie? is a example of what may be called the "dialogue ballad"; it was a common thing for the author to tell the story by means of a conversation between the two chief characters.

       "'O, how can ye gang, lassie;
       How can ye gang,
       O, how can ye gang sae to grieve me?
       Wi' your beauty and your art
       Ye hae broken my heart,
       For I never, never thocht ye wad leave me.'

       "'O, how could ye think, Jamie,
       How could ye think,
       O, how could ye think that I lo'ed ye?
       For its O and I lo'e ane,
       But I daurna tell his name,
       An' I never, never meant to deceive ye.'"

Leezie Lindsay, two stanzas of which follow, is a ballad with a distinctly humorous touch and with an exceptionally racy style:--

       "'If ye be the laird o' MacDonald,
       A braw ane I ken ye maun be,
       But how can a chieftain sae mighty,
       Think o' a puir lassie like me?'

       "She has kilted her gown o' green satin,
       She has kilted it up to the knee,
       An' she's aff wi' Lord Ronald MacDonald,
       His bride an' his darling to be!"

After this the people got hold of the ballads, and in the absence of the minstrel, someone would recite or sing them, and as they were never written down, alterations were made, some involuntarily, some deliberately. The existing ballads have usually been taken down from the lips of illiterate people, and the same ballad, found sometimes in widely separated districts, is often various. Sometimes stanzas are dropped or added, and sometimes they are adapted to the district, as in Edom o' Gordon; the version found in the north has "Towie House" in place of "the House o' the Rodes" found in the southern version.

There are a very large number of Scots and Border ballads, but many of them are incomplete, and some only fragments. They are nearly all superior to those of England, in which there is often a lack of the imaginative, poetic, and romantic qualities that characterise the Scots ballads generally. For example, in the following verses, the end of The Babes in the Wood, which is purely English, there is a common-place, prosaic note that is often heard in English ballads, but very seldom in those of Scotland:--

       "The fellowe that did take in hand
       These children for to kill
       Was for a robbery judged to die,
       Such was God's blessed will.

       "Who did confess the very truth,
       As here hath been displayed
       Their uncle having died in gaol,
       Where he for debt was layd.

       "Take you example by this thing'
       And yield to each his right,
       Lest God, with such like miserye,
       Your wicked minds requite."

Mr. Stoddard says on this point: "The nobler wild-flower of popular balladry sprang up . . . . chiefly, if not exclusively, in the ruder Northern parts of the kingdom, which all along have been the most prolific, owing perhaps to the wild, moory, and mountainous scenery, the adventurous and martial habits, the old-world customs, and the close connection with ballad-loving Scandinavia."

As to the Date of our ballads much has been said. Some of them are essentially very ancient indeed, as is proved by the existence of the same stories in many languages. We can imagine the ballads, brought by Scandinavian or Danish immigrants, being altered as the language altered, and gradually taking on their present form about Shakespeare's time, when they were very abundant indeed. An example of a ballad of this time is Edom o' Gordon, which refers to the capture of Towie House, the seat of the Forbes family, by the notorious Gordon, Deputy Lieutenant of the North of Scotland for Queen Mary, in 1571.

       "It fell about the Martinmas
       When the wind blew shrill and cauld,
       Said Edom o' Gordon to his men,
       'We maun draw to a hauld."

       "And whatna hauld shall we draw to,
       My merry men and me?
       We will gae to the House o' the Rodes,
       To see that fair ladye.'

       "As soon as he saw the lady fair
       And her gates all locked fast,
       He fell into a rage of wrath,
       And his heart it was aghast. " Etc., etc.

Ballads have sometimes been divided into three classes:-- Historical, Romantic, and Supernatural; but this division is unsatisfactory, as many ballads might be classed under any of the three. But whatever the immediate subject, an unfailing characteristic is this, that they deal with the most elementary themes, with subjects that concern all mankind, for nothing else could live, as these poems have lived, passed about from mouth to mouth, through long generations, amongst the common people. Sometimes the ballads are coarse and indelicate, as judged by modern standards, just as was the society in which they took their present form. But whatever their wording, the ballads always deal with the feelings and destinies common among mankind, and therefore they appeal to all classes and generations.

Jess Macfarlane is an example of an exceedingly simple love song, but one which can well hold its own among the numerous modern so-called "drawing-room ballads."

       "When first she came to town
       They ca'd her Jess Macfarlane,
       But now she's come and gone,
       They ca' her the wand'ring darling.
       Chorus--Oh! this love, this love!
       Of this love I'm weary,
       Rest I can get nane,
       For thinking o' my dearie.

       "Her father lo'es her weel,
       Her mother lo'es her better,
       And I lo'e the lass mysel',
       And never shall forget her."
       "Oh! this love, etc., etc."

As to Style, the chief characteristics of ballad literature are directness and simplicity. It is here that the ballads have had so interesting and valuable an influence on English literature. The poetical style of the eighteenth century was highly artificial; personification was used far too much, and all sorts of artificial devices to lift composition out of the usual style of prose. The simple and homely words in common use were thought unsuitable for poetry, and a stilted style of language was adopted, which it was customary to call "poetic diction." The general thought of the time was expressed by Dr. Samuel Johnson in his Life of Cowley:--

"Language is the dress of thought, and as the noblest mien or most graceful action would be degraded and obscured by a garb appropriated to the gross employments of rustics and mechanics, so the most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if conveyed in words used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications." Thus a beautifully simple line like:--

       "The night is dark and I am far from home,"

would have been considered unpoetical, and would have been expressed in some high-sounding phrase about "the absence of the solar luminary," or "being involved in Cimmerian darkness," or "immeasurably distant from the paternal roof," or something of the sort!

In the year 1765, in the midst of this period of flowery language, was published Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry; and the literary effect of these old Ballads (some English and some Scots), thus brought back to the public eye, was very great. Of course the change did not come suddenly, it was impossible that the poetical taste of the period should be revolutionised all at once. Dr. Johnson, for one, could never be got to admire ballads; he said they were "nothing but chill and lifeless imbecility," and of Chevy Chase he said that "the story could not possibly be told in a manner that would make less impression on the mind." He composed a verse in ridicule of the ballad poetry:--

       "I put my hat upon my head,
       And stepped into the Strand,
       And there I met another man,
       With his hat in his hand!"

How untrue Dr. Johnson's criticism was can be seen at once by a single instance. Annie of Lochroyan is one of the most simple of all ballads, but no one could call it "chill and lifeless imbecility!"

       "'Oh wha will kame my yellow hair
       Wi' a new-made silver kame?
       Or wha'll be faither to my young bairn,
       Till Love Gregor come hame?'

       "'Your brethren will kame your yellow hair,
       Wi' a new-made silver kame;
       The King o' Heaven will faither your bairn
       Till Love Gregor come hame.'" Etc., etc.

Ultimately the effect of the publication of Percy's "Reliques" was enormous. Wordsworth does not hesitate to say that English poetry was absolutely redeemed by the appearance of that work, and he expressly acknowledges his own obligations to it.

There is a very old ballad which was published in Percy's "Reliques" called The Jew's Daughter, which is interesting as being founded on the supposed practice of the Jews of crucifying or otherwise murdering Christian children, out of hatred to the religion of their parents--a practice which has always been given in excuse for the cruelties exercised upon that wretched people, but which probably never happened in a single instance.

Little Sir William is a slightly altered version of this ballad. The story bears a great resemblance to the Prioresse's Tale in Chaucer. The word "Sir" is probably a corruption of "Saint" William.

       "Easter Day was a holiday,
       Of all days in the year,
       And all the little schoolfellows went out to play--
       But Sir William was not there.

       "His mother went to the Jew's wife's house,
       And knockèd at the ring,
       Saying, 'Little Sir William, if you are there,
       Oh let your mother in.'" Etc., etc.

Later in the poem the following lines are put into the dead child's mouth:--

       "The little penknife sticks close in my heart,
       And the Jew's wife has me slain."

One very noticeable feature in the ballads is the use of Colour. Mr. Ruskin, in Modern Painters, where he is dealing with landscape, points out what a strong instinct for colour Sir Walter Scott possessed. When describing any natural scene or object, he is almost sure to tell its colour:--for example, he wants to describe in the fewest possible words a gathering storm on the sea-shore. One man might do it by describing the size and shape of the waves, another might speak of the temper of the sea, but Scott sets the scene before us by one stroke of colour:--

       "The blackening wave is edged with white,
       To inch and rock the seamews fly."

This colour instinct possessed by Scott was probably due to the influence of the ballads which were the mental food on which he grew. The balladists never lose sight of the colour in a description, it is one of their marked characteristics, and a very delightful one. Wine with them is always "the blude red wine," and such phrases as "the good green wood," "the bent sae brown," "her raven locks," etc., are constantly occurring.

As a specimen of the manner in which the colour of the object is always in the eye of the balladist, I might cite this stanza from the Twa Corbies:--

       "Ye'll sit on his white haus-bane,"

(Of course the jet-black raven is pictured in contrast with the white neck of the dead man.)

       "And I'll pike oot his bonny blue een,
       Wi ae lock o' his yellow hair
       We'll theek oor nest when it blaws bare."

But indeed the examples are far too numerous to be dwelt on in detail.

The great lesson that ballads have so largely helped to teach us is, as we have seen, the value of simplicity and directness in literature, and especially in poetry. As an illustration of this, take the following little poem by Wordsworth, who was so greatly influenced by the ballads, and who did so much to reform English poetry:--

       "She dwelt among the untrodden ways
       Beside the springs of Dove,
       A maid whom there were none to praise
       And very few to love:

       "A violet by a mossy stone
       Half hidden from the eye!
       Fair as a star, when only one
       Is shining in the sky.

       "She lived unknown, and few could know
       When Lucy ceased to be;
       But she is in her grave, and, oh,
       The difference to me!"

In this poem, there are seventy-one words; fifty-nine are monosyllables, twelve are of more than one syllable. All are words of Saxon origin except three (violet, Lucy, difference.) It is true poetry and very beautiful, and yet the words of which it is made up are, in Dr. Johnson's language, "used commonly upon low and trivial occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications"!

A great deal might be said of Jacobite and Irish ballads, or of the modern Scots ballad-writers, such as Burns, Lady Nairne, Scott, etc., but the subject is a large one, and in this paper I have kept entirely to the old, traditionary ballads of Scotland, which in themselves offer a very large field for study, and are perhaps more interesting historically than any other kind of poetry.<

Typed by HannahA, May 2024; Proofread by LNL, June 2024