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Fraser's Scottish Annual
The Old Scottish Ballads


By John D. Ross, LL.D.

I HAVE always had a tender and sincere regard for the old Scottish ballads. In my boyhood days they were a continual source of delight to me, and I used to pore over them at all convenient hours. A goodly portion of them were also committed to memory, and to-day I can repeat them and enjoy them as much as I did in the years gone by. What a curious collection of old legendary lore they are, to be sure. What wild adventures on land and on sea do they chronicle; what wonderful deeds of daring in love and in war; what heroic self-sacrifices; what hairbreadth escapes; what mysterious doings of spirits, water kelpies, goblins, fairies, and so forth. Really, when I take up a volume of these old favorites I am always sure to immediately alight on one that just suits the particular mood in which I may happen at the moment to be. Even the particular haze of antiquity which envelopes so many of them has a strange fascination for me, and I love to linger in their company. Well do I remember the first of these ballads that attracted my attention. It was the little one entitled "Geordie." How dramatically it opens:

There was a battle in the north,
And nobles there were manie;
And they hae killed Sir Charlie Hay
And laid the blame on Geordie.

"Geordie" is supposed to have been George Gordon, fourth Earl of Huntly, and the time of the incident related in the ballad is in the reign of King James V. Consigned not only to prison, but to death, for a crime of which he is innocent, the earl writes a long letter to his spouse acquainting her with the fact and requesting her immediate presence by his side:

Oh, he has written a lang letter;
He sent it to his ladye
"It's ye maun come to E'nbrugh town
To see what word's of Geordie."

When first see look'd the letter on,
She was baih red and rosy;
But she hadna read a word but twa
Till she turned pale as a lily.

But this was no time for idle grief. She had to be up and doing, and so she brushed her tears aside and gave orders to

"Get to me my gude gray steed,
My men shall all gae with me:
For I shall neither eat nor drink
Till E'nbrugh town shall see me."

And so with her men at arms she mounted her gray steed and rode in all haste to where her lord was imprisoned. Nor did she arrive any too soon, for

First appeared the fatal block,
And syne the axe to heid him,
And Geordie comin' down the stair,
And bands o' airn upon him.

But though he was chained wi' fetters strong
O' airn and steel sae heavy,
There was na ane in a' the court
Sae braw a man as Geordie.

The king, however, seems to have been conveniently near, and she at once appeals to him, in the regulation fashion of the time, for a pardon:

O, she's down on her bended knee,
I wot she's pale and wearie;
"O pardon, pardon, noble king,
And gie me back my deane!

"I ha'e born seven Sons to Geordie dear,
The seventh ne'er saw his daddie;
O pardon, pardon, noble king,
Pity a waefu' lady!"

But alas her appeal found no responsive chord in the heart of James V. Indeed, it seemed only to anger him, for he called out:

"Gar bid the heiding man mak' haste."

Convinced that this line of action will not avail her any, the lady tries to move him to pity through an offer of her worldly possessions.

"O noble king, tak' a' that's mine,
But gie me back my Geordie."

Still the king proved unrelenting, and the lady was just about to call on the men who had accompanied her, to attempt a rescue by force, when a crafty old earl ventured the suggestion:

"Oar her tell down five thousand pounds
And she'll buy back her Geordie."

This suggestion seems to have pleased the king. It harmonized with his own ideas on the subject, and he spoke out accordingly.

But five thousand pounds was a very large sum of money to get together in so short a notice, yet the noble lady was not to be thwarted in her design by such a small matter as that. She immediately appealed to the bystanders, and they seem to have been liberally supplied with spare cash in those days, for

Some ga'e her merks, some ga'e her crowns,
Some ga'e her dollars many,
And she's told down five thousand pounds
And she's gotten again her deane.

And the ballad appropriately concludes with a hint as to what might have taken place had the earl not been liberated, and a compliment from the earl to his lady, which all will agree with me in saying she richly deserved:

She blinket blythe in Geordie's face
Says, "Dear I've bought thee, Geordie,
But there would have been bloody bodies seen
Or I had tint my lordie."

He clasped her by the middle sma'
And he kissed her lips sae rosy;
"The fairest flower of womankind
Is my sweet bonnie ladye."

I do not point out this ballad as being the best, or even one of the best, of the old Scottish ballads, but simply because it was the one which first thrilled me with delight and led me to continue my studies in this direction. I have read many ballads since then, much finer ones in many respects, I will admit, but "Geordie" has a charm for me yet, and ever will have.

Then there was the ballad of "Tamlane," with its weird, uncanny story. Truly a wonderful creation and one well calculated to make a vivid and lasting impression on the mind of a young reader.

Tamlane was an earl's son, who had been spirited away by the fairies when a boy, and had grown up to be a young man under their spell. The favorite haunt or gathering place of these fairies was a place called Carterhaugh; and Janet, an earl's daughter and the heroine of the story, is strictly forbidden to go near the place. Prompted by curiosity, however, she pays it a visit, meets with Tamlane, and of course falls in love with him. He explains matters as follows:

When I was a boy just turned of nine
My uncle sent for me
To hunt and hawk and ride with him
And keep him companie.

There came a wind out of the north,
A sharp wind and a snell
A dead sleep then came over me
And frae my horse I fell.

The fairy queen she caught at me
And took me to hersel',
And ever since in yon green hill,
With her I'm bound to dwell.

And we that live in fairy-land
Nae sickness know nor pain,
I quit my body when I will
And take to it again.

Our shapes and size we can convert
To either large or small,
An old nut shell's the same to us
As in a lofty hail.

We sleep in rosebuds soft and sweet
We revel in the stream,
We wanton lightly on the wind
Or glide on a sunbeam.

It seems, however, that this life, with all its charms, has one drawback. The fairies, for some reasons, have to part every seventh year with one of their company to his satanic majesty, and Tamlane being "young and fair and fat," feels convinced that he has been selected as the next victim to be sacrificed. So he asks Janet to save him and to help him to regain his liberty, and tells her how she can accomplish this. She is to repair to the Miles Cross at midnight and take holy water with her and sprinkle it all around in a circle. He will ride past with the fairies, andó

The first company that passes by
Stand still and let them gae;
The next company that passes by
Stand still and do right sae.
The third company that passes by
All clad in robes of green
It is the head one of them all
For in it rides the queen.
I'll there ride on the milk white steed
With a gold star in my crown,
Because I was a christened knight
They gie me that renown.
First let pass the black, Janet,
And syne let pass the brown,
But grip ye to the milk white steed
And pull the rider down.

And he goes on to explain how, when in her arms, he will be transformed into a snake, an adder, a red hot piece of iron, a toad, an eel, a dove, a swan, and last of all, a mother naked man.

She is then to cast her green mantle over him and the fairies' spell will be broken. So Janet repairs at midnight to the Miles Cross and awaits developments. Soon the fairy crowd make their appearance, and so carefully does she follow Tamlane's instructions that he is soon rescued and the fairies' control over him is at an end. At thisó

Up then spake the fairy queen
Out of a bush of rye;
"She's ta'en away the bonniest knight
In all my companie;
But had I kenn'd 'I'amlane," she says,
"A lady would borrow thee,
I would hae ta'en out thy twa gray een
Put in twa een of tree
Had I but kenn'd Tamlane," she says
"Before ye came frae hame,
I would ta'en out your heart of flesh
Put in a heart of stane.
Had I but had the wit yestreen
That I hae coft this day
I'd paid my kane seven times to hell
Ere you'd been won away."

And who can read and ever forget the tragical ballad of "Gil Morice," full of excitement and horrors, yet containing some exquisite passages of poetry for all that. Take the description of the hero for instance.

His hair was like the threads of gold
Drawn from Ninervas loom;
His lips like roses dropping dew,
His breath was all perfume.

His brow was like the mountain snow
Gilt by the morning beam;
His cheeks like living roses glow,
His e'en like azure stream.

The boy was clad in robes of green
Sweet as the infant Spring;
And like the mavis on the bush
He made the valleys ring.

But the rest of the old Scottish ballads are just as spirited and entertaining as "Tamlane" and "Gil Morice," and it would be a comparatively easy matter to extend this article to a dozen or more columns by simply taking up the more prominent ones and describing their special features and plots. There are "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow," "Annan Water," "Fair Annie of Lochryan," "The Queen's Marie," "Katherine janfarie," "Clerk Saunders," "Sir Patrick Spens," "Johnnie Armstrong" "Gilderoy," "Fair Annie's Ghost," "The Gay Gos-Hawk," "Hardy Knute," "Sir James the Rose," "The Drowned Lovers," and various others, all more or less meritorious and constituting as fine a collection of poetical literature as one could wish to read. Let me therefore conclude by advising anyone who is not already familiar with the ballad minstrelsy of Scotland to procure a collection without delay. In doing so I can assure them that I am inviting them to the enjoyment of a rare literary feast.


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