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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
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
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
A sharp wind and a snell
A dead sleep then came over me
And frae my horse I fell.
The fairy queen she caught
And took me to hersel',
And ever since in yon green hill,
With her I'm bound to dwell.
And we that live in
Nae sickness know nor pain,
I quit my body when I will
And take to it again.
Our shapes and size we can
To either large or small,
An old nut shell's the same to us
As in a lofty hail.
We sleep in rosebuds soft
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
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
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
Gilt by the morning beam;
His cheeks like living roses glow,
His e'en like azure stream.
The boy was clad in robes
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.