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Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders

The following is from the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders by Sir Walter Scott:

Sir Patrick Spens


One edition of the present ballad is well known; having appeared in the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, and having been inserted in almost every subsequent collection of Scottish songs. But it seems to have occurred to no editor, that a more complete copy of the song might be procured. That, with which the public is now presented, is taken from two MS. copies,[76] collated with several verses recited by the editor's friend, Robert Hamilton, Esq. advocate, being the 16th, and the four which follow. But, even with the assistance of the common copy, the ballad seems still to be a fragment. The cause of Sir Patrick Spens' voyage is, however, pointed out distinctly; and it shews, that the song has claim to high antiquity, as referring to a very remote period in Scottish history.

Alexander III of Scotland died in 1285; and, for the misfortune of his country, as well as his own, he had been bereaved of all his children before his decease. The crown of Scotland descended upon his grand-daughter, Margaret, termed, by our historians, the Maid of Norway. She was the only offspring of a marriage betwixt Eric, king of Norway, and Margaret, daughter of Alexander III. The kingdom had been secured to her by the parliament of Scotland, held at Scone, the year preceding her grandfather's death. The regency of Scotland entered into a congress with the ministers of the king of Norway and with those of England, for the establishment of good order in the kingdom of the infant princess. Shortly afterwards, Edward I. conceived the idea of matching his eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, with the young queen of Scotland. The plan was eagerly embraced by the Scottish nobles; for, at that time, there was little of the national animosity, which afterwards blazed betwixt the countries, and they patriotically looked forward to the important advantage, of uniting the island of Britain into one kingdom. But Eric of Norway seems to have been unwilling to deliver up his daughter; and, while the negociations were thus protracted, the death of the Maid of Norway effectually crushed a scheme, the consequences of which might have been, that the distinction betwixt England and Scotland would, in our day, have been as obscure and uninteresting as that of the realms of the heptarchy.--Hailes' Annals. Fordun, &c.

The unfortunate voyage of Sir Patrick Spens may really have taken place, for the purpose of bringing back the Maid of Norway to her own kingdom; a purpose, which was probably defeated by the jealousy of the Norwegians, and the reluctance of King Eric. I find no traces of the disaster in Scottish history; but, when we consider the meagre materials, whence Scottish history is drawn, this is no conclusive argument against the truth of the tradition. That a Scottish vessel, sent upon such an embassy, must, as represented in the ballad, have been freighted with the noblest youth in the kingdom, is sufficiently probable; and, having been delayed in Norway, till the tempestuous season was come on, its fate can be no matter of surprise. The ambassadors, finally sent by the Scottish nation to receive their queen, were Sir David Wemyss, of Wemyss, and Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie; the same, whose knowledge, surpassing that of his age, procured him the reputation of a wizard. But, perhaps, the expedition of Sir Patrick Spens was previous to their embassy. The introduction of the king into the ballad seems a deviation from history; unless we suppose, that Alexander was, before his death, desirous to see his grand-child and heir.

The Scottish monarchs were much addicted to "sit in Dumfermline town," previous to the accession of the Bruce dynasty. It was a favourite abode of Alexander himself, who was killed by a fall from his horse, in the vicinity, and was buried in the abbey of Dumfermline.

There is a beautiful German translation of this ballad, as it appeared in the Reliques, in the Volk-Lieder of Professor Herder; an elegant work, in which it is only to be regretted, that the actual popular songs of the Germans form so trifling a proportion.

The tune of Mr. Hamilton's copy of Sir Patrick Spens is different from that, to which the words are commonly sung; being less plaintive, and having a bold nautical turn in the close.

Sir Patrick Spens - Footnotes

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