Popular Ballads of the Olden Time

The following is from Popular Ballads of the Olden Time: Third Series - Ballads of Scottish Tradition and Romance Selected and Edited by Frank Sidgwick:

Ballads in the Third Series

I have hesitated to use the term 'historical' in choosing a general title for the ballads in this volume, although, if the word can be applied to any popular ballads, it would be applied with most justification to a large number of these ballads of Scottish and Border tradition. 'Some ballads are historical, or at least are founded on actual occurrences. In such cases, we have a manifest point of departure for our chronological investigation. The ballad is likely to have sprung up shortly after the event, and to represent the common rumo[u]r of the time. Accuracy is not to be expected, and indeed too great historical fidelity in detail is rather a ground of suspicion than a certificate of the genuinely popular character of the piece.... Two cautionary observations are necessary. Since history repeats itself, the possibility and even the probability must be entertained that every now and then a ballad which had been in circulation for some time was adapted to the circumstances of a recent occurrence, and has come down to us only in such an adaptation. It is also far from improbable that many ballads which appear to have no definite localization or historical antecedents may be founded on fact, since one of the marked tendencies of popular narrative poetry is to alter or eliminate specific names of persons and places in the course of oral tradition.'[1]

[Footnote 1: Introduction (p. xvi) to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited from the Collection of Francis James Child, by Helen Child Sargent and George Lyman Kittredge, 1905. This admirable condensation of Child's five volumes, issued since my Second Series, is enhanced by Professor Kittredge's Introduction, the best possible substitute for the gap left in the larger book by the death of Child before the completion of his task.]

Warned by these wise words, we may, perhaps, select the following ballads from the present volume as 'historical, or at least founded on actual occurrences.'

(i) This section, which we may call 'Historical,' includes The Hunting of the Cheviot, The Battle of Otterburn, Mary Hamilton, The Laird o' Logie, Captain Car, Flodden Field, The Fire of Frendraught, Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, Jamie Douglas, Earl Bothwell, Durham Field, The Battle of Harlaw, and Lord Maxwell's Last Goodnight. Probably we should add The Death of Parcy Reed; possibly Geordie and The Gipsy Laddie. More doubtful still is Sir Patrick Spence; and The Baron of Brackley confuses two historical events.

(ii) From the above section I have eliminated those which may be separately classified as 'Border Ballads.' Sir Hugh in the Grime's Downfall seems to have some historical foundation, but Bewick and Grahame has none. A sub-section of 'Armstrong Ballads' forms a good quartet; Johnie Armstrong, Kinmont Willie, Dick o' the Cow, and John o' the Side.

(iii) In the purely 'Romantic' class we may place The Braes of Yarrow, The Twa Brothers, The Outlyer Bold, Clyde's Water, Katharine Jaffray, Lizie Lindsay, The Heir of Linne, and The Laird of Knottington.

(iv) There remain a lyrical ballad, The Gardener; a song, Waly, waly, gin love be bonny; and the nondescript Whummil Bore. The Appendix contains a ballad, The Jolly Juggler, which would have come more fittingly in the First Series, had I known of it in time.

In the general arrangement, however, the above classes have been mixed, in order that the reader may browse as he pleases.


A comparison of the first two ballads in this volume will show the latitude with which it is possible for an historical incident to be treated by tradition. The Battle of Otterburn was fought in 1388; but our two versions belong to the middle of the sixteenth century. The English Battle of Otterburn is the more faithful to history, and refers (35.2) to 'the cronykle' as authority. The Hunting of the Cheviot was in the repertory of Richard Sheale (see First Series, Introduction, xxvii), who ends his version in the regular manner traditional amongst minstrels. Also, we have the broadside Chevy Chase, which well illustrates the degradation of a ballad in the hands of the hack-writers; this may be seen in many collections of ballads.

Mary Hamilton has a very curious literary history. If, pendente lite, we may assume the facts to be as suggested, pp. 44-46, it illustrates admirably Professor Kittredge's warning, quoted above, that ballads already in circulation may be adapted to the circumstances of a recent occurrence. But the incidents--betrayal, child-murder, and consequent execution--cannot have been uncommon in courts, at least in days of old; and it is quite probable that an early story was adapted, first to the incident of 1563, and again to the Russian story of 1718. Perhaps we may remark in passing that it is a pity that so repugnant a story should be attached to a ballad containing such beautiful stanzas as the last four.

Captain Car is an English ballad almost contemporary with the Scottish incident which it records; and, from the fact of its including a popular burden, we may presume it was adapted to the tune. Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, which records a piece of Scottish news of no importance whatever, has become an English nursery rhyme. In Jamie Douglas an historical fact has been interwoven with a beautiful lyric. Indeed, the chances of corruption and contamination are infinite.


The long pathetic ballad of Bewick and Grahame is a link between the romantic ballads and the ballads of the Border, Sir Hugh in the Grime's Downfall connecting the Border ballads with the 'historical' ballads. The four splendid 'Armstrong ballads' also are mainly 'historical,' though Dick o' the Cow requires further elucidation. Kinmont Willie is under suspicion of being the work of Sir Walter Scott, who alone of all ballad-editors, perhaps, could have compiled a ballad good enough to deceive posterity. We cannot doubt the excellence of Kinmont Willie; but it would be tedious, as well as unprofitable, to collect the hundred details of manner, choice of words, and expression, which discredit the authenticity of the ballad.

John o' the Side has not, I believe, been presented to readers in its present shape before. It is one of the few instances in which the English version of a ballad is better than the Scottish.


The Braes o' Yarrow is a good example of the Scottish lyrical ballad, the continued rhyme being very effective. The Twa Brothers has become a game, and Lizie Lindsay a song. The Outlyer Bold is a title I have been forced to give to a version of the ballad best known as The Bonnie Banks o' Fordie; this, it is true, might have come more aptly in the First Series. So also Katharine Jaffray, which enlarges the lesson taught in The Cruel Brother (First Series, p. 76), and adds one of its own.

The Heir of Linne is another of the nave, delightful ballads from the Percy Folio, and in general style may be compared with The Lord of Learne in the Second Series (p. 182).


Little is to be said of The Gardener or The Whummil Bore, the former being almost a lyric, and the latter presumably a fragment. Waly, waly, is not a ballad at all, and is only included because it has become confused with Jamie Douglas.

The Jolly Juggler seems to be a discovery, and I commend it to the notice of those better qualified to deal with it. The curious fifth line added to each verse may be the work of some minstrel--a humorous addition to, or comment upon, the foregoing stanza. Certain Danish ballads exhibit this peculiarity, but I cannot find any Danish counterpart to the ballad in Prior's three volumes.

The Hunting of the Cheviot

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