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:

Sir Patrick Spence

The Text is taken from Percy's Reliques (1765), vol. i. p. 71, 'given from two MS. copies, transmitted from Scotland.' Herd had a very similar ballad, which substitutes a Sir Andrew Wood for the hero. The version of this ballad printed in most collections is that of Scott's Minstrelsy, Sir Patrick Spens being the spelling adopted.[1] Scott compounded his ballad of two manuscript copies and a few verses from recitation, but the result is of unnecessary length.

[Footnote 1: Coleridge, however, wrote of the 'grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.']

The Story--Much labour has been expended upon the question whether this ballad has an historical basis or not. From Percy's ballad--the present text--we can gather that Sir Patrick Spence was chosen by the king to convey something of value to a certain destination; and later versions tell us that the ship is bound for Norway, the object of the voyage being either to bring home the king of Norway's daughter, or the Scottish king's daughter, or to take out the Scottish king's daughter to be queen in Norway. The last variation can be supported by history, Margaret, daughter of Alexander III. of Scotland, being married in 1281 to Erik, king of Norway. Many of the knights and nobles who accompanied her to Norway were drowned on the voyage home.

However, we need not elaborate our researches in the attempt to prove that the ballad is historical. It is certainly of English and Scottish origin, and has no parallels in the ballads of other lands. 'Haf owre to Aberdour,' i.e. halfway between Aberdour in Buchan and the coast of Norway, lies the island of Papa Stronsay, on which there is a tumulus called 'the Earl's Knowe' (knoll); but the tradition, that this marks the grave of Sir Patrick Spence, is in all probability a modern invention.

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
  Drinking the blude-reid wine:
'O whar will I get [a] guid sailor,
  To sail this schip of mine?'

['Dumferling,' i.e. Dunfermline, on the north side of the Firth of Forth.]

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
  Sat at the king's richt kne:
'Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
  That sails upon the se.'

The king has written a braid letter,
  And sign'd it wi' his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
  Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,
  A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
  The teir blinded his ee.

'O wha is this has done this deid,
  This ill deid don to me,
To send me out this time o' the yeir,
  To sail upon the se!

'Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
  Our guid schip sails the morne:'
'O say na sae, my master deir,
  Fir I feir a deadlie storme.

'Late, late yestreen I saw the new moone
  Wi' the auld moone in hir arme,
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
  That we will cum to harme.'

O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
  To weet their cork-heil'd schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play wer play'd,
  Thair hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit
  Wi' thair fans into their hand
Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence
  Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
  Wi' thair gold kerns in their hair,
Waiting for thair ain deir lords,
  For they'll se thame na mair.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
  It's fiftie fadom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
  Wi' the Scots lords at his feit.

Flodden Field

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2016