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:

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray

The Text is from Sharpe's Ballad Book. A parody of this ballad, concerning an episode of the end of the seventeenth century, shows it to have been popular not long after its making. In England it has become a nursery rhyme (see Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes, p. 246).

The Story--In 1781 a Major Barry, then owner of Lednock, recorded the following tradition. Mary Gray was the daughter of the Laird of Lednock, near Perth, and Bessy Bell was the daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid, a neighbouring place. Both were handsome, and the two were intimate friends. Bessy Bell being come on a visit to Mary Gray, they retired, in order to avoid an outbreak of the plague, to a bower built by themselves in a romantic spot called Burnbraes, on the side of Branchie-burn, three-quarters of a mile from Lednock House. The ballad does not say how the 'pest cam,' but tradition finds a cause for their deaths by inventing a young man, in love with both, who visited them and brought the infection. They died in the bower, and were buried in the Dranoch-haugh ('Stronach haugh,' 3.3), near the bank of the river Almond. The grave is still visited by pious pilgrims.

Major Barry mentions 1666 as the year, but the plague did not reach Scotland in that year. Probably the year in question was 1645, when the district was ravaged with the pestilence.

O Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
  They war twa bonnie lasses;
They bigget a bower on yon burn-brae,          ['bigget,' built]
  And theekit it o'er wi' rashes.                       ['theekit,' thatched]

They theekit it o'er wi' rashes green,
  They theekit it o'er wi' heather;
But the pest cam frae the burrows-town,
  And slew them baith thegither.

They thought to lie in Methven kirk-yard,
  Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lye in Stronach haugh,
  To biek forenent the sin.

And Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
  They war twa bonnie lasses;
They bigget a bower on yon burn-brae,
  And theekit it o'er wi' rashes.                       [i.e. to bask beneath the sun]

Sir James the Rose


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