The Romantic Scottish Ballads
Their Epoch and Authorship
By Robert Chambers (published 1849)
Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765; David Herd's Scottish Songs, 1769; Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1802; and Jamieson's Popular Ballads and Songs, 1806, have been chiefly the means of making us acquainted with what is believed to be the ancient traditionary ballad literature of Scotland; and this literature, from its intrinsic merits, has attained a very great fame. I advert particularly to what are usually called the Romantic Ballads, a class of compositions felt to contain striking beauties, almost peculiar to themselves, and consequently held as implying extraordinary poetical attributes in former generations of the people of this country. There have been many speculations about the history of these poems, all assigning them a considerable antiquity, and generally assuming that their recital was once the special business of a set of wandering conteurs or minstrels. So lately as 1858, my admired friend, Professor Aytoun, in introducing a collection of them, at once ample and elegant, to the world, expressed his belief that they date at least from before the Reformation, having only been modified by successive reciters, so as to modernise the language, and, in some instances, bring in the ideas of later ages.
There is, however, a sad want of clear evidence regarding the history of our romantic ballads. We have absolutely no certain knowledge of them before 1724, when Allan Ramsay printed one called Sweet William's Ghost, in his Tea-table Miscellany. There is also this fact staring us in the face, that, while these poems refer to an ancient state of society, they bear not the slightest resemblance either to the minstrel poems of the middle ages, or to the well-known productions of the Henrysons, the Dunbars, the Douglases, the Montgomeries, who flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Neither in the poems of Drummond, and such other specimens of verse--generally wretched--as existed in the seventeenth century, can we trace any feature of the composition of these ballads. Can it be that all editors hitherto have been too facile in accepting them as ancient, though modified compositions? that they are to a much greater extent modern than has hitherto been supposed? or wholly so? Though in early life an editor of them, not less trusting than any of my predecessors, I must own that a suspicion regarding their age and authorship has at length entered my mind. In stating it--which I do in a spirit of great deference to Professor Aytoun and others--I shall lead the reader through the steps by which I arrived at my present views upon the subject.
In 1719, there appeared, in a folio sheet, at Edinburgh, a heroic poem styled Hardyknute, written in affectedly old spelling, as if it had been a contemporary description of events connected with the invasion of Scotland by Haco, king of Norway, in 1263. A corrected copy was soon after presented in the Evergreen of Allan Ramsay, a collection professedly of poems written before 1600, but into which we know the editor admitted a piece written by himself. Hardyknute was afterwards reprinted in Percy's Reliques, still as an ancient composition; yet it was soon after declared to be the production of a Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie, who died so lately as 1727. Although, to modern taste, a stiff and poor composition, there is a nationality of feeling about it, and a touch of chivalric spirit, that has maintained for it a certain degree of popularity. Sir Walter Scott tells us it was the first poem he ever learned by heart, and he believed it would be the last he should forget.
It is necessary to present a few brief extracts from this poem. In the opening, the Scottish king, Alexander III., is represented as receiving notice of the Norwegian invasion:
Hardyknute, summoned to the king's assistance, leaves his wife and daughter, 'Fairly fair,' under the care of his youngest son. As to the former lady--
In his journey, Hardyknute falls in with a wounded and deserted knight, to whom he makes an offer of assistance:
A field of battle is thus described:
I must now summon up, for a comparison with these specimens of the modern antique in ballad lore, the famous and admired poem of Sir Patrick Spence. It has come to us mainly through two copies--one comparatively short, published in Percy's Reliques, as 'from two manuscript copies transmitted from Scotland;' the other, containing more details, in Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, also 'from two manuscript copies,' but 'collated with several verses recited by the editor's friend, Robert Hamilton, Esq., advocate.' It is nowhere pretended that any ancient manuscript of this poem has ever been seen or heard of. It acknowledgedly has come to us from modern manuscripts, as it might be taken down from modern reciters; although Percy prints it in the same quasi antique spelling as that in which Hardyknute had appeared, where being quhar; sea, se; come, cum; year, zeir; &c. It will be necessary here to reprint the whole ballad, as given originally by Percy, introducing, however, within brackets the additional details of Scott's copy [only omitting the five verses supplied by Mr Hamilton, as they appear redundant]:
Percy, at the close of his copy of Sir Patrick Spence, tells us that 'an ingenious friend' of his was of opinion that 'the author of Hardyknute has borrowed several expressions and sentiments from the foregoing [ballad], and other old Scottish songs in this collection.'
It does not seem to have ever occurred to the learned editor, or any friend of his, however 'ingenious,' that perhaps Sir Patrick Spence had no superior antiquity over Hardyknute, and that the parity he remarked in the expressions was simply owing to the two ballads being the production of one mind. Neither did any such suspicion occur to Scott. He fully accepted Sir Patrick Spence as a historical narration, judging it to refer most probably to an otherwise unrecorded embassy to bring home the Maid of Norway, daughter of King Eric, on the succession to the Scottish crown opening to her in 1286, by the death of her grandfather, King Alexander III, although the names of the ambassadors who did go for that purpose are known to have been different. [There is one insuperable objection to Sir Walter's theory, which I am surprised should not have occurred to himself, or to some of those who have followed him. In his version of the ballad, the design to bring home the daughter of the king of Norway is expressed by the king of Scotland himself. Now, there was no occasion for Alexander III sending for his infant granddaughter; nor is it conceivable that, in his lifetime, such a notion should have occurred or been entertained on either his side or that of the child's father. It was not till after the death of Alexander had made the infant Norwegian princess queen of Scotland--four years after that event, indeed--that the guardians of the kingdom, in concert with Edward I. of England, sent for her by Sir David Wemyss of Wemyss and Sir Michael Scott of Balwearie, who actually brought her home, but in a dying state. For these reasons, on the theory of the ballad referring to a real occurrence, it must have been to the bringing home of some Norwegian princess to be wedded to a king of Scotland that it referred. But there is no such event in Scottish history.] The want of any ancient manuscript, the absence of the least trait of an ancient style of composition, the palpable modernness of the diction--for example, 'Our ship must sail the faem,' a glaring specimen of the poetical language of the reign of Queen Anne--and, still more palpably, of several of the things alluded to, as cork-heeled shoon, hats, fans, and feather-beds, together with the inapplicableness of the story to any known event of actual history, never struck any editor of Scottish poetry, till, at a recent date, Mr David Laing intimated his suspicions that Sir Patrick Spence and Hardyknute were the production of the same author. [Notes to Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, 1839.] To me it appears that there could not well be more remarkable traits of an identity of authorship than what are presented in the extracts given from Hardyknute and the entire poem of Sir Patrick--granting only that the one poem is a considerable improvement upon the other. Each poem opens with absolutely the same set of particulars--a Scottish king sitting--drinking the blude-red wine--and sending off a message to a subject on a business of importance. Norway is brought into connection with Scotland in both cases. Sir Patrick's exclamation, 'To Noroway, to Noroway,' meets with an exact counterpart in the 'To horse, to horse,' of the courtier in Hardyknute. The words of the ill-boding sailor in Sir Patrick, 'Late, late yestreen, I saw the new moon'--a very peculiar expression, be it remarked--are repeated in Hardyknute:
Professor Aytoun alters a verse of the ballad as follows:
And he omits the verse in which Sir Patrick says:
Thus making the ballad referrible to the expedition in 1281 for taking Alexander's daughter to be married to the king of Norway. But I apprehend such liberties with an old ballad are wholly unwarrantable.
The grief of the ladies at the catastrophe in Sir Patrick Spence, is equally the counterpart of that of the typical Norse lady with regard to the fate of her male friend at Largs. I am inclined, likewise, to lay some stress on the localities mentioned in Sir Patrick Spence--namely, Dunfermline and Aberdour--these being places in the immediate neighbourhood of the mansions where Lady Wardlaw spent her maiden and her matron days. A poet, indeed, often writes about places which he never saw; but it is natural for him to be most disposed to write about those with which he is familiar; and some are first inspired by the historical associations connected with their native scenes. True, as has been remarked, there is a great improvement upon Hardyknute in the 'grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,' as Coleridge calls it, yet not more than what is often seen in compositions of a particular author at different periods of life. It seems as if the hand which was stiff and somewhat puerile in Hardyknute, had acquired freedom and breadth of style in Sir Patrick Spence. For all of these reasons, I feel assured that Sir Patrick is a modern ballad, and suspect, or more than suspect, that the author is Lady Wardlaw. [Professor Aytoun says: 'It is true that the name [of Sir Patrick Spence] ... is not mentioned in history: but I am able to state that tradition has preserved it. In the little island of Papa Stronsay, one of the Orcadian group, lying over against Norway, there is a large grave or tumulus, which has been known to the inhabitants from time immemorial as "The grave of Sir Patrick Spence." The Scottish ballads were not early current in Orkney, a Scandinavian country; to it is very unlikely that the poem could have originated the name.' I demur to this unlikelihood, and would require some proof to convince me that the grave of Sir Patrick Spence in Papa Stronsay is not a parallel geographical phenomenon to the island of Ellen Douglas in Loch Katrine.]
Probably, by this time, the reader will desire to know what is now to be known regarding Lady Wardlaw. Unfortunately, this is little, for, as she shrank from the honours of authorship in her lifetime, no one thought of chronicling anything about her. We learn that she was born Elizabeth Halket, being the second daughter of Sir Charles Halket of Pitfirran, Baronet, who was raised to that honour by Charles II., and took an active part, as a member of the Convention of 1689, in settling the crown upon William and Mary. Her eldest sister, Janet, marrying Sir Peter Wedderburn of Gosford, was the progenitress of the subsequent Halkets, baronets of Pitfirran, her son being Sir Peter Halket, colonel of the 44th regiment of foot, who died in General Braddock's unfortunate conflict at Monongahela in 1755. A younger sister married Sir John Hope Bruce of Kinross, baronet, who died, one of the oldest lieutenant-generals in the British service, in 1766. Elizabeth, the authoress of Hardyknute, born on the 15th of April 1677, became, in June 1696, the wife of Sir Henry Wardlaw of Pitreavie (third baronet of the title), to whom she bore a son, subsequently fourth baronet, and three daughters. [Playfair's Brit. Fam. Antiquity, viii., 170, lxviii.]
The ballad of Hardyknute, though printed in a separate brochure by James Watson in 1719, had been previously talked of or quoted, for the curiosity of Lord Binning was excited about it, apparently in a conversation with Sir John Hope Bruce, the brother-in-law of Lady Wardlaw. Pinkerton received from Lord Hailes, and printed, an extract from a letter of Sir John to Lord Binning, as follows: 'To perform my promise, I send you a true copy of the manuscript I found a few weeks ago in a vault at Dunfermline. It is written on vellum, in a fair Gothic character, but so much defaced by time as you'll find the tenth part not legible.' Sir John, we are told by Pinkerton, transcribed in this letter 'the whole fragment first published, save one or two stanzas, marking several passages as having perished, from being illegible in the old manuscript.' [Ancient Scottish Poems, 2 vols. (1786), i. p. c vii.]
Here is documentary evidence that Hardyknute came out through the hands of Lady Wardlaw's brother-in-law, with a story about its discovery as an old manuscript, so transparently fictitious, that one wonders at people of sense having ever attempted to obtain credence for it--which consequently forms in itself a presumption as to an authorship being concealed. Pinkerton rashly assumed that Sir John Bruce was the author of the poem, and on the strength of that assumption, introduced his name among the Scottish poets.
The first hint at the real author came out through Percy, who, in his second edition of the Reliques (1767), gives the following statement:
'There is more than reason to suspect that it [Hardyknute] owes most of its beauties (if not its whole existence) to the pen of a lady within the present century. The following particulars may be depended on. Mrs [mistake for Lady] Wardlaw, whose maiden name was Halket ... pretended she had found this poem, written on shreds of paper, employed for what is called the bottoms of clues. A suspicion arose that it was her own composition. Some able judges asserted it to be modern. The lady did in a manner acknowledge it to be so. Being desired to show an additional stanza, as a proof of this, she produced the two last, beginning with "There's nae light, &c.," which were not in the copy that was first printed. The late Lord President Forbes and Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto (late Lord Justice-clerk for Scotland), who had believed it ancient, contributed to the expense of publishing the first edition, in folio, 1719. This account was transmitted from Scotland by Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes), 7 who yet was of opinion that part of the ballad may be ancient, but retouched and much enlarged by the lady above mentioned. Indeed, he had been informed that the late William Thomson, the Scottish musician, who published the Orpheus Caledonius, 1733, declared he had heard fragments of it repeated in his infancy before Mrs Wardlaw's copy was heard of.'
The question as to the authorship of Hardyknute was once more raised in 1794, when Sir Charles Halket, grandson of Mary, third daughter of Lady Wardlaw, wrote a letter to Dr Stenhouse of Dunfermline, containing the following passage: 'The late Mr Hepburn of Keith often declared he was in the house with Lady Wardlaw when she wrote Hardyknute.' He also gave the following particulars in a manuscript account of his family, as reported by George Chalmers (Life of Allan Ramsay, 1800): 'Miss Elizabeth Menzies, daughter of James Menzies, Esq., of Woodend, in Perthshire, by Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Henry Wardlaw [second baronet], wrote to Sir Charles Halket that her mother, who was sister-in-law to Lady Wardlaw, told her that Lady Wardlaw was the real authoress of Hardyknute; that Mary, the wife of Charles Wedderburn, Esq., of Gosford, told Miss Menzies that her mother, Lady Wardlaw, wrote Hardyknute. Sir Charles Halket and Miss Elizabeth Menzies concur in saying that Lady Wardlaw was a woman of elegant accomplishments, who wrote other poems, and practised drawing, and cutting paper with her scissors, and who had much wit and humour, with great sweetness of temper.'
In the middle of the last century appeared two editions of a brochure containing the now well-known ballad of Gil Morrice; the date of the second was 1755. Prefixed to both was an advertisement setting forth that the preservation of this poem was owing 'to a lady, who favoured the printers with a copy, as it was carefully collected from the mouths of old women and nurses;' and 'any reader that can render it more correct or complete,' was desired to oblige the public with such improvements. Percy adopted the poem into his collection, with four additional verses, which meanwhile had been 'produced and handed about in manuscript,' but which were in a florid style, glaringly incongruous with the rest of the piece. He at the same time mentioned that there existed, in his folio manuscript, (supposed) of Elizabeth's time, an imperfect copy of the same ballad, under the title of Child Maurice.
This early ballad of Child Maurice, which Mr Jamieson afterwards printed from Percy's manuscript, gives the same story of a gentleman killing, under jealousy, a young man, who proved to be a son of his wife by a former connection. But it is a poor, bald, imperfect composition, in comparison with Gil Morrice. It was evident to Percy that there had been a 'revisal' of the earlier poem, attended by 'considerable improvements.'
Now, by whom had this improving revisal been effected? Who was the 'lady' that favoured the printers with the copy? I strongly suspect that the reviser was Lady Wardlaw, and that the poem was communicated to the printers either by her or by some of her near relations. The style of many of the verses, and even some of the particular expressions, remind us strongly of Sir Patrick Spence; while other verses, again, are more in the stiff manner of Hardyknute. The poem opens thus:
What next follows is like Hardyknute:
When the boy goes in and pronounces the fatal message before Lord Barnard:
Compare this with the second verse of Sir Patrick Spence:
The messenger replies to the nurse:
Identical with Sir Patrick's answer to the taunt of the Norwegian lords:
When the youth has been slain by Lord Barnard, the lady explains that he was her son, and exclaims:
How nearly is this the same with the doleful complaint of the wounded knight in Hardyknute!
Lord Barnard pours out his contrition to his wife:
'Garred his body bleed' is a quaint and singular expression: it occurs in Hardyknute, and nowhere else:
Passages and phrases of one poem appear in another from various causes--plagiarism and imitation; and in traditionary lore, it is easy to understand how a number of phrases might be in general use, as part of a common stock. But the parallel passages above noted are confined to a particular group of ballads--they are not to such an extent beauties as to have been produced by either plagiarism or imitation; it is submitted that they thus appear by an overwhelmingly superior likelihood as the result of a common authorship in the various pieces.
Having so traced a probable common authorship, and that modern, from Hardyknute to Sir Patrick Spence, and from these two to the revised and improved edition of Gil Morrice, I was tempted to inquire if there be not others of the Scottish ballads liable to similar suspicion as to the antiquity of their origin? May not the conjectured author of these three have written several of the remainder of that group of compositions, so remarkable as they likewise are for their high literary qualities? Now, there is in Percy a number of Scottish ballads equally noteworthy for their beauty, and for the way in which they came to the hands of the editor. There is Edward, Edward, 'from a manuscript copy transmitted from Scotland;' the Jew's Daughter, 'from a manuscript copy sent from Scotland;' Gilderoy, 'from a written copy that appears to have received some modern corrections;' likewise, Young Waters, 'from a copy printed not long since at Glasgow, in one sheet octavo,' for the publication of which the world was 'indebted to Lady Jean Home, sister to the Earl of Home;' and Edom o' Gordon, which had been put by Sir David Dalrymple to Foulis's press in 1755, 'as it was preserved in the memory of a lady that is now dead'--Percy, however, having in this case improved the ballad by the addition of a few stanzas from a fragment in his folio manuscript. Regarding the Bonny Earl of Murray, the editor tells us nothing beyond calling it 'a Scottish song.' Of not one of these seven ballads, as published by Percy, has it ever been pretended that any ancient manuscript exists, or that there is any proof of their having had a being before the eighteenth century, beyond the rude and dissimilar prototypes (shall we call them?) which, in two instances, are found in the folio manuscript of Percy. No person was cited at first as having been accustomed to recite or sing them; and they have not been found familiar to the common people since. Their style is elegant, and free from coarsenesses, while yet exhibiting a large measure of the ballad simplicity. In all literary grace, they are as superior to the generality of the homely traditionary ballads of the rustic population, as the romances of Scott are superior to a set of chap-books. Indeed, it might not be very unreasonable to say that these ballads have done more to create a popularity for Percy's Reliques than all the other contents of the book. There is a community of character throughout all these poems, both as to forms of expression and style of thought and feeling--jealousy in husbands of high rank, maternal tenderness, tragic despair, are prominent in them, though not in them all. In several, there is the same kind of obscure and confused reference to known events in Scottish history, which editors have thought they saw in Sir Patrick Spence.
Let us take a cursory glance at these poems.
Young Waters is a tale of royal jealousy. It is here given entire.
Now, let the parallel passages be here observed. In verse second, the lady does exactly like the mother of Gil Morrice, of whom it is said:
Dale and down, let it be observed in passing, are words never used in Scotland; they are exotic English terms. The mantle of the hero in verse third recalls that of Gil Morrice, which was 'a' gowd but the hem'--a specialty, we may say, not likely to have occurred to a male mind. What the wily lord does in verse fifth is the exact counterpart of the account of the eldern knight in Sir Patrick Spence:
Observe the description of the king's jealous rage in Young Waters; how perfectly the same is that of the baron in Gil Morrice:
Even in so small a matter as the choice of rhymes, especially where there is any irregularity, it may be allowable to point out a parallelism. Is there not such between those in the verse descriptive of Young Waters's fettering, and those in the closing stanza of Sir Patrick Spence? It belongs to the idiosyncrasy of an author to make feet rhyme twice over to deep. Finally, let us observe how like the tone as well as words of the last lines of Young Waters to a certain verse in Hardyknute:
Percy surmised that Young Waters related to the fate of the Earl of Moray, slain by the Earl of Huntly in 1592, not without the concurrence, as was suspected, of the king, whose jealousy, it has been surmised, was excited against the young noble by indiscreet expressions of the queen. To the same subject obviously referred the ballad of the Bonny Earl of Murray, which consists, however, of but six stanzas, the last
of which is very like the second of Young Waters:
Edom o' Gordon is only a modern and improved version of an old ballad which Percy found in his folio manuscript under the name of Captain Adam Carre. It clearly relates to a frightful act of Adam Gordon of Auchindown, when he maintained Queen Mary's interest in the north in 1571--the burning of the house of Towie, with the lady and her family within it. All that can be surmised here is that the revision was the work of the same pen with the pieces here cited--as witness, for example, the opening stanzas:
In the Jew's Daughter there is much in the general style to remind us of others of this group of ballads; but there are scarcely any parallel expressions. One may be cited:
This must remind the reader of Sir Patrick Spence:
Gilderoy, in the version printed by Percy, is a ballad somewhat peculiar, in a rich dulcet style, and of very smooth versification, but is only an improved version of a rude popular ballad in the same measure, which was printed in several collections long before, [in a Collection of Old Ballads, printed for J. Roberts, London, 1723; also in Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius, 1733] and was probably a street-ditty called forth by the hanging of the real robber, Patrick Macgregor, commonly called Gilderoy, [the appellative, Gilderoy, means the ruddy-complexioned lad] in 1636. The concluding verses of the refined version recall the peculiar manner of the rest of these poems:
If any one will compare the Percy version of this ballad with the homely and indecorous ones printed before, he will not be the more disposed to go back to antiquity and a humble grade of authorship for what is best in the Scottish ballads. [Professor Aytoun says of this ballad, that 'it was adapted from the original by Sir Alexander Halket--at least, such was the general understanding until lately, when it became a mania with some literary antiquaries [a glance at the opinions of the present writer] to attribute the authorship of the great bulk of the Scottish ballads to Sir Alexander's sister, Lady Wardlaw, on the single ground that she was the composer of Hardyknute.' My learned friend is here very unlucky, for Lady Wardlaw had no brother, nor does any Sir Alexander Halket appear in her family history. This, however, is not all. It was a song to the tune of Gilderoy which was attributed to Sir Alexander Halket (Johnson's Scots Musical Museum)--namely, the well-known Ah, Chloris, which turns out to be a composition of Sir Charles Sedley, inserted by him in a play entitled the Mulberry Garden, which was acted in 1668.]
Edward, Edward, which Percy received from Sir David Dalrymple, and placed among his oldest pieces, in affectedly old spelling, is a striking melodramatic composition:
It seems unaccountable how any editor of Percy's discernment could ever have accepted this as old poetry. There is certainly none prior to 1700 which exhibits this kind of diction. Neither did any such poetry at any time proceed from a rustic uneducated mind.
When we continue our search beyond the bounds of Percy's Reliques, we readily find ballads passing as old, which are not unlike the above, either in regard to their general beauty, or special strains of thought and expression. There are five which seem peculiarly liable to suspicion on both grounds--namely, Johnie of Bradislee, Mary Hamilton, the Gay Gos-hawk, Fause Foodrage, and the Lass o' Lochryan.
In Johnie o' Bradislee, the hero is a young unlicensed huntsman, who goes out to the deer-forest against his mother's advice, and has a fatal encounter with seven foresters. Observe the description of the youth:
This is mercery of the eighteenth, and no earlier century. Both Gilderoy and Gil Morrice are decked out in a similar fashion; and we may fairly surmise that it was no man's mind which revelled so luxuriously in the description of these three specimens of masculine beauty, or which invested them in such elegant attire. Johnie kills the seven foresters, but receives a deadly hurt. He then speaks in the following strain:
The mother says in conclusion:
Now, first, is not the literary beauty of the above expressions of the young huntsman calculated to excite suspicion? It may be asked, is there anything in the older Scottish poets comparable to them? Second, how like is the verse regarding the starling to one in Gil Morrice!
Then, as to the last verse, how like to one in Young Waters!
Mary Hamilton describes the tragic fate of an attendant on Queen Mary, brought to the gallows for destroying her own infant. The reflections of the heroine at the last sad moment are expressed in the same rich strain of sentiment as some of the passages of other ballads already quoted, and with remarkable parallelisms in terms:
The Scottish ladies sit bewailing the loss of Sir Patrick Spence's companions, 'wi' the gowd kaims in their hair.' Sir Patrick tells his friends before starting on his voyage, 'Our ship must sail the faem;' and in the description of the consequences of his shipwreck, we find 'Mony was the feather-bed that flattered on the faem.' No old poet would use foam as an equivalent for the sea; but it was just such a phrase as a poet of the era of Pope would love to use in that sense. The first of the above verses is evidently a cast from the same mould of thought as Bradislee's mother's concluding lament, and Young Waters's last words just quoted. The resemblance is not of that kind which arises from the use of literary commonplaces or stock phrases: the expressions have that identity which betrays their common source in one mind, a mind having a great command of rich and simple pathos.
In the Gay Gos-hawk, a gentleman commissions the bird to go on a mission to his mistress, who is secluded from him among her relations, and tell her how he dies by long waiting for her; whereupon she returns an answer by the same messenger, to the effect that she will presently meet him at Mary's Kirk for the effecting of their nuptials. The opening of the poem is just a variation of Bradislee's apostrophe to his bird-messenger:
Hardyknute, Sir Patrick Spence, and Gil Morrice, all open, it will be recollected, with the sending away of a message. Here is a fourth instance, very like one artist's work, truly.
The lover describes his mistress in terms recalling Bradislee:
The bird arrives at the lady's abode:
Gil Morrice has:
The lady feigns death, after the device of Juliet:
Here we have the same style of luxurious description of which we have already seen so many examples--so different from the usually bald style of the real homely ballads of the people. It is, further, very remarkable that in Clerk Saunders it is seven brothers of the heroine who come in and detect her lover; and in the Douglas Tragedy, when the pair are eloping, Lord William spies his mistress's
Both of these ballads, indeed, shew a structure and a strain of description and sentiment justifying the strongest suspicions of their alleged antiquity, and pointing to the same source as the other pieces already noticed.
The ballad of Fause Foodrage, which Sir Walter Scott printed for the first time, describes a successful conspiracy by Foodrage and others against King Honour and his queen. The king being murdered, the queen is told, that if she brings forth a son, it will be put to death likewise; so she escapes, and, bringing a male child into the world, induces the lady of Wise William to take charge of it as her own, while she herself takes charge of the lady's daughter. The unfortunate queen then arranges a future conduct for both parties, in language violently figurative:
When the royal youth grows up, Wise William reveals to him his history, and how his mother is still in confinement in Foodrage's hands. 'The boy stared wild like a gray gos-hawk' at hearing the strange intelligence, but soon resolves on a course of action:
The slaying of Foodrage and marriage of the turtle-dow wind up the ballad. Now, is not the adoption of the term, 'gay gos-hawk' in this ballad, calculated to excite a very strong suspicion as to a community of authorship with the other, in which a gay gos-hawk figures so prominently? But this is not all. 'The boy stared wild like a gray gos-hawk,' is nearly identical with a line of Hardyknute:
Scott was roused by this parallelism into suspicion of the authenticity of the ballad, and only tranquillised by finding a lady of rank who remembered hearing in her infancy the verses which have here been quoted. He felt compelled, he tells us, 'to believe that the author of Hardyknute copied from the old ballad, if the coincidence be not altogether accidental.' Finally, the young prince's procedure in storming the castle, is precisely that of Gil Morrice in gaining access to that of Lord Barnard:
It may fairly be said that, in ordinary literature, coincidences like this are never 'accidental.' It may be observed, much of the narration in Fause Foodrage is in a stiff and somewhat hard style, recalling Hardyknute. It was probably one of the earlier compositions of its author.
The Lass o' Lochryan describes the hapless voyage of a maiden mother in search of her love Gregory. In the particulars of sea-faring and the description of the vessel, Sir Patrick Spence is strongly recalled.
Let the reader revert to the description of the bier prepared for the seeming dead lady in the Gay Gos-hawk.
The reader will remark in Sir Patrick:
The rover asks:
[The above three verses are in the version printed in Lawrie and Symington's collection, 1791.]
The queen's Maries are also introduced in Mary Hamilton, who, indeed, is represented as one of them:
On arriving at love Gregory's castle, beside the sea, the lady calls:
He being in a dead sleep, his mother answers for him, and turns fromthe door the forlorn applicant, who then exclaims:
Gregory then awakes:
The resemblance of these verses to several of the preceding ballads, 11 and particularly to Sir Patrick Spence, and their superiority in delicacy of feeling and in diction to all ordinary ballad poetry, is very striking. It chances that there is here, as in Sir Patrick, one word peculiarly detective--namely, strand, as meaning the shore. In the Scottish language, strand means a rivulet, or a street-gutter--never the margin of the sea.
[A passage in Hardyknute maybe quoted as bearing a marked resemblance to one of the above verses:
There is a considerable number of other ballads which are scarcely less liable to suspicion as modern compositions, and which are all marked more or less by the peculiarities seen in the above group. Several of them are based, like the one just noticed, on irregular love, which they commonly treat with little reproach, and usually with a romantic tenderness. Willie and May Margaret 12 describes a young lover crossing the Clyde in a flood to see his mistress, and as denied access by her mother in a feigned voice, after which he is drowned in recrossing the river; the ballad being thus a kind of counterpart of the Lass of Lochryan. In Young Huntin, otherwise called Earl Richard, the hero is killed in his mistress's bower through jealousy, and we have then a verse of wonderful power--such as no rustic and unlettered bard ever wrote, or ever will write:
One called Fair Annie relates how a mistress won upon her lover, and finally gained him as a husband, by patience, under the trial of seeing a new bride brought home. [A ballad named Burd Ellen, resembling Fair Annie in the general cast of the story, is a Scottish modification of the ballad of Child Waters, published by Percy, from his folio manuscript, 'with some corrections.' It probably came through the same mill as Gil Morrice, though with less change--a conjecture rendered the more probable, for reasons to be seen afterwards, from its having been obtained by Mr Jamieson from Mrs Brown of Falkland.] In the latter, the behaviour of the patient mistress is thus described:
The expression, the wan water, occurs in several of this group of ballads. Thus, in Johnie of Bradislee:
And in the Douglas Tragedy:
See further in Young Huntin:
The circumstance is very suspicious, for we find this phrase in no other ballads.
In Clerk Saunders, the hero is slain in his mistress's bower, by the rage of one of her seven brothers, whose act is described in precisely the same terms as the slaughter of Gil Morrice by the bold baron:
Sweet William's Ghost, a fine superstitious ballad, first published in Ramsay's Tea-table Miscellany, 1724, is important as the earliest printed of all the Scottish ballads after the admittedly modern Hardyknute:
So far, the ballad appears as composed in the style of those already noticed--a style at once simple and poetical--neither shewing the rudeness of the common peasant's ballad, nor the formal refinement of the modern English poet. But next follow two stanzas, which manifestly have been patched on by some contemporary of Ramsay:
No such conclusion, perhaps, was needed, for it may be suspected that the verse here printed sixth is the true finale of the story, accidentally transferred from its proper place.
There is a slight affinity between the above and a ballad entitled Tam Lane, to which Scott drew special attention in his Border Minstrelsy, by making it a peg for eighty pages of prose dissertation On the Fairies of Popular Superstition. It describes a lover as lost to his mistress, by being reft away into fairy-land, and as recovered by an effort of courage and presence of mind on her part. It opens thus:
It may be remarked how often before we have seen maidens described as wearing gold in their hair. One maiden defies the prohibition:
This, it will be observed, is all but the very same description applied to Margaret in the preceding ballad. The narrative goes on:
Remember Sir Patrick's voyage:
Let it also here be noted that the eldern knight in that ballad sits 'at the king's knee,' and the nurse in Gil Morrice is not very necessarily described as having 'the bairn upon her knee.' Why the knee on these occasions, if not a habitual idea of one poet? 16
The consequences of the visit having been fatal to Lady Janet's health and peace, she goes back to see her elfin lover, Tam Lane, who instructs her how to recover him from his bondage to the queen of fairy-land.
Compare the first two of these stanzas with the queries put by the gay gos-hawk to his master:
As to the latter three stanzas, they exhibit a formula of description, which appears in several of the suspected ballads, consisting of a series of nearly identical statements, apparently for the sake of amplitude. For example, the progress of the seeming funeral of the lady in the Gay Gos-hawk:
Or the following, in Sweet Willie and Fair Annie, which is almost the same incident and relation of circumstances as the said seeming funeral; only the lady in this case is dead:
In Scott's version of Tam Lane there are some stanzas of so modern a cast as to prove that this poem has been at least tampered with. For example, the account of fairy life:
Without regard, however, to such manifest patches, the general structure and style of expression must be admitted to strongly recall the other ballads which have been already commented on.
Only a wish to keep this dissertation within moderate bounds forbids me to analyse a few other ballads, as the Douglas Tragedy, Sweet Willie and Fair Annie, Lady Maiery, the Clerk's Two Sons of Owsenford, and a Scotch Heir of Linne lately recovered by Mr J. H. Dixon, all of which, besides others which must rest unnamed, bear traces of the same authorship with the ballads already brought under notice.
It is now to be remarked of the ballads published by the successors of Percy, as of those which he published, that there is not a particle of positive evidence for their having existed before the eighteenth century. Overlooking the one given by Ramsay in his Tea-table Miscellany, we have neither print nor manuscript of them before the reign of George III. They are not in the style of old literature. They contain no references to old literature. As little does old literature contain any references to them. They wholly escaped the collecting diligence of Bannatyne. James Watson, who published a collection of Scottish poetry in 1706-1711, wholly overlooks them. Ramsay, as we see, caught up only one. Even Herd, in 1769, only gathered a few fragments of some of these poems. It was reserved for Sir Walter Scott and Robert Jamieson, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to obtain copies of the great bulk of these poems--that is, the ballads over and above the few published by Percy--from A LADY--a certain 'Mrs Brown of Falkland,' who seems to have been the wife of the Rev. Andrew Brown, minister of that parish in Fife--is known to have been the daughter of Professor Thomas Gordon, of King's College, Aberdeen--and is stated to have derived her stores of legendary lore from the memory of her aunt, a Mrs Farquhar, the wife of a small proprietor in Braemar, who had spent the best part of her life among flocks and herds, but lived latterly in Aberdeen. At the suggestion of Mr William Tytler, a son of Mrs Brown wrote down a parcel of the ballads which her aunt had heard in her youth from the recitation of nurses and old women. [Minstrelsy Scot. Border, I. c vi.] Such were the external circumstances, none of them giving the least support to the assumed antiquity of the pieces, but rather exciting some suspicion to the contrary effect.
When we come to consider the internal evidence, what do we find? We find that these poems, in common with those published by Percy, are composed in a style of romantic beauty and elevation distinguishing them from all other remains of Scottish traditionary poetry. They are quite unlike the palpably old historical ballads, such as the Battle of Otterbourne and the Raid of the Reidswire. They are unlike the Border ballads, such as Dick o' the Cow, and Jock o' the Syde, commemorating domestic events of the latter part of the sixteenth century. They are strikingly unlike the Burning of Frendraught, the Bonny House o' Airly, and the Battle of Bothwell Bridge, contemporaneous metrical chronicles of events of the seventeenth century. Not less different are they from a large mass of ballads, which have latterly been published by Mr Peter Buchan and others, involving romantic incidents, it is true, or eccentricities in private life, but in such rude and homely strains as speak strongly of a plebeian origin. In the ballads here brought under question, the characters are usually persons of condition, generally richly dressed, often well mounted, and of a dignified bearing towards all inferior people. The page, the nurse, the waiting-woman, the hound, the hawk, and other animals connected with the pageantry of high life, are prominently introduced. Yet the characters and incidents are alike relieved from all clear connection with any particular age: they may be said to form a world of their own, of no particular era, wherein the imagination of the reader may revel, as that of the author has done. It may be allowably said, there is a tone of breeding throughout these ballads, such as is never found in the productions of rustic genius. One marked feature--the pathos of deep female affections--the sacrifice and the suffering which these so often involve--runs through nearly the whole. References to religion and religious ceremonies and fanes are of the slightest kind. We hear of bells being rung and mass sung, but only to indicate a time of day. Had they been old ballads continually changing in diction and in thought, as passed down from one reciter to another, they could not have failed to involve some considerable trace of the intensely earnest religious life of the seventeenth century; but not the slightest tincture of this enthusiastic feeling appears in them, a defect the more marked, as they contain abundant allusion to the superstitions which survived into the succeeding time of religious indifference, and indeed some of their best effects rest in a dexterous treatment of these weird ideas. There is but one exception to what has been observed on the obscurity of the epoch pointed to for the incidents--the dresses, properties, and decorations, are sometimes of a modern cast. The writer--if we may be allowed to speculate on a single writer--seems to have been unable to resist an inclination to indulge in description of the external furnishings of the heroes and heroines, or rather, perhaps, has been desirous of making out effect from these particulars; but the finery of the court of Charles II. is the furthest point reached in the retrospect--although, I must admit, this is in general treated with a vagueness that helps much to conceal the want of learning.
Another point of great importance in the matter of internal evidence, is the isolatedness of these ballads in respect of English traditionary literature. The Scottish muse has not always gone hand in hand with the English in point of time, but she has done so in all other respects. Any literature we had from the beginning of the seventeenth century downwards, was always sensibly tinged by what had immediately before been in vogue in the south. Nor is it easy to see how a people occupying part of the same island, and speaking essentially the same language, should have avoided this communion of literary taste; but the ballads in question are wholly unlike any English ballads. Look over Percy, Evans, or Mr Collier's suite of Roxburghe Ballads, giving those which were popular in London during the seventeenth century, and you find not a trace of the style and manner of these Scottish romantic ballads. Neither, it would appear, had one of them found its way into popularity in England before the time of Percy; for, had it been otherwise, he would have found them either in print or in the mouths of the people. [Robert Jamieson found in the Koempe Viser, a Danish collection of ballads published in 1695, one resembling the Scottish ballad of Fair Annie (otherwise called Lady Jane), and on this ground he became convinced that many of our traditionary ballads were of prodigious antiquity, though they had been intermediately subjected to many alterations. Mr Jamieson's belief seems remarkably ill supported, and as it has never obtained any adherents among Scottish ballad editors, I feel entitled to pass it over with but this slight notice.]
Upon all of these considerations, I have arrived at the conclusion, that the high-class romantic ballads of Scotland are not ancient compositions--are not older than the early part of the eighteenth century--and are mainly, if not wholly, the production of one mind.
Whose was this mind, is a different question, on which no such confident decision may for the present be arrived at; but I have no hesitation in saying that, from the internal resemblances traced on from Hardyknute through Sir Patrick Spence and Gil Morrice to the others, there seems to me a great likelihood that the whole were the composition of the authoress of that poem--namely, Elizabeth Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie.
It may be demanded that something should be done to verify, or at least support, the allegation here made as to the peculiar literary character of the suspected ballads. This is, of course, a point to be best made out by a perusal of the entire body of this class of compositions, and scarcely by any other means. Still, it is a difference so striking, that even to present one typical ballad of true rustic origin, could not fail to make a considerable impression on the reader, after he has read specimens of those which are here attributed to a higher source. Be it observed, when an uneducated person speaks of knights, lords, and kings, or of dames and damosels, he reduces all to one homely level. He indulges in no diplomatic periphrases. It is simply, the king said this, and the lord said that--this thing was done, and that thing was done--the catastrophe or dťnouement comes by a single stroke. This we find in the true stall-ballads. A vulgar, prosaic, and drawling character pervades the whole class, with few exceptions--a fact which ought to give no surprise, for does not all experience shew, that literature of any kind, to have effect, requires for its production a mind of some cultivation, and really good verse flowing from an uninstructed source is what never was, is not now, and never will be? With these remarks, I usher in a typical ballad of the common class--one taken down many years ago from the singing of an old man in the south of Scotland:
Here is love, and here is innocence in difficulties--two things of high moral interest; yet how homely is the whole narration; how unlike the strains of the ballads which have been passed before the reader's view! And be it observed, the theory as to our ballads is, that they have been transmitted from old time, undergoing modifications from the minds of nurses, and other humble reciters, as they came along. If so, they ought to have presented the same plebeian strain of ideas and phraseology as James Hatelie; but we see they do not: they are, on the contrary, remarkably poetical, pure, and dignified.
Here I may, once for all, in opposition to Professor Aytoun and others, express my belief that the ballads in question are for the most part printed nearly, and, in some instances, entirely, in the condition in which they were left by the author. In Edward, I question if a line has been corrupted or a word altered. Sir Patrick Spence and Gilderoy are both so rounded and complete, so free, moreover, from all vulgar terms, that I feel nearly equally confident about them. All those which Percy obtained in manuscripts from Scotland, are neat finished compositions, as much so as any ballad of Tickell or Shenstone. Those from Mrs Brown's manuscript have also an author's finish clearly impressed on them. It is a mere assumption that they have been sent down, with large modifications, from old times. Had it been true, the ballads would have been full of vulgarisms, as we find to be the condition of certain of them which Peter Buchan picked up among the common people, after (shall we say) seventy or eighty years of traditionary handling. Now, no such depravation appears in the versions printed by Percy, Scott, and Jamieson.
It may be objected to the arguments founded on the great number of parallel passages, that these are but the stock phraseology of all ballad-mongers, and form no just proof of unity of authorship. If this were true, it might be an objection of some force; but it is not true. The formulś in question are to be found hardly at all in any of the rustic or homely ballads. They are not to be found in any ballads which there is good reason to believe so old as the early part of the seventeenth century. They are to be found in no ballads which may even doubtfully be affiliated to England. All this, of course, can only be fully ascertained by a careful perusal of some large collection of ballads. Yet, even in such a case, a few examples may be viewed with interest, and not unprofitably. Of the plebeian ballads, a specimen has just been adduced. Let us proceed, then, to exemplify the ballads of the seventeenth century. First, take Fair Margaret and Sweet William, which Percy brought forward from a stall copy as, apparently, the ballad quoted in Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle; though subjected to some alteration during the intermediate century and a half. It is as follows:
Here, it will be observed, beyond the expression, 'my merry-men all,' there is no trace of the phraseology so marked in the group of ballads under our notice. Take, also, a ballad which, from the occurrences referred to, may be considered as antecedent to the epoch of Hardyknute, and we shall observe an equal, if not more complete, absence of the phraseology and manner of this class of ballads. It relates to a tragic love-story of 1631, as ascertained from the grave-stone of the heroine in the kirk-yard of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire:
Let me repeat my acknowledgment that, while these extracts occupy more space than can well be spared, they form an imperfect means of establishing the negative evidence required in the case. But let the reader peruse the ballads of Buchan's collection known to relate to incidents of the seventeenth century, and he will find that they are all alike free from the favourite expressions of the unknown, or dimly known ballad-writer in question.
Let it never be objected that, if any one person living in the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. had composed so many fine poems, he or she could not have remained till now all but unknown. In the first half of the present century, there appeared in Scotland a series of fugitive pieces--songs--which attained a great popularity, without their being traced to any author. Every reader will remember The Land of the Leal, Caller Herring, The Laird o' Cockpen, The Auld House, and He's ower the Hills that I lo'e weel. It was not till after many years of fame that these pieces were found to be the production of a lady of rank, Carolina Baroness Nairn, who had passed through a life of seventy-nine years without being known as a song-writer to more than one person. It was the fate of this songstress to live in days when there was an interest felt in such authorships, insuring that she should sooner or later become known; but, had she lived a hundred years earlier, she might have died and left no sign, as I conjecture to have been the case with the author of this fine group of ballads; and future Burnses might have pondered over her productions, with endless regret that the names of their authors were 'buried among the wreck of things that were.'
If there be any truth or force in this speculation, I shall be permitted to indulge in the idea that a person lived a hundred years before Scott, who, with his feeling for Scottish history, and the features of the past generally, constructed out of these materials a similar romantic literature. In short, Scotland appears to have had a Scott a hundred years before the actual person so named. And we may well believe that if we had not had the first, we either should not have had the second, or he would have been something considerably different, for, beyond question, Sir Walter's genius was fed and nurtured on the ballad literature of his native country. From his Old Mortality and Waverley, back to his Lady of the Lake and Marmion; from these to his Lay of the Last Minstrel; from that to his Eve of St John and Glenfinlas; and from these, again, to the ballads which he collected, mainly the produce (as I surmise) of an individual precursor, is a series of steps easily traced, and which no one will dispute. Much significance there is, indeed, in his own statement, that Hardyknute was the first poem he ever learned, and the last he should forget. Its author--if my suspicion be correct--was his literary foster-mother, and we probably owe the direction of his genius, and all its fascinating results, primarily to her.
1 A Scotticism, plural of corp, a body.
2 Permit no robbers, &c.
4 Variation in Scott:
5 Variation in Scott:
6 Variation in Scott:
7 It is rather remarkable that Percy was not informed of these particulars in 1765; but in 1767--Sir John Hope Bruce having died in the interval (June 1766)--they were communicated to him. It looks as if the secret had hung on the life of this venerable gentleman.
8 Young Waters opens in the same manner:
9 We have seen the same description in both Young Waters and the Bonny Earl of Murray.
10 Compare this with Sir Patrick Spence:
11 A passage in Hardyknute maybe quoted as bearing a marked resemblance to one of the above verses:
12 Called, in Professor Aytoun's collection, The Mother's Malison; and in Mr Buchan's, The Drowned Lovers.
To kiss cheek and chin in succession is very peculiar; and it is by such peculiar ideas that identity of authorship is indicated.
15 That is, so exactly measured.
16 In Childe Maurice, in Percy's folio manuscript, the hero says:
The author of Sir Patrick Spence, and the other ballads in question, might have known this version, and from it caught this expression.
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