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Tales from Scottish Ballads

The following is from Tales from Scottish Ballads by Elizabeth W. Grierson:

Sir Patrick Spens

"The king sits in Dunfermline town,
  Drinking the blude-red wine;
'O whare will I get a skeely skipper,
  To sail this new ship o' mine?'

*       *       *       *       *

Half owre, half owre to Aberdour,
  'Tis fifty fathoms deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
  Wi' the Scots lords at his feet."

Now hearken to me, all ye who love old stories, and I will tell you how one of the bravest and most gallant of Scottish seamen came by his death.

'Tis the story of an event which brought mourning and dule to many a fair lady's heart, in the far-off days of long ago.

Now all the world knows that his Majesty, King Alexander the Third, who afterwards came by his death on the rocks at Kinghorn, had one only daughter, named Margaret, after her ancestress, the wife of Malcolm Canmore, whose life was so holy, and her example so blessed, that, to this day, men call her Saint Margaret of Scotland.

King Alexander had had much trouble in his life, for he had already buried his wife, and his youngest son David, and 'twas no wonder that, as he sat in the great hall of his Palace at Dunfermline, close to the Abbey Church, where he loved best to hold his Court, that his heart was sore at the thought of parting with his motherless daughter.

She had lately been betrothed to Eric, the young King of Norway, and it was now full time that she went to her new home. So a stately ship had been prepared to convey her across the sea; the amount of her dowry had been settled; her attendants chosen; and it only remained to appoint a captain to the charge of the vessel.

But here King Alexander was at a loss. It was now past midsummer, and in autumn the Northern Sea was wont to be wild and stormy, and on the skilful steering of the Royal bark many precious lives depended.

He thought first of one man skilled in the art of seamanship, and then he thought of another, and at last he turned in his perplexity to his nobles who were sitting around him.

"Canst tell me," he said, fingering a glass of red French wine as he spoke, "of a man well skilled in the knowledge of winds and tides, yet of gentle birth withal, who can be trusted to pilot this goodly ship of mine, with her precious burden, safely over the sea to Norway?"

The nobles looked at one another in silence for a moment, and then one of them, an old gray-haired baron, rose from his seat by Alexander's side.

"Scotland lacks not seamen, both gentle and simple, my Liege," he said, "who could be trusted with this precious charge. But there is one man of my acquaintance, who, above all others, is worthy of such a trust. I speak of young Sir Patrick Spens, who lives not far from here. Not so many years have passed over his head, but from a boy he has loved the sea, and already he knows more about it, and its moods, than white-haired men who have sailed on it all their lives. 'Tis his bride, he says, an' I trow he speaks the truth, for, although he is as fair a gallant as ever the eye of lady rested on, and although many tender hearts, both within the Court, and without, beat a quicker measure when his name is spoken, he is as yet free of love fancies, and aye bides true to this changeful mistress of his. Truly he may well count it an honour to have the keeping of so fair a flower entrusted to him."

"Now bring me paper and pen," cried the King, "and I will write to him this instant with mine own hand."

Slowly and laboriously King Alexander penned the lines, for in these days kings were readier with the sword than with the pen; then, folding the letter and sealing it with the great signet ring which he wore on the third finger of his right hand, he gave it to the old baron, and commanded him to seek Sir Patrick Spens without loss of time.

Now Sir Patrick dwelt near the sea, and when the baron arrived he found him pacing up and down on the hard white sand by the sea-shore, watching the waves, and studying the course of the tides. He was quite a young man, and 'twas little wonder if the story which the old baron had told was true, and if all the ladies' hearts in Fife ached for love of him, for I trow never did goodlier youth walk the earth, and men said of him that he was as gentle and courteous as he was handsome.

At first when he began to read the King's letter, his face flushed with pride, for who would not have felt proud to be chosen before all others in Scotland, to be the captain of the King's Royal bark? But the smile passed away almost as soon as it appeared, and a look of great sadness took its place. In silence he gazed out over the sea. Did something warn him at that moment that this would prove his last voyage;--that never again would he set foot in his beloved land?

It may be so; who can tell? Certain it is--the old baron recalled it to his mind in the sad days that were to come--that, when the young sailor handed back the King's letter to him, his eyes were full of tears.

"'Tis certainly a great honour," he said, "and I thank his Majesty for granting it to me, but methinks it was no one who loved my life, or the lives of those who sail with me, who suggested our setting out for Norway at this time of year."

Then, anxious lest the baron thought that he said this out of fear, or cowardice, he changed his tone, and hurried him up to his house to partake of some refreshment after his ride, while he gave orders to his seamen to get everything ready.

"Make haste, my men," he shouted in a cheerful, lusty voice, "for a great honour hath fallen to our lot. His Majesty hath deigned to entrust to us his much loved daughter, the Princess Margaret, that we may convey her, in the stately ship which he hath prepared, to her husband's court in Norway. Wherefore, let every man look to himself, and let him meet me at Aberdour, where the ship lies, on Sunday by nightfall, for we sail next day with the tide."

So on the Monday morning early, ere it struck eight of the clock, a great procession wound down from the King's Palace at Dunfermline to the little landing-stage at Aberdour, where the stately ship was lying, with her white sails set, like a gigantic swan.

Between the King and his son, the Prince of Scotland, rode the Princess Margaret, her eyes red with weeping, for in those days it was no light thing to set out for another land, and she felt that the parting might be for ever. And so, in good sooth, it proved to be, in this world at least, for before many years had passed all three were in their graves; but that belongs not to my tale.

Next rode the high and mighty persons who were to accompany the Princess to her husband's land, and be witnesses of the fulfilment of the marriage contract. These were their Graces the Earl and Countess of Menteith, his Reverence the Abbot of Balmerino, the good Lord Bernard of Monte-Alto, and many others, including a crowd of young nobles, five and fifty in all, who had been asked to swell the Princess's retinue, and who were only too glad to have a chance of getting a glimpse of other lands.

Next came a long train of sumpter mules, with the Princess's baggage, and that of her attendants. And last of all, guarded well by men-at-arms, came the huge iron-bound chests which contained her dowry: seven thousand merks in good white money; and there were other seven thousand merks laid out for her in land in Scotland.

Sir Patrick Spens was waiting to receive the Princess on board the ship. Right courteously, I ween, he handed her to her cabin, and saw that my Lady of Menteith, in whose special care she was, was well lodged also, as befitted her rank and station. But I trow that his lip curled with scorn when he saw that the five and fifty young nobles had provided themselves with five and fifty feather beds to sleep on.

He himself was a hardy man, as a sailor ought to be, and he loved not to see men so careful of their comfort.

At last the baggage, and the dowry, and even the feather beds were stowed away; and the last farewells having been said, the great ship weighed anchor, and sailed slowly out of the Firth of Forth.

Ah me, how many eyes there were, which watched it sail away, with husband, or brother, or sweetheart on board, which would wait in vain for many a long day for its return!

Sir Patrick made a good voyage. The sea was calm, the wind was in his favour, and by the evening of the third day he brought his ship with her precious burden safe to the shores of Norway.

"Now the Saints be praised," he said to himself as he cast anchor, "for the Princess is safe, let happen what may on our return voyage."

In great state, and with much magnificence, Margaret of Scotland was wedded to Eric of Norway, and great feasting and merry-making marked the event. For a whole month the rejoicing went on. The Norwegian nobles vied with each other who could pay most attention to the Scottish strangers. From morning to night their halls rang with music, and gaiety, and dancing. No wonder that the young nobles;--nay, no wonder that even Sir Patrick Spens himself, careful seaman though he was, forgot to think of the homeward journey, or to remember how soon the storms of winter would be upon them.

In good sooth they might have remained where they were till the spring, and then this tale need never have been told, had not a thoughtless taunt touched their Scottish pride to the quick.

The people of Norway are a frugal race, and to the older nobles all this feasting and junketing seemed like wild, needless extravagance.

"Our young men have gone mad," they said to each other; "if this goes on, the country will be ruined. 'Tis those strangers who have done it. It would be a good day for Norway if they would bethink themselves, and sail for home."

That very night there was a great banquet, an' I warrant that there was dire confusion in the hall when a fierce old noble of Royal blood, an uncle of the King, spoke aloud to Sir Patrick Spens in the hearing of all the company.

"Now little good will the young Queen's dowry do either to our King or to our country," he said, "if it has all to be eaten up, feasting a crowd of idle youngsters who ought to be at home attending to their own business."

Sir Patrick turned red, and then he turned white. What the old man said was very untrue; and he knew it. For, besides the young Queen's dowry, a large sum of money had been taken over in the ship, to pay for the expenses of her attendants, and of the nobles in her train.

"'Tis false. Ye lie," he said bluntly; "for I wot I brought as much white money with me as would more than pay for all that hath been spent on our behalf. If these be the ways of Norway, then beshrew me, but I like them not."

With these words he turned and left the hall followed by all the Scottish nobles. Without speaking a word to any of them, he strode down to the harbour, where his ship was lying, and ordered the sailors to begin to make ready at once, for he would sail for home in the morning.

The night was cold and dreary; there was plainly a storm brewing. It was safe and snug in the harbour, and the sailors were loth to face the dangers of the voyage. But their captain looked so pale and stern, that everyone feared to speak.

"Master," said an old man at last--he was the oldest man on board, and had seen nigh seventy years--"I have never refused to do thy bidding, and I will not begin to-night. We will go, if go we must; but, if it be so, then may God's mercy rest on us. For late yestreen I saw the old moon in the sky, and she was nursing the new moon in her arms. It needs not me to tell thee, for thou art as weather-wise as I am, what that sign bodes."

"Say ye so?" said Sir Patrick, startled in spite of his anger; "then, by my troth, we may prepare for a storm. But tide what may, come snow or sleet, come cold or wet, we head for Scotland in the morning."

So the stately ship set her sails once more, and for a time all went well. But when they had sailed for nigh three days, and were thinking that they must be near Scotland, the sky grew black and the wind arose, and all signs pointed to a coming storm.

Sir Patrick took the helm himself, and did his best to steer the ship through the tempest which soon broke over them, and which grew worse and worse every moment. The sailors worked with a will at the ropes, and even the foolish young nobles, awed by the danger which threatened them, offered their assistance. But they were of little use, and certs, one would have laughed to have seen them, had the peril not been so great, with their fine satin cloaks wrapped round them, and carrying their feathered hats under their arms, trying to step daintily across the deck, between the rushes of the water, in order that they might not wet their tiny, cork-heeled, pointed-toed shoes.

Alack, alack, neither feathered hats, nor pointed shoon, availed to save them! Darker and darker grew the sea, and every moment the huge waves threatened to engulf the goodly vessel.

Sir Patrick Spens had sailed on many a stormy sea, but never in his life had he faced a tempest like this. He knew that he and all his gallant company were doomed men unless the land were near. That was their only hope, to find some harbour and run into it for shelter.

Soon the huge waves were breaking over the deck, and the bulwarks began to give way. Truly their case was desperate, and even the gay young nobles grew grave, and many hearts were turned towards the homes which they would never see again.

"Send me a man to take the helm," shouted Sir Patrick hoarsely, "while I climb to the top of the mast, and try if I can see land."

Instantly the old sailor who had warned him of the coming storm, the night before, was at his side.

"I will guide the ship, captain," he said, "if thou art bent on going aloft; but I fear me thou wilt see no land. Sailors who are out on their last voyage need not look for port."

Now Sir Patrick was a brave man, and he meant to fight for life; so he climbed up to the mast head, and clung on there, despite the driving spray and roaring wind, which were like to drive him from his foothold. In vain he peered through the darkness, looking to the right hand and to the left; there was no land to be seen, nothing but the great green waves, crested with foam, which came springing up like angry wolves, eager to swallow the gallant ship and her luckless crew.

Suddenly his cheek grew pale, and his eyes dark with fear. "We are dead men now," he muttered; for, not many feet below him, seated on the crest of a massive wave, he saw the form of a beautiful woman, with a cruel face and long fair hair, which floated like a veil on the top of the water. 'Twas a mermaid, and he knew what the sight portended.

She held up a silver bowl to him, with a little mocking laugh on her lips. "Sail on, sail on, my guid Scots lords," she cried, and her sweet, false voice rose clear and shrill above the tumult of the waves, "for I warrant ye'll soon touch dry land."

"We may touch the land, but 'twill be the land that lies fathoms deep below the sea," replied Sir Patrick grimly, and then the weird creature laughed again, and floated away in the darkness.

When she had passed Sir Patrick glanced down at the deck, and the sight that met him there only deepened his gloom.

Worn with the beating of the waves, a bolt had sprung in the good ship's side, and a plank had given way, and the cruel green water was pouring in through the hole.

Verily, they were facing death itself now; yet the strong man's heart did not quail.

He had quailed at the sight of the mermaid's mocking eyes, but he looked on the face of death calmly, as befitted a brave and a good man. Perhaps the thought came to him, as it came to another famous seaman long years afterwards, that heaven is as near by sea as by land, and in the thought there was great comfort.

There was but one more thing to be done; after that they were helpless.

"Now, my good Scots lords," he cried, and I trow a look of amusement played round his lips even at that solemn hour, "now is the time for those featherbeds of thine. There are five and fifty of them; odds take it, if they be not enough to stop up one little hole."

At the words the poor young nobles set to work right manfully, forgetting in their fear, that their white hands were bruised and bleeding, and their dainty clothes all wet with sea-water.

Alack! alack! ere half the work was done, the good ship shivered from bow to stern, and went slowly down under the waves; and Sir Patrick Spens and his whole company met death, as, in their turn, all men must meet him, and passed to where he had no more power over them.

So there, under the waters of the gray Northern Sea he rested, lying in state, as it were, with the Scottish lords and his own faithful sailors round him; while there was dule and woe throughout the length and breadth of Scotland, and fair women wept as they looked in vain for the husbands, and the brothers, and the lovers who would return to them no more.

And, while the long centuries come and go, he is resting there still, with the Scots lords and his faithful sailors by him, waiting for a Day, whose coming may be long, but whose coming will be sure, when the sea shall give up its dead.

Young Bekie

Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2019