'She 's wrapped her mantle about her head, All alone, and alonie O! She 's gone to do a fearful deed Down by the greenwood bonnie O!'
The crime and shame are hid; but peace does not come to her:
'The lady looked o'er her high castle wa', All alone and alonie O! She saw twa bonnie bairnies play at the ba' Down by yon greenwood bonnie O!
The mother's yearning awakens within her, and she promises them all manner of gifts if they will only be hers. But the voices of the ghost-children rise and pronounce judgment on her:
'O cruel mither, when we were thine, All alone and alonie O! From us ye did our young lives twine, Doon by yon greenwood bonnie O.'
Elsewhere in these old rhymes may be traced a superstitious belief, which was put in practice as a means of discovering guilt, at least as late as the middle of the seventeenth century—that of the Ordeal by Touch. In Young Benjie another test is applied to find the murderer; and at midnight the door of the death-chamber is set ajar, so that the wandering spirit may enter and reanimate for an hour the 'streikit corpse':
'About the middle of the night The cocks began to craw; And at the dead hour o' the night, The corpse began to thraw.'
It sat up; and with its dead lips told the waiting brethren on whose head justice, tempered with a strange streak of mercy, should fall for the foul slaughter of their 'ae sister':
'Ye maunna Benjie head, brothers, Ye maunna Benjie hang, But ye maun pyke oot his twa grey een Before ye let him gang.'
In Proud Lady Margaret, again, we have a form of the legend, told in many lands, and made familiar, in a milder form, by the classical German ballad of The Lady of the Kynast, of a haughty and cruel dame whose riddles are answered and whose heart is at length won by a stranger knight. She would fain ride home with him, but he answers her that he is her brother Willie, come from the other side of death to 'humble her haughty heart has gart sae mony dee':
'The wee worms are my bedfellows And cauld clay is my sheets';
and there is no room in his narrow house for other company. Out of the Dark Country, too, on a similar errand, on Hallowe'en night, rides the betrayed and slain knight in Child Rowland, the first line of which, preserved in King Lear as it was known in Shakespeare's day, seems to strike a keynote of ballad romance:
'Child Rowland to the dark tower came,'
mumbles the feigned madman in the ear of the poor wronged king as they tread the waste heath. And the sequel, as it has come down to us, sustains and strengthens the spell of the opening:
'And he tirled at the pin; And wha sae ready as his fause love, To rise and let him in.'
The passages that describe the haunted ride in the moonlight, when the lady has fled from the scene of her treachery and guilt, are not surpassed in weird imaginative power, if they are equalled, by anything in ballad or other literature:
'She hadna ridden a mile, a mile, Never a mile but ane, When she was 'ware o' a tall young man Riding slowly o'er the plain. She turned her to the right about, And to the left turned she; But aye 'tween her and the wan moonlight That tall knight did she see.'
She set whip and spur to her steed, but 'nae nearer could she get'; she appealed to him, as from a 'saikless,' or guiltless, maid to 'a leal true knight,' to draw his bridle-rein until she can come up with him:
'But nothing did that tall knight say, And nothing did he blin; Still slowly rade he on before, And fast she rade behind,'
until he drew rein at a broad river-side. Then he spoke:
'"This water it is deep," he said, "As it is wondrous dun; But it is sic as a saikless maid, And a leal true knight can swim."'
They plunged in together, and the flood bore them down:
'"The water is waxing deeper still, Sae does it wax mair wide; And aye the farther we ride on, Farther off is the other side."
. . . . .
The knight turned slowly round about All in the middle stream, He stretched out his hand to that lady, And loudly she did scream.
"O, this is Hallow-morn," he said, "And it is your bridal day; But sad would be that gay wedding Were bridegroom and bride away. But ride on, ride on, proud Margaret, Till the water comes o'er your bree; For the bride maun ride deep and deeper yet Who rides this ford wi' me."'
But the perturbed spirit does not always thus revisit the glimpses of the moon to awaken conscience, to humble pride, or to wreak vengeance. More often it is the repinings and longings of passionate love that keep it from its rest. In maerchen and ballad the ghost of the lover comes to complain that the tears which his betrothed sheds nightly fill his shroud with blood; when she smiles, it is filled with rose leaves. The mother steals from the grave to hap and comfort her orphan children; their harsh stepmother neglects and ill-treats them, and their exceeding bitter and desolate cry has penetrated beneath the sod, and reached the dead ear. In The Clerk's Sons o' Owsenford, and in that singular fragment of the same creepy theme, recovered by Scott, The Wife of Usher's Well, it is the yearning of the living mother that brings the dead sons back to their home:
'"Blaw up the fire, my maidens, Bring water from the well! For a' my house shall feast this nicht, Since my three sons are well."'
The revenants, silent guests with staring eyes, wait and warm themselves by the fireside, while the 'carline wife' ministers to their wants, and spreads her 'gay mantle' over them to keep them from the cold, until their time comes:
'"The cock doth craw, the day doth daw, The channerin' worm doth chide; Gin we be missed out o' our place A sair pain we must bide."
"Lie still, be still a little wee while, Lie still but if we may; Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes, She 'll gae mad, ere it be day."
O it 's they 've taen up their mother's mantle, And they 've hung it on a pin; "O lang may ye hing, my mother's mantle, Ere ye hap us again."'
A chill air as from the charnel-house seems to breathe upon us while reading the lines; the coldness, the darkness, and the horror of death have never been painted for us with more terrible power than in the 'Wiertz Gallery' of the old balladists.
We feel this also in the ballads of the type of Sweet William and May Margaret, quoted in Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle, where the dead returns to claim back a plighted word; and at the same time we feel the strength of the perfect love that triumphs over death and casts out fear:
'"Is there any room at your head, Willie, Or any room at your feet, Or any room at your side, Willie, Wherein that I may creep?"'
How miserably the poetical taste of the early part of last century misappreciated the spirit of the ancient ballad, preferring the dross to the fine gold, and tricking out the 'terrific old Scottish tale,' as Sir Walter Scott calls it, in meretricious ornament, may be seen by comparing the original copies with that 'elegant' composition of David Mallet, William and Margaret, so praised and popular in its day, in which every change made is a disfigurement of the nature of an outrage. Read the summons of the ghost, still 'naked of ornament and simple':
'"O sweet Marg'ret, O dear Marg'ret! I pray thee speak to me; Gie me my faith and troth, Marg'ret, As I gae it to thee,"'
along with the 'improved' version:
'"Awake!" she cried, "thy true love calls, Come from her midnight grave; Now let thy pity hear the maid Thy love refused to save."'
Of a long antiquity most of these Mythological Ballads must be, if not in their actual phraseology, in the dark superstitions they embody and in the pathetic glimpses they afford us of the thoughts and fears and hopes of the men and women of the days of long ago—the days before feudalism; the days, as some inquisitors of the ballad assure us, when religion was a kind of fetichism or ancestor worship, when the laws were the laws of the tribe or family, and when the cannibal feast may have been among the customs of the race. We cannot find a time when this inheritance of legend was not old; when it was not sung, and committed to memory, and handed down to later generations in some rude rhyme. The leading 'types' were in the wallet of Autolycus; and he describes certain of them with a seasoning of his grotesque humour, to his simple country audience. There were the well-attested tale of the Usurer's Wife, a ballad sung, as ballads are wont, 'to a very doleful tune'—obviously a form of the Supernatural Birth; and the story, true as it is pitiful, of the fish that turned to woman, and then back again to fish, in which he that runs may read an example from the Mermaid Cycle. They are to be found to-day, often in debased and barely recognisable guise, in the hands of the peripatetic ballad-mongers who still haunt fairs and sing in the streets, and in the memories of multitudes of country folks who know scarce any other literature bearing the magic trademark of Old Romance.
THE ROMANTIC BALLAD
'O they rade on, and farther on, By the lee licht o' the moon, Until they cam' to a wan water, And there they lichted them doon.'
The Douglas Tragedy.
It may look like taking a liberty with the chart of ballad poetry to label as 'romantic' a single province of this kingdom of Old Romance. It is probably not even the most ancient of the provinces of balladry, but it has some claim to be regarded as the central one in fame and in wealth—the one that yields the purest and richest ore of poetry. It is that wherein the passion and frenzy of love is not merely an element or a prominent motive, but is the controlling spirit and the absorbing interest.
As has been acknowledged, it is not possible to make any hard and fast division of the Scottish ballads by applying to them this or any other test; and mention has already been made, on account of the mythological or superstitious features they possess, of a number of the choicest of these old lays that turn essentially upon the strength or the weakness, the constancy or the inconstancy, the rapture or the sorrow of earthly love. Love in the ballads is nearly always masterful, imperious, exacting; nearly always its reward is death and dule, and not life and happiness. But as it spurns all obstacles, it meets its fate unflinchingly. No sacrifices are too great, no penance too dire, no shame or sin too black to turn aside for an instant the rush of this impetuous passion, which runs bare-breasted on the drawn sword.
It is not to the ballads we must go for example—precept of this or of any kind there is none—in the bourgeois and respectable virtues; of the sober and chastened behaviour that comes of a prudent fear of consequences, of a cold temperament and a calculating spirit. The good or the ill done by the heroes and heroines of the Romantic Ballad is done on the spur of the moment, on the impulse of hot blood. Whether it be sin or sacrifice, the prompting is not that of convention, but of Nature herself. Love and hate, though they may burn and glow like a volcano, are not prodigal of words. It is one of the marks by which we may distinguish the characters in the ballads from those in later and more cultivated fields of literature that, as a rule, they say less rather than more than they mean. They speak daggers; but they are far more apt in using them. At a word or look the lovers are ready to die for each other; but of the language of endearment they are not prodigal; and a phrase of tenderness is sweet in proportion that it is rare.
With the tamer affections it fares no better than with the moral law when it comes in the path of the master passion. Mother and sisters are defied and forsaken; father and brethren are resisted at the sword's point when they cross, as is their wont, the course of true love. It is curious to note how little, except as a foil, the ballad makes of brotherly or sisterly love. It finds exquisite expression in the tale of Chil Ether and his twin sister,
'Who loved each other tenderly 'Boon everything on earth.
"The ley likesna the simmer shower Nor girse the morning dew, Better, dear Lady Maisrie, Than Chil Ether loves you."'
But for this, among other reasons, the genuine antiquity of the ballad is under some suspicion.
In modern fiction or drama the lady hesitates between the opposing forces of love and of family pride and duty; the old influences in her life do not yield to the new without a struggle. But of struggle or indecision the ballad heroine knows, or at least says, nothing. A glance, a whispered word, a note of harp or horn, and she flings down her 'silken seam,' and whether she be king's daughter or beggar maid she obeys the spell, and follows the enchanter to greenwood or to broomy hill, to the ends of the earth, and to the gates of death.
For when the gallant knight and his 'fair may' ride away, prying eyes are upon them; black care and red vengeance climb up behind them and keep them company. The Douglas Tragedy may be selected for its terseness and dramatic strength, for the romance and pathos inwoven in the very names and scenes with which it is associated, as the type of a favourite story which under various titles—Earl Brand and the Child of Elle among the rest—has, time beyond knowledge, captivated the imagination and drawn the tears of ballad-lovers. In the best-known Scots version—that which Sir Walter Scott has recovered for us, and which bears some touches of his rescuing hand—it is the lady-mother who gives the alarm that the maiden has fled under cloud of night with her lover:
'Rise up, rise up, my seven bauld sons, And put on your armour so bright, And take better care of your youngest sister, For your eldest 's awa' the last night.'
In English variants, it is the sour serving-man or false bower-woman who gives the alarm and sets the chase in motion. But there are other differences that enter into the very essence of the story, and express the diverse feeling of the Scottish and the English ballad. In the latter there is a pretty scene of entreaty and reconciliation; the lady's tears soften the harsh will of the father, and stay the lifted blade of the lover, and all ends merry as a marriage bell. But in the Scottish ballads fathers and lovers are not given to the melting mood. In sympathy with the scenery and atmosphere, the ballad spirit is with us sterner and darker; and just as the materials of that tender little idyll of faithful love, The Three Ravens, are in Scottish hands transformed into the drear, wild dirge of The Twa Corbies, the gallant adventure of the Child of Elle turns inevitably to tragedy by Douglas Water and Yarrow. But how much more true to this soul of romance is the choice of the northern minstrel! Lady Margaret, as she holds Lord William's bridle-rein while he deals those strokes so 'wondrous sair' at her nearest kin, is a figure that will haunt the 'stream of sorrow' as long as verse has power to move the hearts of men:
'"O choose, O choose, Lady Marg'ret," he cried, "O whether will ye gang or bide?" "I 'll gang, I 'll gang, Lord William," she said, "For you 've left me no other guide."
He lifted her on a milk-white steed, And himself on a dapple grey, With a buglet horn hung down by his side, And slowly they both rade away.
O they rade on, and farther on, By the lee licht o' the moon, Until they cam' to a wan water, And there they lichted them doon.
"Hold up, hold up, Lord William," she said, "For I fear that ye are slain." "'Tis naething but the shadow of my scarlet cloak That shines in the water so plain."'
The man who can listen to these lines without a thrill is proof against the Ithuriel spear of Romance. He is not made of penetrable stuff, and need waste no thought on the Scottish ballads.
To close the tale comes that colophon that as naturally ends the typical ballad as 'Once upon a time' begins the typical nursery tale:
'Lord William was buried in St. Mary's Kirk, Lady Margaret in St. Mary's Quire; And out of her grave there grew a birk, And out of the knight's a brier.
And they twa met and they twa plait, As fain they wad be near; And a' the world might ken right well They were twa lovers dear.'
Birk and brier; vine and rose; cypress and orange; thorn and olive—the plants in which the buried lovers of ballad romance live again and intertwine their limbs, vary with the clime and race; and just as the 'Black Douglas' of the Yarrow ballad—'Wow but he was rough!'—plucks up the brier, and 'flings it in St. Mary's Loch,' the King, in the Portuguese folk-song, cuts down the cypress and orange that perpetuate the loves of Count Nello and the Infanta, and then grinds his teeth to see the double stream of blood flow from them and unite, proving that 'in death they are not divided.'
The scene of the Scottish story is supposed to be Blackhouse, on the Douglas Burn, a feeder of the Yarrow, the farm on which Scott's friend, William Laidlaw, the author of Lucy's Flittin', was born. Seven stones on the heights above, where the 'Ettrick Shepherd,' with his dog Hector, herded sheep and watched for the rising of the Queen of Faery through the mist, mark the spot where the seven bauld brethren fell.
But Yarrow Vale is strewn with the sites of those tragedies of the far-off years, forgotten by history but remembered in song and tradition. Its green hills enclose the very sanctuary of romantic ballad-lore. Its clear current sings a mournful song of the 'good heart's bluid' that once stained its wave; of the drowned youth caught in the 'cleaving o' the craig.' The winds that sweep the hillsides and bend 'the birks a' bowing' seem to whisper still of the wail of the 'winsome marrow,' and to have an undernote of sadness on the brightest day of summer; while with the fall of the red and yellow leaf the very spirit of 'pastoral melancholy' broods and sleeps in this enchanted valley. St. Mary's Kirk and Loch; Henderland Tower and the Dow Linn; Blackhouse and Douglas Craig; Yarrow Kirk and Deucharswire; Hangingshaw and Tinnis; Broadmeadows and Newark; Bowhill and Philiphaugh—what memories of love and death, of faith and wrong, of blood and of tears they carry! Always by Yarrow the comely youth goes forth, only to fall by the sword, fighting against odds in the 'Dowie Dens,' or to be caught and drowned in the treacherous pools of this fateful river; always the woman is left to weep over her lost and 'lealfu' lord.' In the Dow Glen it is the 'Border Widow,' upon whose bower the 'Red Tod of Falkland' has broken and slain her knight, whose grave she must dig with her own hands:
'I took his body on my back, And whiles I gaed and whiles I sat; I digged a grave and laid him in, And happed him wi' the sod sae green.
But think nae ye my heart was sair When I laid the moul's on his yellow hair; O think nae ye my heart was wae When I turned about awa' to gae.
Nae living man I 'll love again, Since that my lovely knight is slain; Wi' ae lock o' his yellow hair I 'll chain my heart for evermair.'
An echo of this, but blending with poignant grief a masculine note of rage and vengeance, is the lament of Adam Fleming for Burd Helen, who dropped dead in his arms at their trysting-place in 'fair Kirkconnell Lea,' from the shot fired across the Kirtle by the hand of his jealous rival:
'O thinkna ye my heart was sair, When my love drapt doun and spak nae mair! There did she swoon wi' meikle care On fair Kirkconnell Lea.
O Helen fair, beyond compare! I 'll make a garland o' thy hair Shall bind my heart for evermair Until the day I dee.'
Still older, and not less sad and sweet, is the lilt of Willie Drowned in Yarrow, the theme amplified, but not improved, in Logan's lyric:
'O Willie 's fair and Willie 's rare, And Willie wondrous bonnie; And Willie hecht to marry me If e'er he married ony.'
Gamrie, in Buchan, contends with the 'Dowie Howms' as the scene of this fragment; but surely its sentiment is pure Yarrow:
'She sought him east, she sought him west, She sought him braid and narrow; Syne in the cleaving o' a craig She found him drowned in Yarrow.'
But best-remembered of the Yarrow Cycle is The Dowie Dens. One cannot analyse the subtle aroma of this flower of Yarrow ballads. In it the song of the river has been wedded to its story 'like perfect music unto noble words.' It is indeed the voice of Yarrow, chiding, imploring, lamenting; a voice 'most musical, most melancholy.' A ballad minstrel with a master-touch upon the chords of passion and pathos, with a feeling for dramatic intensity of effect that Nature herself must have taught him, must have left us these wondrous pictures of the quarrel, hot and sudden; of the challenge, fiercely given and accepted; of the appeal, so charged with wild forebodings of evil:
'"O stay at hame, my noble lord, O stay at hame, my marrow! My cruel kin will you betray On the dowie howms o' Yarrow"';
of the treacherous ambuscade under Tinnis bank; of the stubborn fight, in which a single 'noble brand' holds its own against nine, until the cruel brother comes behind that comeliest knight and 'runs his body thorough'; of the yearning and waiting of the 'winsome marrow,' while fear clutches at her heart:
'"Yestreen I dreamed a doleful dream, I fear there will be sorrow, I dreamed I pu'ed the birk sae green For my true love on Yarrow.
O gentle wind that blaweth south Frae where my love repaireth, Blaw me a kiss frae his dear mouth And tell me how he fareth"';
lastly, of the quest 'the bonnie forest thorough,' until on the trampled den by Deucharswire, near Whitehope farmhouse, she finds the 'ten slain men,' and among them 'the fairest rose was ever cropped on Yarrow':
'She kissed his cheek, she kaimed his hair, She searched his wounds a' thorough, She kissed them till her lips grew red On the dowie howms o' Yarrow.'
The story is said to be founded on the slaughter of Walter Scott of Oakwood, of the house of Thirlstane, by John Scott of Tushielaw, with whose sister Grizel the murdered man had, in 1616, contracted an irregular marriage, to the offence of her kin. On this showing, it is of the later crop of the ballads. But it is well-nigh impossible to think of rueful Yarrow flowing through her dens to any other measure than that which keeps repeating
'By strength of sorrow The unconquerable strength of love.'
But, as Wordsworth reminds us, these ever-youthful waters have their gladsome notes. On the not unchallengeable ground that it makes mention, in one version, of 'St. Mary's' as the fourth Scots Kirk at which halt was made after leaving the English Border, The Gay Goshawk has been set down among the Yarrow ballads; and Hogg has confirmed the claim by using the tale as the foundation of his Flower of Yarrow. Even here such happiness as the lovers find comes by a perilous way past the very gates of the grave. The feigning of death, as the one means of escape from kinsfolk's ban to the arms of love, was a device known to Juliet and to other heroines of old plays and romances. But few could have abode the test suggested by the 'witch woman' or cruel stepmother, whose experience had taught her that 'much a lady young will do, her ain true love to win':
'"Tak' ye the burning lead, And drap a drap on her white bosom To try if she be dead."'
And Lord William, at St. Mary's Kirk, was more fortunate than Romeo in the vault of the Capulets; for when he rent the shroud from the face the blood rushed back to the cheeks and lips, 'like blood-draps in the snaw,' and the 'leeming e'en' laughed back into his own:
'"Gie me a chive o' your bread, my love, And ae glass o' your wine, For I hae fasted for your love These weary lang days nine."'
The Nut-brown Bride and Fair Janet might also be identified as among the Yarrow lays, if only it were granted that there is but one 'St. Mary's Kirk.' In the former, the balladist treats, with dramatic fire and fine insight into the springs of action, the theme that
'To be wroth with those we love Doth work like madness in the brain.'
As in Barbara Allan, a word spoken amiss sets division between two hearts that had beat as one:
'Lord Thomas spoke a word in jest, Fair Annet took it ill.'
In haste he consults mother and brother whether he should marry the 'Nut-brown Maid, and let Fair Annet be,' and so long as they praise the tochered lass he scorns their counsel; he will not have 'a fat fadge by the fire.' But when his sister puts in a word for Annet his resentment blazes up anew; he will marry her dusky rival in despite. With a heart not less hot, we may be sure, his forsaken love dons her gayest robes, and at St. Mary's Kirk she casts the poor brown bride into the shade in dress as well as in looks. Small wonder if the bride speaks out with spite when her bridegroom reaches across her to lay a red rose on Annet's knee. The words between the two angry women are like rapier-thrusts, keen and aimed at the heart. 'Where did ye get the rose-water that maks your skin so white?' asks the bride; and when Annet's swift retort goes home, she can only respond with the long bodkin drawn from her hair. The word in jest costs the lives of three. Fair Janet's is another tragic wedding; love, and jealousy, and guilt again hold tryst in the little kirk whose grey walls are scarce to be traced on the green platform above the loch. 'I 've seen other days,' says the pale bride to her lost lover as he dances with her bridesmaiden:
'"I 've seen other days wi' you, Willie, And so hae mony mae; Ye would hae danced wi' me yoursel' And let a' ithers gae"';
and, dancing, she drops dead.
Fasting, and fire, and sickness unto death were, however, tame ordeals compared with those which 'Burd Helen' came through, as they are described in the ballad Professor Child holds, not without reason, to have 'perhaps no superior' in our own or any other tongue. Patient Grizel, herself the incarnation in literary form of a type of woman's faithfulness and meek endurance of wrong that had floated long in mediaeval tradition, might have shrunk from some of the cruel tasks which Lord Thomas—the 'Child Waters' of the favourite English variant—lays upon the mother of his unborn child—the woman whose self-surrender had been so complete that she has not the blessing of Holy Church and the support of wifely vows to comfort her in her hour of trial. All the summer day she runs by his bridle-rein until they come to the Water of Clyde, which 'Sweet Willie and May Margaret' also sought to ford on a similar errand:
'And he was never so courteous a knight, As stand and bid her ride; And she was never so poor a may, As ask him for to bide.'
She stables his steed; she waits humbly at table as the little page-boy; she listens, her colour coming and going, to the mother's scorns and the young sister's naive questions. But never, until the supreme moment of her distress, does she draw one sign of pity or relenting from her harsh lord. Then, indeed, love and remorse, as if they had been dammed back, break forth like a flood, that bursts the very door, and makes it 'in flinders flee.' And because
'The marriage and the kirkin' Were baith held on ae day,'
our simple balladist bids us believe that the twain lived happily ever after.
The variations of this ancient tale, localised in nearly every European country, are innumerable; and Professor Veitch was disposed to trace them to the thirteenth century Tale of the Ash, by Marie of France. The 'Fair Annie' of another ballad on the theme seems to have borrowed both name and history directly from the 'Skiaen Annie' of Danish folk-poetry. Here the old love suffers the like indignity that was thrown upon the too-too submissive Griselda; she has to make ready the bridal bed for her supplanter and do other menial offices, until a happy chance reveals the fact that the newcomer is her sister. Yet neither from Fair Annie nor from Burd Helen comes word of reproach or complaint. The exceeding bitter thought is whispered only to the heart:
'"Lie still, my babe, lie still, my babe, Lie still as lang 's ye may; For your father rides on high horseback, And cares na for us twae."'
'"Gin my seven sons were seven young rats, Runnin' upon the castle wa'; And I were a grey cat mysel', Soon should I worry ane and a'."'
Wide, surely, is the gulf between the Original Woman of old romance and the New Woman of recent fiction. The change, no doubt, is for the better; and yet is it altogether for the better?
According to all modern canons, the conduct of these too-tardy bridegrooms was brutal beyond words; and as for the heroines of the Romantic Ballad, Mother Grundy, had she the handling of them, would use them worse than ever did moody brother or crafty stepmother. But the balladists and ballad characters had their own gauges of conduct. Their morals were not other or better than the morals of their age. They strained out the gnats and swallowed the camels of the law as given to Moses; perhaps if they could look into modern society and the modern novel they would charge the same against our own times and literature. If they broke, as they were too ready to do, the Sixth Commandment, or the Seventh, they made no attempt to glose the sin; they dealt not in innuendo or double entendre. Beside the page of modern realism, the ballad page is clean and wholesome. Human passion unrestrained there may be; but no sickly or vicious sentiment. There is a punctilious sense of honour; and if it is sometimes the letter rather than the spirit of vow or promise that is kept, the knights and ladies in the ballads are no worse than are the Pharisees of our day; and they are always ready to pay, and generally do pay, the utmost penalty.
Thus, in that most powerful and tragic ballad, Clerk Saunders, May Margaret ties a napkin about her eyes that she 'may swear, and keep her aith,' to her 'seven bauld brothers,' that she had not seen her lover 'since late yestreen'; she carries him across the threshold of her bower, that she may be able to say that his foot had never been there. The story of the sleeping twain—the excuses for their sin; the reason why ruth should turn aside vengeance—is told, in staccato sentences, by the brothers as they stand by the bedside of their 'ae sister,' with 'torches burning bright':
'Out and spake the first o' them, "I wot that they are lovers dear"; And out and spake the second o' them, "They 've been in love this mony a year";
And out and spake the third o' them, "His father had nae mair than he."'
And so until the seventh—the Rashleigh of the band—who spake no word, but let his 'bright brown brand' speak for him. What follows rises to the extreme height of the balladist's art; literature might be challenged for anything surpassing it in simplicity and power, in the mingling of horror and pathos:
'Clerk Saunders he started and Margaret she turned, Into his arms as asleep she lay; And sad and silent was the night That was atween the twae.
And they lay still and sleeped sound, Until the day began to daw, And softly unto him she said, "It 's time, true love, you were awa'."
But he lay still and sleeped sound, Albeit the sun began to sheen; She looked atween her and the wa', And dull and drumlie were his een.'
In the majority of ballads of the Clerk Saunders class there is some base agent who betrays trust and brings death upon the lovers. 'Fause Foodrage' takes many forms in these ancient tales without changing type. He is the slayer of 'Lily Flower' in Jellon Graeme; and the boy whom he has preserved and brought up sends the arrow singing to his guilty heart. Lammiken, the 'bloodthirsty mason,' who must have a life for his wage, is another enemy within the house who finds his way through 'steekit yetts'; and he is assisted by the 'fause nourice.' In other ballads it is the 'kitchen-boy,' the 'little foot-page,' the 'churlish carle,' or the bower-woman who plays the spy and tale-bearer. In Glenkindie, 'Gib, his man,' is the vile betrayer of the noble harper and his lady. Sometimes, as in Gude Wallace, Earl Richard, and Sir James the Rose, it is the 'light leman' who plays traitor. But she quickly repents, and meets her fate in the fire or at the sword's point, in 'Clyde Water' or in 'the dowie den in the Lawlands o' Balleichan.' In Gil Morice, that ballad which Gray thought 'divine,' it is 'Willie, the bonnie boy,' whom the hero trusted with his message, that in malice and wilfulness brings about the tremendous catastrophe of the tale. He calls aloud in hall the words he was bid whisper in the ear of Lord Barnard's lady—to meet Gil Morice in the forest, and 'speir nae bauld baron's leave.'
'The lady stamped wi' her foot And winked wi' her e'e; But for a' that she could say or do Forbidden he wadna be.'
It is the angry and jealous baron who, in woman guise, meets and slays the youth who is waiting in gude greenwood, and brings back the bloody head to the mother.
Other fine ballads in which mother and son carry on tragic colloquy are Lord Randal and Edward. These versions of a story of treachery and blood, conveyed in the dark hints of a strange dialogue, have received many touches from later hands; but the germ comes down from the age of tradition. It has even been noted that, with the curious tenacity with which the ballad memory often clings to a detail while forgetting or mislaying essential fact, the food with which, in the version Burns recovered for Johnson's Museum, Lord Randal is poisoned—'eels boiled in broo'—is identical with that given to his prototype in the folk-ballads of Italy and other countries. The structure of this ballad, like the beautiful old air to which it is sung, bears marks of antiquity, and its wide diffusion militates against Scott's not very convincing suggestion that it refers to the alleged poisoning of the Regent Randolph. But it lacks the terrible and dramatic intensity of Son Davie, better known in the version transmitted, under the name of Edward, by Lord Hailes to Bishop Percy's Reliques. Here it is the murderer, and not the victim, who answers; and it is the questioning mother, and not the absent false love, with whom the curse is left as a legacy. Despair had never a more piercing utterance than this:
'"And what will ye leave to your bairns and your wife? Edward, Edward! And what will ye leave to your bairns and your wife When ye gang over the sea, O?"
"The warld 's room, let them beg through life, Mither, Mither! The warld 's room, let them beg through life, For them never mair will I see, O!"
"And what will ye leave to your ain mither dear? Edward, Edward! And what will ye leave to your ain mother dear, My dear son, now tell me, O?"
"The curse o' hell from me shall ye bear, Mither, Mither! The curse o' hell from me shall ye bear, Sic counsels ye gae me, O!"'
Although Yarrow be the favoured haunt on Scottish soil—may we not also say on the whole round of earth?—of the Romantic Ballad, and has coloured them, and taken colour from them, for all time, yet there are other streams and vales that only come short of being its rivals. 'Leader Haughs,' for instance, which the harp of Nicol Burne, the 'Last Minstrel' who wandered and sang in the Borderland, has linked indissolubly with Yarrow braes, know of ballad strains well-nigh as sweet as those of the neighbour water. But cheerfulness rather than sadness is their prevailing note. Auld Maitland, the lay which James Hogg's mother repeated to Scott, has its scene on Leader side, and at the 'darksome town'—a misnomer in these days—of Lauder. Long before the time of that tough champion, St. Cuthbert and True Thomas had wandered and dreamed and sang by Leader. It was a Lord Lauderdale who rode to Traquair to court, after the older fashion, Katherine Janferie:
'He toldna her father, he toldna her mither, He toldna ane o' her kin; But he whispered the bonnie may hersel', And has her favour won.'
He it was, according to the old ballad, who rode to the bridal at the eleventh hour, with four and twenty Leader lads behind him:
'"I comena here to fight," he said, "I comena here to play; But to lead a dance wi' the bonnie bride, And mount and go my way"';
and it was Lord Lochinvar (although 'he who told the story later' has taught us so differently) who played the inglorious part of the deserted bridegroom. Scott himself drank in the passion for Border romance and chivalry on the braes of Sandyknowe, between Leader and Eden waters, not far from Smailholm and Dryburgh, and Huntly Bank and Mellerstain, and Rhymer's Tower and the Broom o' the Cowdenknowes. According to Mr. Ford, the ballad which takes its name from this last-mentioned spot is traditionally assigned to a Mellerstain maid named Crosbie, whose words were set to music by no less famous a hand than that of David Rizzio. So that here at least we have a vague echo of the name of a balladist and of a ballad-air composer. Between them, the maid of Mellerstain and 'Davy' have harmonised most musically, albeit with some touch of moral laxity, the spirit of pastoral and of ballad romance:
'The hills were high on ilka side, And the bucht i' the lirk o' the hill, And aye as she sang her voice it rang Out ower the head o' yon hill.
There cam' a troop o' gentlemen, Merrily riding by, And ane o' them rade out o' the way To the bucht to the bonnie may.'
Nowhere has the ballad inspiration and the ballad touch lingered longer than by Eden and Leader and Whitadder. Lady Grizel Baillie (who also wonned in Mellerstain) had them—
'There once was a may and she lo'ed nae men, And she biggit her bonnie bower doun in yon glen'—
and it still lives in Lady John Scott, who has sung of The Bonnie Bounds of Cheviot as if the mantle of the Border minstrels had fallen upon her.
After all, the ballads of Yarrow and Ettrick, of the Merse and Teviotdale, owe their superior fame as much as anything to the happy chance that the Wizard of Abbotsford dwelt in the midst of them, and seizing upon them before they were forgotten, made them and the localities classical. Other districts have in this way been despoiled to some extent of their proper meed of honour. Fortune as well as merit has favoured the Border Minstrelsy in the race for survival and for precedence in the popular memory. But Galloway, a land pervaded with romance, claims at least one ballad that can rank with the best. Lord Gregory has aliases and duplicates without number. But the scene is always Loch Ryan and some castled island within sight of that arm of the sea, whither the love-lorn Annie fares in her boat 'wi' sails o' the light green silk and tows o' taffetie,' in quest of her missing lord:
'"O row the boat, my mariners, And bring me to the land! For yonder I see my love's castle Close by the salt sea strand."'
Alas! cold is her welcome as she stands with her young son in her arms, and knocks and calls on her love, while 'the wind blaws through her yellow hair, and the rain draps o'er her chin.' A voice, that seems that of Lord Gregory, bids her go hence as 'a witch or a wil' warlock, or a mermaid o' the flood'; and with a woful heart she turns back to the sea and the storm. And when he wakes up from boding dreams to find his true love and his child have been turned from his door, it is too late. His cry to the waves is as vain as Annie's cry to that 'ill woman,' his mother, who has betrayed them:
'"And hey, Annie, and how, Annie! O Annie, winna ye bide?" But aye the mair that he cried Annie, The braider grew the tide.
"And hey, Annie, and how, Annie! Dear Annie, speak to me!" But aye the louder he cried Annie, The louder roared the sea.'
The shores and basin of the Forth have also their rowth of ballads; and some of them have, like The Lass of Lochryan, the sound of the waves and the salt smell of the sea mingled with their plaintive music. Gil Morice has been 'placed' by Carronside—Ossian's 'roaring Carra'—a meet setting for the story. Sir Patrick Spens cleaves to the shores of Fife; though some, eager for the honour of the North, have claimed that it is Aberdour in Buchan that is spoken of in the ballad. By the powerful spell of this old rhyme, the king still sits and drinks the blood-red wine in roofless Dunfermline tower; the ladies still haunt the windy headland—Kinghorn or Elie Ness—with 'their kaims intil their hands' waiting in vain the return of their 'good Scots lords'; the wraith of Sir Patrick himself in misty days strides the silver strand under the Hawes Wood, reading the braid letter. Near by is Donibristle; and it keeps the memory of the 'Bonnie Earl of Moray,' slain here, hints the balladist—though history is silent on the point—for pleasing too well the Queen's eye at Holyrood.
Edinburgh, too, draws a good part of its romance from the ballad bard. Mary Hamilton, of the Queen's Maries, rode through the Netherbow Port to the gallows-foot:
'"Yestreen the Queen had four Maries, The night she 'll hae but three; There was Marie Seton, and Marie Beaton, And Marie Carmichael, and me."'
The Marchioness of Douglas wandered disconsolate on Arthur's Seat and drank of St. Anton's well:
'"O waly, waly, love be bonnie A little time while it is new, But when it 's auld it waxes cauld And fades awa' like morning dew.
But had I wist before I kissed That love had been so ill to win, I 'd locked my heart within a kist And fastened it wi' a siller pin"';
and across the hill lies the 'Wells o' Wearie.' Nowhere else has the wail of forsaken love found such wistful expression—except in The Fause Lover:
'"But again, dear love, and again, dear love, Will you never love me again? Alas! for loving you so well, And you not me again."'
From Edinburgh wandered Leezie Lindsay, kilting her coats of green satin to follow her Lord Ronald Macdonald the weary way to the Highland Border; and to its plainstanes came the faithful Lady of Gicht to ransom her Geordie:
'My Geordie, O my Geordie, The love I bear my Geordie! For the very ground I walk upon Bears witness I lo'e Geordie.'
And these regions of the North have as much of the 'blood-red wine' of ballad romance coursing through them as Tweedside or Lothian, although it may be of harsher and coarser flavour. Space does not allow of doing justice to the Northern Ballads, some of them simple strains, made familiar by sweet airs, like Hunting Tower, or Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, or the Banks of the Lomond; others, and these chiefly from the wintry side of Cairn o' Mount, 'bleak and bare' as that wilderness of heather; still others, and from the same quarter, gallant, warm-hearted, light-stepping tunes as ever were sung—Glenlogie, for instance:
'There were four-and-twenty nobles Rode through Banchory fair; And bonnie Glenlogie Was flower o' them there.'
For the most part they are variants, many of them badly mutilated in the rhymes, that are familiar, under other names, farther south. They gather about the family history and the family trees of the great houses—the Gordons for choice—planted by Dee and Don and Ythan, where Gadie runs at the 'back o' Benachie,' and in the Bog o' Gicht; and they tell of love adventures and mischances that have befallen the Lords of Huntly or Aboyne, the Lairds of Drum or Meldrum, and even the humble Trumpeter of Fyvie.
THE HISTORICAL BALLAD
'It fell about the Lammas tide, When the muirmen win their hay, The doughty Douglas bound him to ride Into England, to drive a prey.'
The Battle of Otterburn.
The kindly Scot will not quarrel with the comparative mythologist who tells him that the superstitions embalmed in his ballad minstrelsy are wanderers out of misty times and far countries—primitive ideas and beliefs that may have started with his remote ancestors from the heart of the East, to find harbour in the valleys of the Cheviots and the islands of the West, or that have drifted thither with the tide of later inroads. Nor will he greatly protest when the literary historian assures him that the plots and incidents in the popular old rhymes of the frenzies and parlous adventures of love have been borrowed or adapted from the metrical and prose romances of the Middle Ages. He can appreciate in his poetry, as in his pedigree, high and long descent; all the more since, as he flatters himself, whencesoever the seed may have come, it has found kindly soil, and drawn from thence a strength and colour such as few other lands and ballad literatures can match.
But to suggest that not even our Historical Songs of fight and of foray against our 'auld enemies' of England are genuine, unalloyed products of the national spirit; to hint that Kinmont Willie, The Outlaw Murray, or The Battle of Otterburn itself is an exotic—that were a somewhat dangerous exercise of the art of analytic criticism, in the presence of a Scottish audience. In truth, no poetry of any tongue or land is more powerfully dominated by the sense of locality—is more expressive of the manners of the time and mood of the race—than those rough Border lays of moonlight rides, on reiving or on rescue bound, and of death fronted boldly in the press of spears or 'behind the bracken bush.' These are not tales of the infancy of a people. Scotland had already attained to something of national unity of blood and of sentiment before they came to birth. For generations and centuries she had to keep her head and her bounds against an enemy as watchful and warlike as herself, and many times as strong. Blows were struck and returned, keen and sudden as lightning. The 'hammer of the Scots,' wielded by the English kings, had smitten, and under its blows the race had been welded together and wrought to a temper like steel, supple upon occasion to bend, but elastic and unbreakable, and with a sharp cutting edge.
Heroes conquered or fell; and sometimes a minstrel was by to sing the exploit. Patriotism and the joy of combat are leading notes in these Historic Ballads. The annals of Scotland are full of family and clan feuds—the quarrels of kites and crows. But, with a fine and true instinct, the best of these ballads avoid taking account of the bickerings in the household. It is when they sing of 'patriot battles won of old,' where Scot and Southron met, 'red-wat shod,' that the strain rises to its clearest, and 'stirs the heart like the sound of a trumpet.' Nor is it always the events that are most noised in the history-book that are best remembered in the ballads. The old singers and their audiences delighted more in personal episode than in filling a big canvas; their genius was dramatic rather than epic. Hardyknut, with its commemoration of the battle of Largs and the Northmen, although accepted by the literati of the early Georgian era as a genuine 'antique,' has long been proved to be an imitative production of Lady Wardlaw's. The rhyme which the Scottish maidens sang about Bannockburn is lost. The Wallace group of ballads bears plain marks of spurious intermixture, or later composition. There are no traditional verses preserved in popular memory regarding the disasters of Neville's Cross or of Homildon Hill, where so much good Scots blood soaked an alien sod; or of that shameful day of Solway Moss, about which James the Fifth muttered strange words on his dying-bed. Even the pathetic strain, more lyrical, however, than narrative, in which lament is made for The Flowers o' the Forest, that were 'wede awa'' at Flodden, came two centuries later than the woful battle.
Perhaps it is natural that a warlike people should sing of their triumphs rather than of their defeats and humiliations. But if the old ballads have lost sight of some great landmarks in the country's chronicle, they have preserved names and incidents which the duller pen of history has forgotten or overlooked. The breath of poetry passes over the Valley of Bones of the national annals, and each knight stands up in his place, a breathing man and a living soul. They are none the less real and living for us because Dry-as-dust has mislaid the vouchers for their birth and their deeds, and cannot fit them into their place in his family trees and chronological tables.
It follows, from the strongly patriotic cast of the ballads of war and fray, that they should have sprung up most rankly on the battle-fields and around the peel-towers of the Borderland. It was on the line of the Tweed and of the Cheviots that the long quarrel was fought out; and thus the Merse, Ettrick Forest, and Teviotdale; the Debateable Land, Liddesdale, and Annan Water became the native countries of the songs of raid and battle. The 'Red Harlaw'—which has had its own homespun bard, although of a different note and fibre from the minstrels of the Border—may be said to have ended the struggle for the mastery between Highlands and Lowlands. From thence onward through the age of ballad-making, there were spreaghs and feuds enow upon and within the Highland Line. But, until the time when Jacobitism came to give change of theme and bent, along with change of scene, to the spirit of Scottish romance, none of these local bloodlettings sufficed to inspire a ballad of more than local fame; unless indeed the story drew part of its power to live and to please from other sources besides the mere zest for fighting. In distinction, as we shall see from the typical Border War Lay, in which woman, if her presence is felt at all, is kept in the background, as looker-on or rewarder of the fight, in such Northern tales of raid and spulzie as The Baron of Bracklay, Edom o' Gordon, The Bonnie House o' Airlie, or even The Burning o' Frendraught, she is brought into the heart of the scene and forms an abiding and controlling influence.
In a word, these are at least as much Romantic as Historical Ballads. We suspect that woman's guile and treachery are at work, as soon as we hear the taunting words of Bracklay's lady:
'O rise, my bauld Baron, And turn back your kye, For the lads o' Drumwharron Are driving them bye.'
We are made sure of it, when the minstrel tells us:
'There was grief in the kitchen But mirth in the ha'; But the Baron o' Bracklay Is dead and awa'.'
And in the assault on the 'House o' the Rhodes,' it is not the wild work of the Gordons on which our thoughts are fixed; it is not even on the Forbeses, riding hard and fast to be in time for rescue:
'Put on, put on, my michty men, As fast as ye can drie; For he that 's hindmost o' my men Will ne'er get good o' me.'
It is 'the bonnie face that lies on the grass,' and Lady Ogilvie, and not her lord or the 'gleyed Argyll,' is central figure of the tale of the raid of the Campbells against their hereditary foes in Angus.
As a rule, in those ballads of the Borders whose business is with foray and reprisal, we have none of this disturbing element. The sheer love of adventure, the chance of exchanging 'hard dunts' with the Englishmen, is inducement enough for us to follow the lead of the Douglas or Buccleuch across the Waste of Bewcastle or through the wilds of Kidland. The women folks are safe and well defended in the peel-towers, from whence, when the word has gone out to 'warn the water speedilie,' the bale-fires flash up the dales from water-foot to well-e'e, and set the hill-crests aflame with the news of the enemy's coming. They may have given the hint of a toom larder by serving a dish of spurs on the board. They will be the first to welcome home the warden's men or the moss-troopers if they return with full hands, or to rally them if they have brought nothing back but broken heads. But keeping or breaking the peace on the Borders is a man's part; and only men mingle in it. Both sides are too accustomed to surprises, and have too many strong fortalices and friends at hand, to give the foe the chance of 'lifting' whole families as well as their gear and cattle. The last thing one looks for, then, in the moss-trooping ballads is a strain of tender and pathetic sentiment. The tone is hearty and virile even to boisterousness. The minstrel, like the fighters, revels in hard knocks and rough jests. He has ridden with them probably, and has had the piper's share of the plunder and whatever else was going. He has heard 'the bows that bauldly ring and the arrows whiddering near him by,' as he passes through the 'derke Foreste.' He took the fell with the other folk in the following of the Scottish warden, and looking down the slope towards Reed Water, witnessed the beginning and end of the skirmish known as The Raid of the Reidswire.
'Be this our folk had taen the fell And planted pallions there to bide; We looked down the other side, And saw them breasting ower the brae Wi' Sir John Forster as their guide, Full fifteen hundred men and mae.'
With strokes, graphic and humorous, he describes how the meeting of the two wardens, 'begun with merriment and mowes,' turned to the exchange of such 'reasons rude' between Tyndale and Jed Forest, as flights of arrows and 'dunts full dour.' Pride was at the bottom of the mischief; pride and the memory of old scores.
'To deal with proud men is but pain; For either must ye fight or flee, Or else no answer make again, But play the beast and let them be.'
And so, when the English raised the question of surrendering a fugitive,
'Carmichael bade them speak out plainlie, And cloak no cause for ill or good; The other answering him as vainly, Began to reckon kin and blood; He raise, and raxed him where he stood, And bade him match him wi' his marrows; Then Tyndale heard these reason rude, And they let off a flight of arrows.'
Again, in Kinmont Willie, the flower, with one exception to be named, of the ballads that celebrate the exploits of the 'ruggers and rivers,' the singer lets slip, as it were by accident, that he was of the bold and lawless company that broke Carlisle Castell in time of peace. The old lay tingles and glows with the restless untameable courage, the dramatic fire, the grim humour, and the spirit of good fellowship that were characteristic, along with some less admirable qualities, of the old Borderers. The rage, tempered with a dash of Scots caution, of the Bauld Buccleuch when he heard that his unruly countryman had been taken 'against the truce of border tide' by the 'fause Sakelde and the keen Lord Scroope'; his device for a rescue that while it would set the Kinmont free, would 'neither harm English lad nor lass,' or break the peace between the countries; the keen questionings and adroit replies that passed, like thrust and parry, between the divided bands of the warden's men and Sakelde himself, who met them successively as they crossed the Debateable Land, until it came to the turn of tongue-tied Dickie o' Dryhope, who, having never a word ready, 'thrust the lance through his fause bodie,'—all these are told in the most vigorous and graphic style of rough first-hand narrative. And then the story-teller takes up the parable in his own person, and describes how he and his comrades plunged through the flooded Eden, climbed the bank, and through 'wind and weet and fire and sleet' came beneath the castle wall:—
'We crept on knees and held our breath, Till we placed the ladders against the wa'; And sae ready was Buccleuch himsel' To mount the first before us a'.
He 's ta'en the watchman by the throat, And flung him down upon the lead— "Had there not been peace between our lands, Upon the other side thou 'dst gaed!"'
In the 'inner prison' lay Willie o' Kinmont, like a wolf in a trap, sleeping soft and waking oft, with thoughts of the gallows, on which he was to swing in the morning, and of his wife and bairns and the 'gude fellows' in the Debateable Land he was never to see again. But in an instant, at the hail and sight of his friends, the fearless humour of the Border rider comes back to him; mounted, irons and all, on the shoulders of Red Rowan, 'the starkest man in Teviotdale,' he must first take farewell of his host, Lord Scroope, with a significant promise that he would 'pay him lodging maill when first they met on the border side.'
'Then shoulder high, with shout and cry, We bore him down the ladder lang; At every stride Red Rowan made I wot the Kinmont's airns played clang.
"O mony a time," quo' Kinmont Willie, "I 've ridden a horse baith wild and wud; But a rougher beast than Red Rowan I ween my legs have ne'er bestrode."'
Then comes the wild rush for the Eden, where it flowed from bank to brim, with all Carlisle streaming behind in chase, and the bold plunge of the fugitives into the spate, leaving Lord Scroope staring after them, sore astonished, from the water's edge:
'"He 's either himsel' a devil frae hell, Or else his mither a witch maun be; I wadna' have ridden that wan water For a' the gowd in Christentie."'
History attests the main incidents and characters of Kinmont Willie as true to the facts; and tradition has broidered the story with incidents which the ballad itself does not record. The daughter of the smith, on the road between Longtown and Langholm, used to relate, half a century afterwards, how Buccleuch impatiently thrust his spear through the window to arouse her father and rid Armstrong's legs from their 'cumbrous spurs,' and remembered seeing the rough riders grouped in the outer darkness and streaming with wet. The rescue was one of the latest of the episodes of Border warfare before the Union of the Crowns; and Armstrong of Kinmont himself, besides being a typical specimen of his clan,
'Able men, Somewhat unruly, and very ill to tame,'
was one of the last of what we may describe as the legitimate line of Border freebooters, before the freebooter became merged in the vulgar thief, as explained quaintly and sympathetically in Scott of Satchells' rhyme:
'It 's most clear a freebooter doth live in hazard's train; A freebooter 's a cavalier who ventures life for gain; But since King James the Sixth to England went, There has been no cause for grief; And he that hath transgressed since then, Is no cavalier, but a thief.'
No doubt many other like exploits of capture and rescue were enacted and recounted on the Borders in the troublous times. Jock o' the Side and Archie o' Ca'field read almost like variants of Kinmont Willie. Their heroes, too, are 'notour lymours and thieves,' living on or near the margin of the Debateable Land; and he of the Side, in particular, lives in Sir Richard Maitland's bede-roll of the Liddesdale thieves, as only 'too well kend' by his peaceable neighbours,
'A greater thief did never hyde; He never tyris For to brek byris, Owre muir and myris, Owre gude and guide.'
Both are clapped into 'prison strang,' and liberated by a night raid and surprise. But the scene of rescue is shifted from Carlisle to Newcastle in the one case, and to Dumfries Tolbooth in the other. Hobbie Noble, the English outlaw, performs for the redoubtable Jock o' the Side the service rendered by Red Rowan; and 'mettled John Hall o' laigh Teviotdale' clatters down the Tolbooth stairs with Archie Armstrong of the Calfhill on his back, to mount him on his fleet black mare. And from the safe side of Tyne and of Nith, instead of Eden, they send their jeers and challenges back at the discomfited English pursuers. The old balladists may have mixed up places, names, and incidents in their memories, as they were rather wont to do, and laid skaith or credit at the wrong doors. But while their poetic and dramatic merit may vary, the spirit of the very baldest of these ancient songs is irresistible. The Border reiver may play a foul trick in the game; the Armstrongs, for instance, requited scurvily the services of Hobbie Noble, 'the man that lowsed Jock o' the Side;' but the roughest of these tykes, whether they rode behind the Captain of Bewcastle or the Laird of Buccleuch or Ferniehirst, or fought for their own hand, had their own code of honour, and the balladist zealously and jealously measures by it their acts and words. The worst of them had courage; they snap their fingers and laugh in the very teeth of death. Hobbie Noble, with the can of beer at his lips and the rope about his neck, could sing with an approving conscience—
'"Now, fare thee well, sweet Mangerton, For ne'er again I will thee see; I wad hae betrayed nae man alive For a' the gowd in Christentie"'—
a farewell that reminds us of that of the Highland cateran, Macpherson, who 'so rantingly, so dantonly,' played a spring and danced to it beneath the gallows-tree at Banff, crying out the while against 'treacherie,' and broke his fiddle across his knee when none among the crowd would take it from his hand.
Like Sir Lancelot, in the famous eulogy of Sir Ector, these Borderers of old were not only strong men of their hands, but strong also of heart, and 'true friends to their friends,' who, since they held the first line of defence of the Kingdom, might be said to embrace, after their own family and clan, their countrymen at large. They might, on occasion, 'seek their broth in England and in Scotland both.' But they robbed and slew, when it was possible, with patriotic discrimination. In Johnie Armstrong and The Sang o' the Outlaw Murray the heroes take credit for their 'honesty' and for their services to their country. The former boasts that 'never a Scots wife could have said that e'er I skaithed her ae puir flee'; and the other that he had won Ettrick Forest from the Southron without help from king or noble. Yet the quarrel of both is with the Scottish sovereign, who has come South intent on the exemplary and kingly work of 'making the rash bush keep the cow'; and, stranger still, it is for the bold-spoken outlaws, and not for the legitimate guardian of Border peace, that the minstrel engages our sympathies.
If we may credit the surmises of Mr. P. Macgregor Chalmers, the Outlaw Murray is none other than the 'John Morvo,' the builder who has set an admirable mark of his own upon Melrose Abbey and other ecclesiastical fanes, and, as Sheriff of the Forest, built Newark Castle after he had, in jest or earnest, defied the authority of his patron, King James IV.; perhaps he was even the writer of the ballad. This is a pretty strong order on our faith; although it must be confessed that there is a singular mixture, in this fine old lay, of information on architecture, venerie, and local ownership of land; and the Outlaw is made to have all the best of the combat of wits and words, and of the bargain with which it ends. 'Name your lands,' cries the King, 'where'er they lie, and here I render them to thee'; and the Outlaw promptly responds:
'"Fair Philiphaugh is mine by right, And Lewinshope still mine shall be, Newark, Foulshiels, and Tinnis baith, My bow and arrow purchased me.
And I have native steads to me, And some by name I do not knaw; The Hangingshaw and Newark Lee, And mony mair in the Forest shaw."'
Very different was the guerdon which Johnie Armstrong of Gilnockie got from King James the Fifth, when, in an evil hour, he came with a gallant company from his stronghold in Eskdale to meet that monarch, who had ridden with a strong force into the heart of the moss-troopers' country, intent on taming the marchmen. Well might the ladies 'look from their loft windows,' and sigh, 'God bring our men weel hame again!' as Johnie, and the six-and-thirty Armstrongs and Elliots in his train, ran their horses through Langholm howm in their haste to welcome their 'lawful king.' This expedition of 1529 has left its mark on ballad poetry as well as history; through the hanging of Cockburn of Henderland it gave occasion for the Lament of the Border Widow. But no incident in it made deeper impression on the popular memory—none seems to have caused more sorrow and reprobation—than the stringing up of the Laird of Gilnockie and his followers on the trees at Carlenrig, at the head of Teviot. A 'Johnie Armstrong's Dance' was popular when the Complaynt of Scotland was written twenty years later; and Sir David Lyndsay, in one of his plays, makes his Pardoner hawk about, among his relics of saints, the cords of good hemp that hanged the unlucky laird of Gilnockie Hall, with the commendation that
'Wha'ever beis hangit in this cord Neidis never to be drowned.'
At the bar of judgment of the balladists, the deed was counted murder:
'Scotland's heart was ne'er sae wae To see sae mony brave men die';
and murder all the less pardonable, since the king who ordered it was himself an inspirer and, as some say, a writer of ballads. As is pointed out in the Border Minstrelsy, the ballad, in its account of the interview between the king and his troublesome subject, follows pretty closely the narrative of Pitscottie. 'What wants that knave that a king should have?' was the offended remark of James, when he saw the band approaching him in the bravery of their war-gear. And Johnie, when all his appeals and bribes proved to be vain, could also speak a frank word:
'"To seek het water beneath cauld ice, Surely it is a great follie; I have asked grace at a graceless face, But there is nane for my men and me."'
Whatever their misdeeds, Gilnockie and his men had certainly hard measure and short shrift. The king's courtiers, it is alleged, incited him to make a summary end of the Armstrongs; and he had not the biting answer ready which his father is said to have given to the 'keen laird of Buccleuch,' when that Border chieftain urged him to 'braid on with fire and sword' against the Outlaw of Ettrick Forest:
'Now haud thy tongue, Sir Walter Scott, Nor speak of reif or felonie; For had every honest man his coo, A right puir clan thy name would be.'
But when their own clan or dependants made appeal for help or vengeance, none were more prompt with the strong word and deed than the Scotts—witness, Kinmont Willie; witness also, Jamie Telfer o' the Fair Dodhead. When Jamie ran hot-foot to Branksome Hall with the news that the Captain of Bewcastle had ramshackled his house and driven his gear and stock, until
'There was naught left in the Fair Dodhead But a greeting wife and bairnies three,'
did not Buccleuch start up like an old roused lion?
'"Gar warn the water, braid and wide, Gar warn it soon and hastilie! They that winna ride for Telfer's kye, Let them never look on the face o' me!"'
And the chase goes on, from the Dodhead on the Ettrick until, at the fords of the Liddel, the enemy are brought to bay; and we have the fine picture of Auld Wat of Harden, the husband of the 'Flower of Yarrow,' and a forebear of the author of Waverley, as he 'grat for very rage' when Willie Scott, the son of his chief, lay slain by an English stroke:
'But he 's ta'en aff his good steel cap, And thrice he 's waved it in the air. The Dinley's snaw was ne'er mair white Than the lyart locks of Harden's hair.'
Vain was the offer by the Bewcastle raiders to men in such mood to take back the cattle that had been lifted:
'When they cam' to the Fair Dodhead, They were a welcome sight to see! For instead of his ain ten milk-kye, Jamie Telfer has gotten thirty-and-three.'
Auld Maitland treats of an inroad on the opposite side of the country, of more ancient date and more formidable character. Its hero appears to have been a progenitor of that line of Lethington in East Lothian, and of Thirlstane, in Lauderdale, who, planted firmly on both sides of Lammermuir, produced in after-times warriors, statesmen, and even poets of note. Gavin Douglas places Maitland, with the 'auld beird grey,' among the legendary inmates of his 'Palace of Honour'; and Scott identifies him as a Sir Richard de Mautlant who, in the latter half of the thirteenth century, and probably during the Wars of Independence, held the ancestral lands by Leaderside, on the track of invading armies crossing the Tweed between Coldstream and Melrose, and holding in to Lothian by Soultra Hill. Accordingly, the ballad tells us that the English army, under King Edward, assembled on the Tyne:
'They lighted on the banks of Tweed, And blew their fires so het, And fired the Merse and Teviotdale All in an evening late.
As they flared up o'er Lammermuir They burned baith up and down, Until they came to a darksome house, Some call it Lauder town.'
Many a foray from the same direction followed the same gait, their coming heralded by the bale-fires that flashed the signal from Hume Castle to Edgarhope (wrongly identified by Professor Veitch with Edgerston on Jed Water), and from Edgarhope to Soultra Edge. But memorable above all other Border raids recorded in song or story, is that encounter in which 'the Douglas and the Percy met,' and which has inspired perhaps the very finest of the historical ballads of each country. Moot points there are of locality, date, and circumstances; but it is generally accepted that the rhyme known for many centuries in Scotland as The Battle of Otterburn, and the English Chevy Chase are versions, from opposite sides, of one event—a skirmish fought in the autumn of 1388 on Rede Water, between a band of Scots, under James, Earl of Douglas, returning home laden with spoil, and a body of English, led by Hotspur, the son of the Earl of Northumberland, in which Douglas was slain and young Harry Percy taken prisoner. It were as hard to decide between the merits of these famous old lays as to award the prize for prowess between the respective champions. But it may be noted, as a fine Borderer's trait, that each of the two ballads does full justice to the chivalry and fighting mettle of the enemy. It is to be observed also that they are different poems, and not merely versions of the same; and that The Battle of Otterburn and the other racy and vigorous ballads of its class dealt with in this chapter, are of themselves sufficient to refute the arrogant dictum of Mr. Carew Hazlitt, that Scotland has no original ballad-poetry to speak of, and that what she calls her own are 'chiefly English ballads, sprinkled with Northern provincialisms.'
But while they are, as Scott says, different in essentials, the English and Scottish ballads have exchanged phrases and even verses, as the English and Scottish warriors exchanged strokes, and these of the best:
'When Percy wi' the Douglas met, I wat they were full fain; They swakked their swords till sair they swet, And the blood ran doon like rain,'
may lack some of the picturesqueness of the corresponding passage of Chevy Chase. But nothing, at least in Scottish eyes, can surpass the simple majesty and pathos of the last words of Douglas—words that sound all the sadder since Walter Scott repeated them, when he also had almost fought his last battle and was wounded unto death:
'"My nephew good," the Douglas said, "What recks the death o' ane? Last night I dreamed a dreary dream, And I ken the day 's thy ain.
"My wound is deep, I fain would sleep; Take thou the vanward o' the three, And hide me by the bracken bush That grows upon the lily lee.
"O bury me by the bracken bush, Beneath the blooming brier; Let never living mortal ken A kindly Scot lies here."'
The Historical Ballad of Border chivalry touches its highest and strongest note in these words; they will stand, like Tantallon, proof against the tooth of Time as long as Scotland has a heart to feel and ears to hear.
Though long on Time's dark whirlpool tossed, The song is saved; the bard is lost.
The Ettrick Shepherd.
Ballad poetry is a phrase of elastic and variable meaning. In the national repertory there are Ballads Satirical, Polemical, and Political, and even Devotional and Doctrinal, of as early date as many of the songs inspired by the spirit of Love, War, and Romance. Among them they represent the diverse strands that are blended in the Scottish character—the sombre and the bright; the prose and the poetry. The one or the other has predominated in the expression of the genius of the nation in verse, according to the circumstances and mood of the time. But neither has ever been really absent; they are the opposite sides of the same shield. It is not proposed to enter here into the ballad literature of the didactic type—the 'ballads with a purpose'—either by way of characterisation or example. In further distinction from the authors of the specimens of old popular song, the writers of many or most of them are known to us, at least by name, and are among the most honoured and familiar in our literature.
Towards the unlettered bards of the traditional ballads, who 'saved other names, but left their own unsung,' the more serious and self-conscious race of poets who wrote satire and allegory and homily on the same model have generally thought themselves entitled to assume an attitude of superiority and even of disapproval. The verse of those self-taught rhymers was rude and simple, and wanting in those conventional ornaments, borrowed from classic or other sources, which for the time being were the recognised hallmarks of poesy; the moral lessons it taught were not apparent, nor even discoverable. It is curious to note how early this tone of reprobation, of contempt, or at best of kindly condescension on the part of the official priesthood of letters towards the humble tribe of balladists asserts itself, and how long it endures.
Even Edmund Spenser, as quoted by Scott in the Minstrelsy, reproves the Irish bards and rhymsters, as he might have done their Scottish brethren, because 'for little reward or the share of a stolen cow' they 'seldom use to choose the doings of good men for the arguments of their poems,' but, on the contrary, those of such men as live 'lawlessly and licentiously upon stealths and spoyles,' whom they praise to the people, and set up as an example to young men. A poetaster of the beginning of the seventeenth century prays his printer that his book 'be not with your Ballads mixt,' and that 'it come not brought on pedlars' backs to common Fairs'—a prayer fulfilled to the letter. And down even to our own century, a host of collectors, adaptors, and imitators have spoken patronisingly of the elder ballads, and foisted on them additions and ornaments that have not always or often been improvements.
The whirligig of time has brought in its revenges; and the final judgment passed by posterity upon the respective claims of the formal verse and the 'unpremeditated lay' of earlier centuries, has in large measure reversed that of the age in which they were born. The former, and particularly where it undertook to scourge the vices, the heresies, and the follies of the period, lacks entirely that air of simplicity and spontaneity—that 'wild-warlock' lilt, that 'wild happiness of thought and expression'—which, in the phrase of Robert Burns, marks 'our native manner and language' in ballad poetry certainly not less than in lyrical song. The laureated bard, honoured of the Court and blessed by the Church, is deposed from his pride of place, in the affections and remembrance of the people at least, while the chant of the unknown minstrel of 'the hedgerow and the field' goes sounding on in deeper and widening volume through the great heart of the race, and is hailed as the one true ballad voice.
Among the subjects which the Moral and Satirical Ballad selected for censure were, it will be seen, the themes and the heroes of the humble broadsheets sung at the common fairs and carried in the pedlar's pack. Nor are we to wonder at this. Much of the contents of that pack is better forgotten. Much even of what has been preserved might have been allowed to drop into oblivion, without loss to posterity and with gain to the character and reputation of the 'good old times.' The balladists—those of the early broadsheets at least—could be gross on occasion; although, it must be owned, not more gross than the dramatists of Elizabethan and Restoration times, and even the novelists of last century, sometimes deigned to be. In particular, they made the mistake, of venerable date and not quite unknown to this day, of confounding humour with coarseness. A humorous ballad is usually a thing to be fingered gingerly. Yet, although (partly for the reason hinted at) humour has been said not to be a strongly marked element of the flower of our ballad poetry, there are many of the best of them that have imbedded in them a rich and genuine vein of comic wit or broad fun; and there are also what may be classed as Humorous Ballads proper (or improper as the case may be), which reflect more plainly and frankly, perhaps, than any other department of our literature, the customs, character, and amusements of the commonalty, and have exercised an important influence on the national poets and poetry of a later day.
Of the blending of the humorous with the romantic, an excellent example is found in the ballad of Earl Richard and the Carl's Daughter. The Princess, disguised in beggar's duds, keeps on the hook the deluded and disgusted knight, who has unwillingly taken her up behind him, and with wilful and lively wit draws for him pictures of the squalid home and fare with which she is familiar, until it is her good time and pleasure to undeceive him:
'She said, "Good-e'en, ye nettles tall, Where ye grow at the dyke; If the auld carline my mother was here Sae weel 's she wad ye pike.
How she wad stap ye in her poke, I wot she wadna fail; And boil ye in her auld brass pan, And o' ye mak' good kail."
. . . . .
"Awa', awa', ye ill woman, Your vile speech grieveth me; When ye hide sae little for yoursel' Ye 'll hide far less for me."
"Gude-e'en, gude-e'en, ye heather berries, As ye grow on yon hill; If the auld carline and her bags were here, I wot she would get her fill.
Late, late at night I knit our pokes, Wi' four-and-twenty knots; And in the morn, at breakfast-time I 'll carry the keys o' your locks."
. . . . .
"But if you are a carl's daughter, As I take you to be, Where did you get the gay clothing In greenwood was on thee?"
"My mother she 's a poor woman, But she nursed earl's children three, And I got it from a foster-sister, To beguile such sparks as thee."'
Of the ballads descriptive of old country sports and merry-making that have come down to us, the most famous are Christ's Kirk on the Green and Peblis to the Play. They lead us back to times when life in Scotland was not such a 'serious' thing as it afterwards became—when, under the patronage of the Court or of the Church, Miracle-plays or Moralities were played on the open sward in such places of resort for gentle and simple as Falkland and Stirling and Peebles and Cupar; and the strain of the more solemn mumming was relieved for the benefit of the common folks, by rough jests, horse-play, and dancing, in which their betters freely joined. No doubt it was a piece of sage church and state policy to keep the minds of the people off the dangerous questions that began to be stirring in them, by aid of these scenes of 'dancing and derray,' and of almost Rabelaisian fits of mirth and laughter, the savour of which remained long after they had been placed under the ban of a sterner ecclesiastical rule.
Leslie in Fife and Leslie in Aberdeen are competitors for having given the inspiration to Christ's Kirk on the Green, to which Allan Ramsay afterwards added a second part in the same vein. But whether these passages of boisterous merriment, in which 'licht-skirtit lasses and girning gossips' play their part happed under the green Lomond or at Dunideer, there can be no question of the national popularity which the piece long enjoyed. Pope declared that a Scot would fight in his day for its superiority over English ballads; and the author of Tullochgorum, in a letter to Robert Burns, tells us that at the age of twelve he had it by heart, and had even tried to turn it into Latin verse. In Peblis to the Play, the fun is not less nimble although it is a whit more restrained; there is an infectious spirit of spring-time and gaiety in the strain that sings of the festal gathering at Beltane, when burgesses and country folks fared forth 'be firth and forest,' all 'graithed full gay' to take part in the sports. 'All the wenches of the west' were up and stirring by cock-crow, selecting, rejecting, or comparing their tippets, hoods, and curches. Not only Peebles, but
'Hop-Kailzie, and Cardronow, Gaderit out thick-fald, With "Hey and how rohumbelow" The young folk were full bald. The bag-pipe blew, and they out-threw Out of the townis untald, Lord, what a shout was them amang Quhen thai were ower the wald Their west Of Peblis to the play!'
From a phrase used by John Major, it has been suggested that James I. of Scots was the writer of this poem; and a note on the Bannatyne MS. of Christ's Kirk attributes that companion poem to the same royal authorship. In spite of the adverse judgment pronounced by Professors Guest and Skeat, it does not seem an inconceivable thing that the monarch who wrote the King's Quair, and whose daughter kissed the lips of Alain Chartier as the reward of France for his sweet singing, should have written these strains descriptive of rural jollity in localities where the court and sovereign are known to have often resorted for hunting and other diversion. The cast and language of the poems appear, however, to belong to a later date; and the quaint stanza, afterwards employed in a modified form with such effect by Fergusson and Burns, is that used by Alexander Scot in The Justing at the Drum, and in other burlesque pieces of the early or middle period of the sixteenth century.
A much more taking tradition is that which assigns them to the adventure-loving 'Commons King,' James V. They are thoroughly after the 'humour'—using the word in the Elizabethan as well as in the ordinary sense—of the wandering 'Red Tod'; who has also been held to be the inspirer, if not the author, of those excellent humorous ballads—among the best of their kind to be found in any language—The Gaberlunzie Man and The Jolly Beggar.
From the moral point of view, these pieces may, perhaps, come under Spenser's condemnation of the rhymers who sing of amatory adventures in which love is no sooner asked than it is granted. But the balladist carries everything before him by the verve and good humour and pawky wit of his song. There are touches worthy of the comedy spirit of Moliere in the description, in The Gaberlunzie Man, of the good-wife's alternate blessing and banning as she makes her morning discoveries about the 'silly poor man' whom she has lodged over night:
'She gaed to the bed whair the beggar lay; The strae was cauld, he was away; She clapt her hands, cry'd, "Dulefu' day! For some of our gear will be gane."
Some ran to coffer and some to kist, But nought was stown that could be mist, She danced her lane, cry'd, "Praise be blest, I 've lodg'd a leal poor man. Since naething awa, as we can learn, The kirn 's to kirn, and milk to yearn, Gae but the house, lass, and waken my bairn, And bid her come quickly ben."
The servant gaed where the dochter lay— The sheets were cauld, she was away; And fast to the goodwife did say "She 's aff wi' the gaberlunzie man." "O fy gar ride, and fy gar rin, And haste ye, find these traitors again; For she 's be burnt, and he 's be slain, The wearifu' gaberlunzie man."'
The Jolly Beggar is a variation of the same tale from the book of the moonlight rovings of the 'Guidman o' Ballengeich,' with the same vigour and lively humour, and with the bloom of the old ballad minstrelsy upon it besides:
'He took his horn from his side, And blew baith loud and shrill, And four-and-twenty belted knights Came skipping o'er the hill.
And he took out his little knife, Loot a' his duddies fa'; And he stood the brawest gentleman That was amang them a'.'
Other excellent specimens of old Scottish humour have come down to us in ballad form, some of them made more familiar to our ears in modernised versions or paraphrases in which, along with the roughnesses, much of the force and quaint drollery of the originals has been smoothed away. Of such is The Wyf of Auchtermuchty, a Fife ballad, full of local colour and character, the production of 'Sir John Moffat,' a sixteenth century priest, who loved a merry jest, and of whom we know barely more than the name. With so many other precious fragments of our national poetry, it is preserved in the collection of George Bannatyne, the namefather of the Bannatyne Club, who beguiled the tedium of his retirement in time of plague by copying down the popular verse of his day. It is the progenitor of John Grumlie, and gives us a lively series of pictures of the housewifery and the husbandry, as well as the average human nature of the time, class, and locality to which it belongs. The proverb, 'The more the haste the less the speed,' has never been more humorously illustrated than in the troubles of the lazy guidman who 'weel could tipple oot a can, and neither lovit hunger nor cauld,' and who fancied that he could more easily play the housewife's part:
'Then to the kirn that he did stour, And jumbled at it till he swat; When he had jumblit ane lang hour, The sorrow crap of butter he gat.
Albeit nae butter he could get, Yet he was cumbered wi' the kirn; And syne he het the milk ower het, That sorrow spark o' it wad yearn.'
Of the same racy domestic type are the still popular, The Barrin' o' the Door, Hame cam' oor Guidman at e'en, to which, with needless ingenuity, it has been sought to give a Jacobite significance, and Allan o' Maut, an allegorical account of the genesis of 'barley bree.' Of this last, also, Bannatyne has noted a version which was probably in vogue in the first half of the sixteenth century. Even the hand of Burns, who has produced, in John Barleycorn, the final form of the ballad, could not give us more vigorous and trenchant Scots than is contained in the verses of this venerable rhyme in Jamieson's collection: