HotFreeBooks.com
The Balladists - Famous Scots Series
by John Geddie
Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse

'He first grew green, syne grew he white, Syne a' men thocht that he was ripe; And wi' crookit gullies and hafts o' tree, They 've hew'd him down, right dochtilie.

. . . . .

The hollin souples, that were sae snell, His back they loundert, mell for mell, Mell for mell, and baff for baff, Till his hide flew round his lugs like chaff.'

Three (if not four) generations of the Semples of Beltrees carried the tradition of this homely type of native poetry, with its strong gust and relish of life, and the Dutch-like breadth and fidelity of its pictures of the character and humours of common folk, over the period from the Scottish Reformation to the Revolution; and are remembered by such pieces as The Packman's Paternoster, The Piper o' Kilbarchan, The Blithesome Bridal, and, best and most characteristic of all, Maggie Lauder.

The 'business of the Reformation of Religion' did not go well with ballad-making or with the roystering fun of the fair and the play. In the stern temper to which the nation was wrought in the struggle to cast out abuses in the faith and practice of the Church and to assert liberty of judgment, the feigned adventures of knights and the sorrows of love-crossed maids seemed to cease for a time to exercise their spell over the fancy of the people. The open-air gatherings and junketings on feast and saints' days, with their attendant mirth and music, were too closely associated with the old ecclesiastical rule, and had too many scandals and excesses connected with them, to escape censure from the new Mentors and conscience-keepers of the nation. When, a little later, the spirit of Puritanism came in, mirth and music, and more particularly the dance, became themselves suspect. They savoured of the follies of this world, and were among the wiles most in use by the Wicked One in snaring souls. The flowers were cut down along with the weeds by those root-and-branch men—only to spring up again, both of them, in due season, more luxuriantly than ever.

There were other and cogent reasons why the exploits of 'Jock o' the Side' and his confreres should be frowned upon and listened to with impatience. The time for Border feud and skirmish was already well-nigh past. Industry and knowledge and the pacific arts of life were making progress. The moss-trooper was already becoming an anachronism and a pestilent nuisance, to be put down by the relentless arm of the law, before the Union of the Crowns. Half a century or more before that event, this opinion had been formed of the reiving clans by their quieter and more thoughtful neighbours, as is manifest from the biting allusions of Sir David Lyndsay and Sir Richard Maitland. But after King James's going to England, even the balladists were chary of lifting up a voice in praise of the freebooters of the former Marches. Men were busy finding and fitting themselves to new ideals of patriotism and duty. The gift and the taste for ballad poetry disappeared, or rather went into retirement for a time, to reappear in other forms at a later call of loyalty and romanticism.

The Gude and Godlie Ballates of the Wedderburns had been deliberately produced and circulated by the Reformers, with the avowed intention, as Sheriff Mackay says, of 'driving the old amatory and romantic ballads out of the field, and substituting spiritual songs, set to the same tunes—much as revivalists of the present day have adopted older secular melodies.' But nothing enduring is to be done, in the field of poetry, by mere dint of determination and good intent. If the older songs succumbed for a time to the new spiritual melodies, we may feel sure that it was not without a struggle. On the Borders and in the Highlands, the Original Adam asserted himself, in deed and in song, long after the more sober mind of Fife, Lanark, and the West Country had given itself up to the solution of the new theological and ecclesiastical problems which time and change had brought to the nation. The Reformers complained that the fighting clans of the Western Marches could only with difficulty be induced to turn their thoughts from the hereditary business of the quarrel of the Kingdoms to take up instead the quarrel of the Kirk. Even so late as the Covenanting period, Richard Cameron found it hard work 'to set the fire of hell to the tails' of the Annandale men. They came to the field meetings 'out of mere curiosity, to see a minister preach in a tent, and people sit on the ground'—in a spirit not unlike that in which the people used to gather at Peblis to the Play or Christ's Kirk on the Green, to mingle a pinch of piety and priestly Moralities with a bellyful of carnal delights. It was not until the preacher had denounced them as 'offspring of thieves and robbers,' that some of them began to 'get a merciful cast.'

This, too, changed in the course of time, and having once caught fire, the religious enthusiasm of the marchmen kindled into a brilliant glow, or smouldered with a fervent heat. They flung themselves into the front of Kirk controversy, as they did also into more peaceable pursuits, such as sheep-farming and tweed manufacture, with the same hearty energy which aforetime was expended upon raids into Cumberland and Northumberland.

But through all the changes and distractions of the three centuries since the Warden's men met with merriment and parted with blows at the Reidswire, the old ballad music—the voice of the blood; the very speech and message of the hills and streams—has sounded like a softly-played accompaniment to the strenuous labour of the race with hand and head—a reminder of the men and the thoughts of 'the days of other years.' At times, in the strife of Church or State, or in the chase of gain, the magic notes of this 'Harp of the North' may have sunk low, may have become nigh inaudible. But in the pauses when the nation could listen to the rhythmic beat of its own heart, the sound has made itself heard and felt like the noise of many waters or the sough of the wind in the tree-tops; it is music that can never die out of the land. Its echo has never been wholly missed by Dee and Earn and Girvan; certainly never by Yarrow and Teviot and Tweed. The 'Spiritual Songs'—the 'Gude and Godlie Ballates'—are lost, or are remembered only by the antiquary; not indeed because they were spiritual, or because they were written by worthy men with good intent—for the Scottish Psalms, sung to their traditional melodies, touch a still deeper chord in the natural breast than the ballads—but because they lacked the sap of life, the beauty and the passion of nature's own teaching, which only can give immortality to song. There is a 'Harp of the Covenant', and in it there are piercing wails wrung from a people almost driven frantic with suffering and oppression. But the popular lays of the civil wars and commotions of the seventeenth century are few in number, and singularly wanting in those touches of grace and tenderness and kindly humour that somehow accompany the very roughest and most trenchant of the earlier ballads, like the bloom and fragrance that adorn the bristling thickets of the native whin on the slopes of the Eildons or Arthur Seat. The times were harsh and crabbed, and the song they yielded was like unto themselves. There are ballads of the Battle of Pentland, of Bothwell Brig, of Killiecrankie, and, to make a leap into another century, of Sheriffmuir. But they are memorable for the passion of hatred and scorn that is in them, rather than for their merits as poetry—for girdings, from one side or the other, at 'cruel Claver'se' and the red-shanked Highlandmen that slew the hope of the Covenant, or at the

'Riven hose and ragged hools, Sour milk and girnin' gools, Psalm beuks and cutty stools'

of Whiggery.

After a time of dearth, however, Scottish poetry began to revive; and one of the earliest signs was the attention that began to be paid to the anonymous ballads of the country. It is curious that the first printed collection of them should have been almost contemporary with that merging of the Parliaments of the two kingdoms, which, according to the fears and beliefs of the time, was to have made an end of the nationality and identity of the smaller and poorer of the countries. It was in 1706—the year before the Union—that James Watson's Serious and Comic Scots Poems made their appearance, prompted, conceivably, by the impulse to grasp at what seemed to be in danger of being lost.

Of infinitely greater importance in the history of our ballad literature was the appearance, some eighteen years later, of Allan Ramsay's Evergreen and Tea-Table Miscellany. It was a fresh dawning of Scottish poetry. Warmth, light, and freedom seemed to come again into the frozen world. The blithe and genial spirit of the black-avised little barber-poet was itself the greatest imaginable contrast to the soured Puritanism and prim formalism that for half a century and more had infested the national letters. But the author of The Gentle Shepherd himself—and small blame to him—did not fully comprehend the nature and extent of his mission. He did not wholly rid himself from the prevalent idea that the simple natural turn of the old verse was naked rudeness which it was but decent and charitable to deck with the ornaments of the time before it could be made presentable in polite society; indeed he himself, in later editions especially, tried his hand boldly at emendation, imitation, and continuation.

For a generation or two longer, the ballad suffered from these attentions of the modish muse. Yet the original spark of inspiration was not extinct; in the Border valleys especially—its native country, as we have called it—there were strains that 'bespoke the harp of ancient days.' Of Lady Grizel Baillie's lilts, composed at 'Polwarth on the Green' or at Mellerstain—classic scenes of song and of legend, both of them—mention has been made; they have on them the very dew of homely shepherd life, closed about by the hills, of 'forest charms decayed and pastoral melancholy.' The Wandering Violer, also, 'Minstrel Burne,' from whom Scott may have taken the hint of the 'last of all the bards who sang of Border chivalry'—caught an echo, in Leader Haughs, of the grief and changes 'which fleeting Time procureth.'

'For many a place stands in hard case Where blyth folks ken'd nae sorrow, With Humes that dwelt on Leaderside, And Scotts that wonned in Yarrow.'

His song, with its notes of native sweetness and its artificial garnishing of classic allusions, marks the passing of the old ballad style into the new.

Jane Elliot, too, a descendant of that Gibbie Elliot—'the laird of Stobs, I mean the same'—who refused to come to the succour of Telfer's kye, listened to the murmuring of the 'mining Rule' and looked up towards the dark skirt and threatening top of Ruberslaw, as she crooned the old fragment which her fancy shaped into that lilting before daybreak of the lasses at the ewe-milking, turned ere night into wailing for the lost Flowers of the Forest. Her contemporary, Mrs. Cockburn, who wrote the more hackneyed set of the same Border lament, was of the ancient race of Rutherford of Wauchope in the same romantic Border district,—a district wherein James Thomson, of The Seasons, spent his childhood from almost his earliest infancy, and where the prototype of Scott's Dandie Dinmont, James Davidson of 'Note o' the Gate,' sleeps sound under a green heap of turf. To trace the Teviotdale dynasty of song further in the female line, Mrs. Cockburn's niece, Mrs. Scott, was that 'guidwife o' Wauchope-house,' who addressed an ode to her 'canty, witty, rhyming ploughman,' Robert Burns, with an invitation to visit her on the Border—an invitation which the poet accepted, and on the way thither, as he relates, chanced upon 'Esther (Easton), a very remarkable woman for reciting poetry of all kinds, and sometimes making Scots doggerel of her own.'

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, the search for and the study of the remains of the old and popular poetry was making progress. With this had come a truer appreciation of its beauty and its spirit, and the return of a measure of the earlier gift of spontaneous song. The fancy of Scotland was kindled by the tale of the '45. Her poetic heart beat in sympathy with the 'Lost Cause'—after it was finally lost; even while her reason and judgment remained, on the whole, true to the side and to the principles that were victorious. Men who were almost Jacobin in their opinion—Robert Burns is a prime example—became Jacobite when they donned their singing robes. The faults and misdeeds of the Stewarts were forgotten in their misfortunes. In the gallant but ruinous 'cast for the crown' of the native dynasty, the national lyre found once more a theme for song and ballad. 'Drummossie moor, Drummossie day' drew laments as for another Flodden; and 'Johnnie Cope,' in his flight from the field of Prestonpans, was pursued more relentlessly by mocking rhymes than by Highland claymores.

A rush of Jacobite song, which had the great good fortune to be wedded to music not less witching than itself, followed rather than attended the Rebellion; and has become among the most precious and permanent of the nation's possessions in the sphere of poetry. Whichever side had the better in the sword-play, there can be no doubt which has won the triumph in the piping. Song and music have given the Stewart cause its revenge against fortune; and Prince Charlie, and not Cumberland, will remain for all time the hero of the cycle of song that commemorates the last romantic episode in our domestic annals. Jacobite poetry has been lyrical for the most part. But the ballad—narrative in form and dramatic in spirit—has not been neglected.

In a host of singers, Caroline Oliphant, Baroness Nairne, wears the laurel crown of the Jacobite Muse, and Strathearn is the chief centre of inspiration. But the authoress of The Auld Hoose, and The Land o' the Leal, also wrote ballads of cheery and pawky, yet 'genty' humour that have caught and held the popular ear, as witness the immortal Laird of Cockpen. Hamilton of Bangour, who was 'out' in the '45, had struck anew the lyre of Yarrow in Busk ye, busk ye! Fife could already 'cock her crest' over Elizabeth Halkett, Lady Wardlaw, a balladist whose verse, acknowledged and unacknowledged, had many genuine touches 'of the antique manner;' and Lady Anne Barnard, a granddaughter of Colin, Earl of Balcarres, whose career was one of the romances of the '15 and of the House of Lindsay, was able to tell Sir Walter Scott, so late as 1823, the story of the conception and birth of her Auld Robin Gray, which also, on its first anonymous appearance, was taken by some as 'a very, very ancient ballad, composed perhaps by David Rizzio.' As with so many other ballads—perhaps as with most of them—the inspiration of the words was caught from a beautiful and still older air—'an ancient Scotch melody,' says Lady Anne, 'of which I was passionately fond; Sophy Johnstone used to sing it to us at Balcarres.' The date of this, perhaps the sweetest of our modern ballads, is fixed approximately by the gifted writer 'as soon after the close of the year 1771'—perhaps the first approach that can be made to the timing a ballad's birth.

Walter Scott, also, was born in the latter half of 1771. Burns was then fifteen years of age, 'beardless, young, and blate,' but already, as he wrote to the 'guidwife of Wauchope-house,' with

'The elements o' sang In formless jumble right an' wrang Wild floating in his brain.'

Already the wish was 'strongly heaving the breast' of that young Ayrshire ploughman,

'That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake Some usefu' plan or beuk could make, Or sing a sang at least.'

Galloway had by this time taken up again its rough old lyre. Away in the North—in the Mearns and in Buchan, old homes of the ballad—the Reverend John Skinner had written his genial songs of Tullochgorum, The Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn and the rest, that seem to thrill with the piercing and stirring notes of fiddle and pipes, being moved thereto, as he has told us, by his daughters, 'who, being all good singers, plagued me for words to their favourite tunes.' Fergusson was celebrating, in an old stanza, shortly to be made world-famous, the high jinks on Leith Links. Everywhere, from the Moray Firth to the Cheviots, and from the East Neuk of Fife to Maidenkirk, there were preludings for the new and splendid burst of Scottish song, that by and by broke from the banks of Ayr and Doon. The service rendered by the genius of Burns in quickening and purifying Scottish song and ballad poetry has often been acknowledged. It was, indeed, beyond all measure and praise. But recognition, has not, perhaps, been made so fully and frequently of what our 'King of Song' owed to the popular poetry of country people and elder times—and notably to the ballads—that have been handed down by memory rather than books. His was not an isolated phenomenon, blazing up meteor-like without visible cause or prompting. His poetry is rather the culminating effect of an impulse that had been making itself felt for generations. It was like one of those grand bale-fires of the days of peril and watching, whose sudden gleam made the blood stir in the veins, and turned men's faces skywards, but which caught its message from distant points of light that to us seem almost swallowed in the surrounding darkness.

Burns had an inimitable ear for ballad feeling and for ballad rhythm and music. But, except for some vigorous satiric, political, and bacchanalian chants of his own, and the recasting of a few of the old-fashioned and lively rhymes like The Carl o' Kellyburn Braes that were not out of the need of being cleaned and furbished to please a more fastidious age, he could scarcely be called a ballad writer. His special sphere in the restoration and preservation of the old was in lyrical poetry. What Robert Burns achieved for the songs, however, Walter Scott did for the ballads and prose legends of Scotland. The appearance of the Border Minstrelsy makes 1802 the red-letter year in the later annals of the Scottish Ballad. More than twenty years before, the little lame boy, with the good blood of two Border clans, the Scotts and the Rutherfords, in his veins, had lain on the braes of Sandyknowe, and had drunk in through all his senses the history and romance of the Borderland. He had heard from the 'aged hind,' or at the 'winter hearth,' the old tales of woe and mirth; wild conjurings of superstition or real events that, although nearer then by a hundred years than they are to-day, had already been magnified, distorted, glorified in passing through the medium of the popular memory. His dreaming fancy did the rest. Looking from his point of vantage across the fair valley of the Tweed to the blue chain of Cheviot, every notch in which was 'a gate and passage of the thief,' every fold below it, the site of some battle or story of old,

'Over Tweed's fair flood, and Mertoun's wood, And all down Teviotdale,'

he was able to repeople the scene as it was when ballad romance was not only written but lived:

'I marvelled as the aged hind With some strange tale bewitched my mind, Of forayers, who with headlong force Down from that strength had spurred their horse.

. . . . .

And ever, by the winter hearth, Old tales I heard of woe or mirth, Of lovers' slights, of ladies charms, Of witches' spells, of warriors' arms; Of patriot battles won of old By Wallace wight and Bruce the bold.'

There could not have been a more 'meet nurse for a poetic child' than the green slopes, the black rocks, and the grey keep, reflected in its still 'lochan,' of Scott's ancestral home at Sandyknowe. Dryburgh, Melrose, and Kelso, are hidden in the valley below. The huge square tower of Hume—'Willie Wastle's' castle—stands on the same sky-line as Smailholm peel itself, keeping guard along with it over the passes and marches of the ancient Scottish Kingdom. Wrangholm is near by, where St. Cuthbert dreamed and played boyish sports before he set forth on his mission to christianise Northumbria. Bemerside, the Broom o' the Cowdenknowes, and the Rhymer's Tower are not far off; Huntly Bank is also where True Thomas lay alone listening to the throstle and the jay, under the Eildon tree, and

'Was war of a lady gay Come rydyng ouyr a fair le';

Mellerstain, whence the hero of James Haitlie rode to find favour in the eyes of the king's daughter, and where Grizel Hume and the Mellerstain Maid afterwards sung notes as wild and sweet and fresh as ever came from fairyland; and many a famous spot besides. The three-headed Eildons are in sight, with Dunion, Ruberslaw, Penielheugh, Minto Crags, Lilliard's Edge, and all the Border high places. Here Scott's poetic fancy was born; and he paid it only to the tribute that was due when he made it the scene of the finest of the modern ballads of its class, the Eve of St. John. As a shrine of pilgrimage for the lover of ballad lore, Smailholm and Sandyknowe should rank next after, if they should not take precedence of the Vale of Yarrow. Six years before Scott's birth, while Burns was just a toddler, Bishop Percy's Reliques had seen the light. The chief gathering ground of this celebrated collection was on the English side of the Border, but was not confined to ballad poetry. But it brought to some of the choicest of our ballads, such as Sir Patrick Spens, a fame and vogue such as they had never before enjoyed in the world without; and it profoundly influenced the poetic thought and taste of Scotland, as of every land where song was loved and English speech was spoken. One effect was seen in the more strictly Scottish collections of fragments of ballad verse that began soon after to issue from the press. Herd's, the 'first classical collection of Scottish songs and ballads,' as Scott calls it, appeared in 1769; that of Lord Hailes 1770; and Pinkerton's in 1781 and 1783. The publication in 1787 of the first volume of Johnson's Museum was one of the fruitful results to the national poetry and music of the visit of Robert Burns to Edinburgh; but the impulse that brought it to the light can be traced back by sure lines to Percy. Ritson's learned labours in a still wider field came forth between 1780 and 1794; and Sibbald's Chronicle was of the same year as the Border Minstrelsy.

The age of ballad collection and collation had fairly set in. But this does not deprive the Minstrelsy of the praise that, with the beginning of a new century, it ensured that the search for and rescue from oblivion of the old ballads should thenceforth be a business which, not alone the antiquary and the poet, but the whole people should make their concern. Jamieson's Popular Ballads followed in 1806; and, after a pause, filled up with the appearance of fresh volumes and fresh editions of the earlier collections, the works of Kinloch, Motherwell, and Buchan came with a rush, in the years 1827-8.

Of these, and other repertories of the national ballads, the number is legion, and the merits and methods as varied and diverse. There is not space to discuss and compare them, even were discussion and comparison part of the present plan. Such treatment is apt to reduce a book on ballads and balladists to what Charles G. Leland terms 'mere logarithmic tables of variants.' First came the harvesters; and then those who were content to glean where the others had left. As matter of course and of necessity the readings, and even the structure of the pieces picked up from oral recitation and singing, presented endless points of difference according to the locality and to the individual singer or collector. As has been said, each old piece of popular poetry, before it has been fixed in print, and even after, takes a certain part of its colour and character from the minds and memories through which it has been strained. As an illustration of this, in another field, one might mention that Pastor Hurt, when he set about, a few years ago, gathering the fragments of Esthonian folk literature, obtained contributions from 633 different collectors, most of them simple peasants, and as the result of three and a half years' work, he brought together 'of epics, lyrics, wedding songs, etc., upwards of 20,000 specimens; of tales about 3000; of proverbs about 18,000; of riddles, about 20,000, besides a large collection of magical formulae, superstitions, and the like.' These figures include variants of the same tale or ballad theme, of which there were in some cases as many as 160.

The Scottish ballads may scarce be so multitudinous and protean a host as this. But the search for them, and the choice of them when discovered, have given infinite exercise to the industry, the judgment, and the patience of successive editors; and literature has no more curious and romantic chapter than that which deals with ballad collecting and collectors. The latter, in Scotland as elsewhere, have not been free from the human liability to err—few men have been less so. As Percy admitted Hardyknut and other examples of the pseudo-antique among his specimens of 'Old Romance Poetry,' Scott's critical acumen did not avail to detect brazen forgeries of Surtees, like Barthram's Dirge and The Death of Featherstonhaugh. In Cromek's Relics of Galloway Song were somewhat palpable 'fakements' of Allan Cunningham; William Motherwell and Peter Buchan made their egregious blunders, and even such careful and experienced antiquaries as Joseph Ritson and David Laing slipped on the dark and broken and intricate paths which they sought to explore. On the whole it can hardly be regretted that our ballad collections bear the impress of the idiosyncrasies of the individual ballad-hunters, as well as of the game they pursued and the district they coursed over.

Scott made his bag, as he tells us, chiefly 'during his early youth,' among 'the shepherds and aged persons in the recesses of the Border mountains,' who 'remembered and repeated the warlike songs of their fathers.' They were gathered on those long pedestrian excursions, with Shortreed or with Leyden (himself a balladist), which were themselves often as full of incident, and of the seeds of future romance, as any old Border raid. The great Master of Romance was, as one of his companions said, 'makin' himsel' a' the time.' Dandie Dinmont, whom the author of Guy Mannering sketches from the traits of a dozen honest yeomen and store farmers, whose hospitality he had shared in his rambles through the wilds of Liddesdale, would a few generations earlier have been a stark moss-trooper, ready to ride to the rescue of Kinmont Willie or to seek his 'beef and kail' in the Merse. The raid on Habbie Elliot of the Heughfoot is but a 'variant' of the lifting of Telfer's kye; and Wandering Willie's Tale, if it had been cast in verse, would have been the pick of our ballads of 'glamourie,' instead of the choicest of short prose stories. The rhyme and air that haunted the memory of Henry Bertram—what are they but an echo out of Scott's own romantic youth—out of the enchanted land of ballad poetry?

'"Are these the Links of Forth," she said, "Or are they the crooks of Dee, Or the bonnie woods o' Warroch-head That I so fain would see?"'

It was on one of these excursions up Ettrick that Scott forgathered with Margaret Laidlaw, the mother of the 'Shepherd,' and the repository of an inexhaustible store of fairy tales, songs and ballads, which, as she declared, the compiler of the Border Minstrelsy 'spoiled' by transmitting to print. But the richest and rarest of his 'finds' was Hogg himself. He was nursed in the lap of the Forest and cradled in ballad and fairy lore. Here was the 'heart of pathos' of the older poetry; the head buzzing with its wild fancies; 'the sang o' the linty amang the broom in the spring'; and along with these the shaggy front, the strong hand-grips, the loyalty, and the sturdy sense that are the far-descended inheritance of the Border farmer and shepherd. Surely, to parody his own words, those who love to listen to Allan Ramsay and Burns and Scott, and to the nameless Balladists who were their masters and teachers, will 'never forget a'thegither the Ettrick Shepherd.'

More important, however, even than the materials gathered by Scott from the lips of Mrs. Hogg and other Border ballad reciters, or from the Glenriddell MSS., was the golden mine of old poetry, for the preservation of which he and the nation were indebted to the taste and retentive memory of Mrs. Brown, daughter of Professor Thomas Gordon, of King's College, Aberdeen, and wife of a minister of Falkland, in the beginning of the century. There are in existence three MSS. of the songs and ballads this lady was able to remember as sung to her on Deeside; and transcription of her father's account of this precious collection, as the story is told by him in a letter to Mr. A. Fraser Tytler, and by him communicated to Scott, may best and most authentically explain its origin:—

'An aunt of my children, Mrs. Farquhar, now dead, who was married to the proprietor of a small estate near the sources of the Dee, in Braemar, a good old woman who spent the best part of her life among flocks and herds, resided in her latter days in the town of Aberdeen. She was possessed of a most tenacious memory, which retained all the songs she had heard from nurses and country-women in that sequestered part of the country. Being maternally fond of my children when young, she had them much about her, and delighted them with her songs and tales of chivalry. My youngest daughter, Mrs. Brown, at Falkland, is blessed with a memory as good as her aunt, and has almost the whole of her songs by heart. In conversation, I mentioned them to your father (William Tytler, the champion of Mary Stuart) at whose request my grandson, Mr. Scott, wrote down a parcel of them as her aunt sung them. Being then a mere novice in music, he added, in the copy, such musical notes as, he supposed, would give your father some notion of the airs, or rather lilts, to which they were sung.'

To all those whose names are mentioned in the above extract, Scotland and poetry owe a deep debt of gratitude. But here again, although men, and men of learning, have borne their part in the salvage, it is to the 'spindle side,' and to simple country ears and memories, that the main acknowledgment is due for saving what it would have been a calamity to lose. What may almost be described as the 'classical text' of some of the finest of our ballads, is that obtained by collation of the Brown 'sets,' of which the fullest is that originally owned by Robert Jamieson, which reappears in revised form in one of the copies possessed by Miss Tytler. From the circumstances of its origin, this text has something of a North Country cast, even where it deals with a South Country theme. But the three divisions of the land, the North, the Centre, and the South, bear a share of the credit of its preservation. The ballads were gathered by Deeside; they were sung and recited under Lomond Law; they were brought before the world by a Borderer.

No such 'finds' are to be looked for any longer. The ground has been for the most part well reaped and gleaned. Only a few ears are to be picked up that have escaped the notice of previous collectors; although, within the last quarter of a century, in quiet corners like the Enzie and Buchan and the Cabrach, the late Dean Christie was still able to gather from the lips of old peasant and fisher women specimens both of ballads and ballad airs that had never been in print. The chief work for half a century has been that of comparing, collating, and critically annotating the materials already found, and reference need only be made to the monumental work in eight volumes of Professor Child, in which the subject of the origins, affinities, variants and genuine text of both the Scottish and English ballads has been thoroughly worked out and brought nearly down to date.

The Ballads themselves have done a greater work. They have permeated and revived the poetry and literature of the century like a draught of rare old wine. The greatest of our modern poets have been proud to acknowledge what they owe to the forgotten minstrels who have not sent down to us out of the darkness, along with their song, so much as their name. Wordsworth, as well as Scott, pored entranced over Percy's Reliques. Coleridge, Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and a host besides, have drunk delight and found inspiration in the Scottish ballad minstrelsy; and it has awakened a responsive chord in the lyre of the poets of America. As enthusiastic old Christopher North wrote, 'Perhaps none of us ever wrote verses of any worth who had not been more or less readers of our old ballads.'

'The Bards are lost, The song is saved.'

THE END

Previous Part     1  2  3
Home - Random Browse