The Border folk songs that have inspired generations

Those who were in their primary schools in the 1950s and 60s may remember the BBC radio series Singing Together.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 3rd June 2018, 4:24 pm
Lilian Tomlin of Morpeth

The 1513  Battle of Flodden memorial at Branxton.
Lilian Tomlin of Morpeth The 1513 Battle of Flodden memorial at Branxton.

The series continued all the way from 1939, with repeats running right up until 2004.

In the early 20th century Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp had collected together a myriad of English folk songs, the staple diet of Singing Together.

Sir Walter Scott monument and the clock tower, Selkirk.

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One might well see Sir Walter Scott as having pioneered a similar campaign 100 years earlier, collecting the melodies, elegies and laments of the Scottish Borders.

His Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders gathered together a remarkable collection in three volumes, published first in 1802 and 1803.

The verse he collected includes lays, which sometimes go back centuries.

So, for example, there is the song of Thomas the Rhymer, who lived in the late 13th century.

He probably came from Earlston, and there is a viewpoint near to Melrose, the Rhymer’s Stone, engraved with the legend of Thomas.

The ballad telling of the Rhymer was published in Scott’s Minstrelsy. It opens the curtains for us on the Border Ballads. These traditional ballads range widely in their themes and locations.

For example, Sir Patrick Spens is a poem about a disaster at sea. It is one of the most anthologised of all the Border ballads.

Scotland’s king calls for the greatest sailor in the land to perform an errand. Spens is summoned, knowing it may be his last voyage:

“The King sits in Dumferline toune

drinking the blude reid wine,

‘O whar can I get a skeely skipper,

To sail this ship o’mine?’

The dénouement was as feared:

‘Haf owre, half owre to Aberdour,

Two fiftie fathom deip,

And their lies gu’d Sir Patrick Spens,

The Scots lords at his feet.”

The impact of the poem is there in much later verse and music. Sir Herbert Howells wrote a musical piece inspired by the poem. Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it too in his famous Dejection: An Ode.

The ballads covered not only the Scottish side of the border.

The epic verses of The Battle of Otterburn chronicle the 1388 English defeat, with the capture of Harry Hotspur and Sir Ralph Percy by the forces gathered by James, Earl of Douglas. Douglas died in the battle.

The poem begins:

“It fell upon the Lammas tide,

When the muir men win their bay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

Into England to drive a prey.”

And it concludes:

“This deed was done at Otterburn,

About the breaking of the day.

Earl Douglas was buried at the broken bush,

And the Percy led captive away.”

Another epic poem, the Battle of Chevy Chase, was based on the same serious skirmish at Otterburn.

Other epics were based on tales of the violent Reivers.

Kinmont Willie was inspired by the aggressive adventures of William Armstrong, a famous Reiver of the 16th century. The stories of his raid are legion.

In 1593 he ravaged Tynedale with a force of 10,000 men, carrying off no less than 8,000 cattle. In 1596, he was captured by the English warden of the West March.

The Ballad of Kinmont Willie may well have issued from the pen of Walter Scott himself; certainly there is no evidence of the poem before Scott assembled his Ministrelsy.

It runs:

“And when we cam to the lower prison,

Where Willie O’ Kinmont he did lie –

‘O sleep ye, wakeye, Kinmont Willie.

Upon the morn that thou’st to die?’”

But Willie was not to die, at least neither in prison, nor in battle, but in his own bed.

“He turn’d him on the other side,

And at hard Scroope his glove flung he –

‘If ye like na my visit in merry England,

In fair Scotland come visit me!’”

Walter Scott encouraged other poets and writers too, notably James Hogg, popularly known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ from the Yarrow Valley.

Scott’s influence went well beyond Scotland and the Borders. Thomas Hardy was inspired by his writing.

Scott’s character Meg Merrilies, from his novel Guy Mannering, inspired Keats to write his brief, but mysterious poem:

“Oh Meg she was a Gipsy.

And liv’d upon the Moors:

Her bed it was the brown heath turf,

And her house was out of doors!”

Classically, Scott added to this unique tradition in his romance Marmion, which ends at the Battle of Flodden.

Many of us will have recited in our youth the ‘cantering’ verses of Lochinvar.

“O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,

Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;

And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,

He rode all unarm’d, and he rode all alone.

So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war

There was never a knight like the young Lochinvar.”

Scottish poet Edwin Muir reflected: “The Scottish ballads have something that ordinary folk-poetry has not, that great quality, that magnanimity about life... which Arnold found in Homer.”

Like much poetry and prose, and even like the Gospels of the New Testament, their vitality springs from their origins as part of an ‘oral tradition’, recited, sung and handed on from age to age.

Stephen Platten’s Borderlands book, priced £6.95, is available from Grieves the Stationer and Slightly Foxed in Berwick.