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Border Ballads

Music, Poetry and Ballads – Introduction

Reivers clans would recite their tales of fact and fiction in epic recitals. Sir Walter Scott heard some of these and printed them in his collection of Border Ballads. Other poets such as Hogg contributed with poem, song and prose. The tradition of interpreting the Reivers in words and music continues today. This section celebrates the contemporary work of border musicians.


It is no coincidence that the Reivers gave the word bereave to the English language. The personal strength of the woman in the midst of crisis makes this a very moving song. There are many theories surrounding the historical context of this song. Scott maintained that it concerned “the execution of Cockburn of Henderland, a Border freebooter, hanged over the gate of his own tower by James V in the course of the memorable expedition of 1529 which was fatal to Johnnie Armstrong, Adam Scott of Tushielaw and many other marauders”. Sadly William Cockburne was not hanged “over the gate” but was tried and beheaded in Edinburgh.

However, we’ll allow Marjorie Cockburne her grief and supreme nobility in this hauntingly beautiful ballad. Linda Adams (singer) originally learnt it from a version collected in Oklahoma, USA, published in “Ballads and Folk Songs of the South West” which appeared on an LP complete with remarkably similar melody. In the note to the song it says “an Oklahoma frontier wife and a Scots Border widow are, in many ways, sisters of circumstance”. (nb “Poined” means to seize or make forfeit).

“The Lament of a Border Widow” a Border Ballad

My Love he built me a bonny bower
And clad it a’ wi’ lilye flour;
A brawer bower ye ne’er did see
Than my true love he built for me.

There came a man by middle day,
He spied his sport and went away,
And brought the king, that very night,
Who brake my bower and slew my knight.

He slew my knight to me sae dear,
He slew my knight and poin’d his gear;
My servants all for life did flee
And left me in extremitie.

I sew’d his sheet, making my mane,
I watched the corpse myself alane,
I watched his body night and day;
No living creature came that way.

I took his body on my back,
And whiles I gaed, and whiles I sate;
I digg’d a grave and laid him in,
And happ’d him with the sod sae green.

But think na ye my heart was sair
When I laid the moul on his yellow hair?
O think na ye my heart was wae
When I turn’d about, away to gae?

Nae living man I’ll love again
Since that my lovely knight is slain;
Wi ae lock of his yellow hair
I’ll chain my heart for evermair.


(Tunes: Border Spirit (Pigg)/ Jackie Latin (Trad)) John Wright (vocal), Steve Lawrence (electric and acoustic bouzoukis), Rick Kemp (bass) Richard Evans (Northumbrian small pipes), Richard Adams (drums), Paul Adams (bodhrans), Kenny Speirs (harmony and backing vocals)

This song provides a spirited opening to this collection. It was written by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. Historically it is a bit of a jumble, but the Border family names and place names help to conjure up the right images for the album.


Graham Pirt (vocal), Steve Lawrence (baritone guitar, electric bouzouki), Stewart Hardy (fiddle), /an Kellet (keyboards), Graeme Elliott (electric guitar), Rick Kemp (bass), Richard Adams (drums).

Although essentially an English v. Scottish battle from 1388, it was fought in the Borders and the main protagonists came from prominent Border families, Douglas and Percy.

It has a place in our collection because it was very much Border “inspired” and takes account of the fact that the Border was between countries not always at peace with each other.

The Earls of March and Douglas, leading landowners in the Borders urged the Scottish king to renew the Anglo-Scottish War to take advantage of political uncertainty in England. A truce had been drawn up in 1 370 for fourteen years and its expiry saw skirmishing along the Border, much of it instigated by March and Douglas. The English retaliated, another truce was drawn up, but with political instability at both the Scottish and English courts attention increasingly focused on James, second Earl of Douglas and Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There were raids into Cumberland and Northumberland and eventually the lines were drawn for the Battle of Otterburn. This song is essentially an English version of “Chevy Chase” (Child 162)

KINMONT WILLIE (Trad) (Child 186)

Ross Kennedy (vocal, acoustic guitar), Steve Lawrence (electric bouzouki), Richard Evans (Scottish small pipes), Graeme Elliott (electric guitar), Rick Kemp (bass) Paul Adams (bodhrans), Richard Adams (drums)

The events of 1596 and the rescue of Kinmont Willie Armstrong represent a daring swashbuckling adventure. The fact that Kinmont led one of the most notorious bands of cut-throats ever to roam the Debateable Land seems to be irrelevant and in the tradition of the Border ballads we are to view him as a hero. His notoriety and activities were such that the Warden of the West March’s deputy, Salkeld, captured Kinmont as he returned from a Truce Day at the Dayholm of Kershope. Kinmont was taken to Carlisle. According to Border Law it should not have happened on a Truce Day and Walter Scott of Buccleuch (keeper of Liddendale on whose land the arrest had been made) protested to the Warden, Lord Scrope. When Scrope refused to return Kinmont, Buccleuch became concerned that Scrope was anxious to hang Kinmont on the gallows at Harraby and so assembled a motley bunch of Elliots, Scotts, Armstrongs and Grahams to effect a rescue. Oral tradition has meant that the numbers vary from 40 to 200. The weather was atrocious which made crossing the River Eden very dangerous, but it did mean that the castle watch had taken shelter. Buccleuch left a group to cover the retreat and led the raiding party himself. Popular opinion has it that they must have had support from the inside because they entered the castle quickly. Thus with the aid of a sturdy Reiver, Red Rowan, Kinmont made his escape. The Armstrongs feature in a number of ballads, “Jock 0 The Side”, “Johnny Armstrong”, etc which reflects their significance in the Reivers story.


Janet Russell (vocal, acoustic guitar), Rick Kemp (bass)

Arguably one of the finest of the Border Ballads. In simple terms the theme is Romeo & Juliet. This fits conveniently with the reiving theme of two families in dispute. It also deals with the theme of the girl courting beneath her station in life. Whatever, the young man is clearly regarded as unsuitable by the girl’s family. As with many of the songs with no clear historical connection attempts have been made to give the song a real-life background. A version of the song collected from one William Walsh, a Peebleshire cottar and poet has as its opening line, “At Dryhope lived a lady fair”. This has led to the theory that the lady was the daughter of Scott of Dryhope, a notorious Reiver. Whether or not it has an historical basis becomes less significant against the overwhelming tragedy of the song. Janet’s text, given to her by Sandra Kerr has a place name “Thurrow” which we have not been able to locate. The text was collected in the Borders and so it has probably been altered by the oral process from Yarrow. The text has several ritual, magical and folklore allusions: the dream, the long yellow hair being wrapped three times around the body, etc. Janet’s stunning delivery of the song serves to illustrate why these songs are often called the “Big Ballads”.

The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow (Text)

The story of this ballad has a familiar ring as a tragedy. It is quite probably based in some way on a true story but historical records of such things are frequently bitty. However there are a few clues, as Child records. Contemporary records for the presbytry of Selkirk record violent feuds between the Scotts of Tushielaw and the Scotts of Thirlestane. In 1616 a Walter Scott of Tushielaw eloped with Grizel Scott of Thirlestane without her fathers permission, and a few years later the trial of Simeon Scott of Bonytoun and three others is recorded as taking place at Melrose for the ‘horrible slaughter’ of one Walter Scott. Since this all happened close to where the ballad is set, it seems likely that there may be a connection.

There was a layde lived in the North,
Her name it was called Sara,
She was coorted by nine noblemen,
And a plooman lad frae Yarrow.
As he gaed owre yon hill sae high
An’ doon yon den sae narrow
‘Twas there he met nine armed men
Come to fecht wi’ him in Yarrow.
Noo ye are a’ come to fecht wi me
In the dowie dens o’ Yarrow
But there’s nine o’ you and but ane o’ me
An’ its’s nae an equal marrow.
There’s nine o’ you an’ but ane o’ me
An’ it’s nae an equal marrow
But I will fecht ye, ane by ane
In the dowie dens o’ Yarrow.
Three he slew, and three withdrew
And three lay deadly wounded
But in behind cam’ her brother George
An’ pierced his body thorough.
Noo ye’ll gang hame my cruel freen
An’ tell your sister Sara
That her true love John lies dead and gone
In the dowie dens o’ Yarrow.
O mither dear I ha’e dreamed a dream
An’ I wish’t may prove nae sorrow
I dreamed I pu’d the heather bell
On the bonnie braes o’ Yarrow.
O daughter dear I can read your dream
But I fear it will prove sorrow
For your true love John lies dead an’ gone
In the dowie dens o’ Yarrow.
As she gaed owre yon hill sae high
An’ doon yon den sae narrow
‘Twas there she spied her true love John
A bloody corpse in Yarrow.
She wash’d his face and kemm’d his hair
As aft she’d dune afore O
An’ she washed the reed blude frae his wounds
Wi’ muckle grief and sorrow.
Her hair it was three quarters lang
An’ the colour o’ it was yallow
She’s tied it roon his middle sae sma’
An carried him hame frae Yarrow.
O daugter dear dry up your tears
Dry up your tears o’ sorrow
An’ I’ll find to you some prettier man
Than the lad ye lost in Yarrow.
O ye may tak’ your seven sons
An’ wed them all tomorrow
But a fairer flower ne’er sprang in June
Than the lad I lost in Yarrow.
O mither dear ye’ll mak’ my bed
Ye’ll mak’ it saft an’ narrow
An’ there I’ll lie an’ thus I’ll die
For the lad I lost in Yarrow.
Her mither then did mak’ her bed
She made it saft an’ narrow
An’ her tender heart it soon did break
An’ she died afore ’twas morrow.

The Musicians

Steve Lawrence: Musical Director. A multi instrumentalist who is a former member of the Scottish band, Iron Horse. He does production work for Lochshore/KRL Records and has his own group Whirlygig. He records for Lochshore/KRL Records.
Steve plays: Acoustic and Electric Bouzoukis, Baritone Guitar, Northumbrian Small Pipes and Percussion

Graeme Elliott: Electric Guitar
Richard Evans: Northumbrian and Scottish Small Pipes
Stewart Hardy: Fiddle
Ian Kellet: Keyboards
Rick Kemp: Bass Guitar
Archie McAllister: Fiddle
Kenny Speirs: Harmony and Backing Vocals
Richard Adams: Drums and Percussion.
Paul Adams: Bodhran and Additional Percussion

The pipes used on this recording were made by Richard Evans from Carlisle . At one time the Scottish small pipe and Northumbrian small pipe were the same instrument until near the end of the 18th Century when the Northumbrians stopped the end of the chanter which gives the Northumbrian small pipes their distinctive staccato style of playing. The Scottish small pipes have undergone a renaissance over the last few years and are now played all over Britain, and many European pipers have also discovered their versatility in terms of volume and tune. Much research and discussion is carried out by the Lowland & Border Piping Society and for those who wish to explore the repertoire further there are two excellent books published by Dragonfly Music, The Border Bagpipe Book and Nine Notes That Shook The World.

Peace on the Border

After the riding we dispersed
We drifted home in twos and threes
Through cold and rain we spat and cursed
This ancient war of families
Armies past and then returned,
They killed and raped they stole and burnt
So from the cradle we have learnt
To be as hard as stone
And learned to stand alone.

They are gone now the killing and disorder
They’re just ghosts now the brigand and marauder
And we give thanks for peace on the border.

Cloak and dagger, crime on crime,
Anarchy in the borderlands
The King’s men came with a Valentine
To break the power of the border clans

They are gone now the killing and disorder
They’re just ghosts now the brigand and marauder
And we give thanks for peace on the border.

Some were hanged some sent away
to Ireland and the low countries
Great was the price they had to pay
God bless their memory
And God bless you and me

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