Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Songs


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The word ballad is used in two ways when talking about Scottish song traditions. One is as a general word for a song or poem that tells a story using short verses. But 'ballad' is also used as a specialised word for one of a group of songs that are hundreds of years old and tell dramatic stories of war, love and betrayal, magic and trickery or strange events.  

Nobody knows who made up these ballads, and some have had their words and tunes so changed by different singers in different places over the centuries that it can be hard to recognise that two songs are versions of the same old ballad. Perhaps only a few lines are shared, but the story is the same.

Songs or poetry?

In the Gaelic tradition, all Gaelic poetry was intended to be sung, right up until the early part of the  20th century, when modern poets such as Sorley MacLean began to write contemporary poems with no melody associated with them. However, many of these older 'poem-songs' were also preserved in books without melodies attached to them, and so a lot of songs continued to exist as poems alone. The other big change that took place was in the early 1970s.

Calum and Rory MacDonald from the band Runrig started to write contemporary songs inspired as much by the English rock and pop songs they were listening to as by the Gaelic traditions they grew up with. The words for these songs were lyrics rather than poems, ie you wouldn’t read these words without the melodies that were created for them, like this early song of the MacDonald brothers from 1978.

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Chì mi’n Geamhradh (Runrig)

'Chì mi’n Geamhradh' performed by Runrig

From The Gaelic Collection, Ridge Records, RR009 CD2, Track 12

Sometimes, the traditional 'short verse' Scots ballads are also thought of as poetry rather than as songs and are taught in schools as part of English literary studies. Like the Gaelic poem-songs, this is in part because most of them were first printed without any tune written out beside the words.

Some of these Scots ballads are about historical events and particular Scottish historical characters, eg 'The Baron of Brackley', 'Johnnie Armstrong', 'The Battle of Harlaw', 'The Bonny Earl of Moray'.

The ballads usually set the scene very quickly and get right to the heart of the story without wasting time. In the very first verse of the ballad, the enemy of 'The Baron of Brackley' is at his gates challenging him to a fight to the death.

'Doon Deeside cam Inverey whistlin and playin,
And he was at Brackley’s yetts ere the day was dawin.
'And are ye there, Brackley, and are ye within?
There’s shairp swords are at your yetts, will gar your blood spin.'

'The Gypsy Laddies' is a ballad that is said to be about Lady Jean Hamilton, the wife of the Earl of Cassilis. They lived in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, in the 1620s. However, there are many versions of this song known in other English-speaking countries. In England there is a version called 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsies', while in the USA the ballad is sometimes called 'Blackjack Davie'. In Jeannie Robertson's version, the gypsies cast a spell over the lady of the castle. She goes with them, but they are caught and hanged.

Variations of ballads

Ballads can have long or short versions, and parts of the story in one version may be left out altogether in another. Sometimes, people who published the ballads would disapprove of certain shocking or risqué parts of the story and leave them out deliberately. Other ballads are Scottish versions of ballads also known in England, the USA and other parts of Europe such as Scandinavia.  There is often an element of magic in the traditional ballads, eg 'The Two Sisters (Binnorie O' Binnorie)', 'The Demon Lover', 'Tam Lin', 'Thomas the Rhymer', and 'The Cruel Mother (Greenwood Side)'.

One of the 'Two Sisters' drowns the other because they both love the same young man. The drowned sister’s body floats away, and the miller who finds it uses her bones to make a fiddle or a harp, and her hair becomes the strings. When the instrument is played at the wedding of the other sister and the young man, it tells of the murder. (Some of the themes in this story go right back to Greek legend.)  
In other ballads, the 'Demon Lover' comes back from the dead and takes his sweetheart away. Both 'Tam Lin' and 'Thomas the Rhymer' are stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. The 'Cruel Mother' kills her babies, but their ghosts come back to tell her of her future.

Gaelic ballads and lays

In Gaelic, there is a store of the ancient 'story' ballads which are probably the oldest songs in the language that are still sung today, with vividly told tales and dramatic themes. Many of them were preserved as waulking songs (work songs for working cloth) and while elements of the stories may have changed over the centuries as they passed from singer to singer, the basic stories remain intact. 

The oldest of these songs in the Gaelic tradition are probably the lays ('duain') and ballads that recount stories associated with legendary Gaelic heroes such as Fionn MacCumhail (Finn Mac Cool), Cuchullin and the elite war band of the Féinne. You may be familiar with some of the stories, as the Fingalian legends have been told and retold over many centuries. But these songs represent the only traditional passing on of these tales still alive today, and they are very special. The songs are stories, often very long, but the telling of them would have been the equivalent of watching a movie today, and the action scenes in many of them would work very well on the big screen!

Some of the tales are universal - they have parallels in other traditions. 'Am Bròn Binn' is the story of the King of Scotland (or Fionn) who dreams of the most beautiful woman beneath the sun, and the company of his men will not suffice until he finds her. His lieutenant, Fionn-falaich, offers to find her and travels long and far until he finds her, imprisoned in a tall castle. This story has many parallels, from the legends of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere to the fairy tale of the long-haired Rapunzel.

Julie Fowlis, a Scottish singer and musicianperforms 'Am Bròn Binn'.

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Am Bròn Binn (Julie Fowlis)

'Am Bròn Binn' performed by Julie Fowlis.

From 'Dòchas' (CD), SKYECD23, Track 13, (2002), Macmeanmna.

But in this version of 'Am Bròn Binn', still sung today, there is no 'happy ever after' for the hero. Fionn-falaich approaches the beautiful young woman, sitting in her chair and dressed in fine silks:

'Fhleasgaich a thàinig on chuan, gur fuar do bheannachadh oirnn,
Teann nall do cheann air mo ghlùin, ‘s seinnidh mi dhuit chruit is ceòl'.
Ghoid i’n claidheamh geur fo crios, thilg i dheth gun fhiosd’ an ceann;
Sin agaibh deireadh mo sgiùil, ‘s mar a sheinneadh am Bròn Binn. 
'Young man that came from over the sea, you are not welcome here,
Come lay your head on my knee, and I will play harp and sing for you.'
She snatched the sharp sword from her belt, and sliced his head from his shoulders;
That is the end of my tale, and as the Sweet Sorrow would sing it.

It is thought that these ballads were created some time between the 10th and 15th centuries and were composed in the classical Gaelic language which would have been common to both Scotland and Ireland at the time. The enemy in all these songs is the Norseman or Viking - and in the case of Duan na Muildheartaich, even the terrible monster that the Féinne must conquer is Norse! In this ballad, the kings of Ireland and Norway have decided they must do away with the Fingalians, as they represent a threat to their power, and the Norse king sends an uilebheist, a monster, to destroy them. This song tells how Finn Mac Cool and his warriors win the day.

Image of Mairi Campbell published as Creative Commons by scotsmusic on Flickr.

More from Education Scotland

Thomas the Rhymer

The story of Thomas the Rhymer and his encounter with the Queen of Elfland.

Finn Mac Cool and the Salmon of Knowledge

The story of Finn Mac Cool and the Salmon of Knowledge.

Related resources

The Battle of Harlaw

A ballad telling the story of a bloody battle in medieval Scotland which was so ferocious it earned the name Red Harlaw.

The Gypsy Laddies

Jeannie Robertson’s wonderful version of a ballad that is sung in many countries, with varying words and varying tunes.

Binnorie O Binnorie

One of Scotland's oldest ballads, sung or told as a story in many countries, about fatal jealousy between sisters.

Greenwood Side

This is a fine version of the ballad better known as ‘The Cruel Mother’.