This is an ancient and tragic ballad of what happened at the Edinburgh court of the young Mary Queen of Scots.
But was the girl guilty or innocent?
Yestreen the Queen had four Maries, the nicht she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seaton, and Mary Beaton and Mary Carmichael and me.
Word’s gone through the kitchen, and word's gone through the ha,
That Mary Hamilton has a wean by the highest Stuart of aa.
As she gae'd up the Canongate, a loud loud laugh gied she,
But as she gaed doon the Canongate the saut tear blinded her ee.
'Oh, oftimes hae I dressed my Queen, and pit gold in her hair,
But noo I've gotten for my reward the gallows to be my share.
Little did my mither think the day she cradled me,
The lands I was tae travel in, the death I was tae dee.'
‘The Queen’s Four Maries’ as widely sung has only a few verses set in Edinburgh, in which Mary Hamilton laments that she is to die, without explaining why. The ballad about Marie Hamilton can have 18 or 25 verses, telling that she had a child by the King of Scotland and had killed it.
The ‘auld queen’ has heard the baby crying and takes Marie Hamilton to Edinburgh to be executed. As she walks down the Canongate in Edinburgh, part of the Royal Mile between the Castle and Holyrood Palace, Marie says, 'Little did my mither think the day she cradled me, the lands I was to travel in, the death I was to dee.'
The ballad is precise about names, but it was Mary, Queen of Scots who had four Maries as maids of honour, and they were Mary Fleming, Mary Seaton, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingston. None of them suffered such a death.
However, 150 years later far away in Russia, at the court of Peter the Great, an English woman called Miss Hambledon is said to have suffered the fate that the ballad tells us of, for a similar crime.
'The Queen's Four Maries', played on the harp by Heather Yule
Recorded for Learning and Teaching Scotland for Scotland’s Songs, Gallus recordings.
'The Queen's Four Maries', with vocals and bouzouki by Ewan McVicar