Document 961

Sing Us One of the Old Songs - Why Teach Ballads?

Author(s): Elaine Petrie

Copyright holder(s): Elaine Petrie


Anyone who contemplates teaching the ballads is quickly going to ask – or be asked a few basic questions: What is a ballad? Where do I find them? Who wrote them? Why are we doing this? For many people interested in contemporary popular song, a ballad is simply a slow song, like Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. And it may be hard to offer a satisfactory definition to replace this.

Perhaps it’s the form that defines the ballad better for us. It is usually narrative verse, in two or four rhymed lines with the four line stanza frequently made up of alternating iambic tetrameters followed by trimeters. There’s a further impression that the setting must be historical and that ballads are long – very, very long. In addition there’s often stark, violent action; dramatic changes in the unities of time and setting; repetition in both dialogue and action; patterns of events in threes. There may well be some supernatural intervention, just for good measure.

So does this count as a ballad?

O Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They war twa bonnie lasses;
They bigget a bower on yon burn-brae,
And theekit it oer wi rashes.

They theekit it oer wi rashes green,
They theekit it oer wi heather;
But the pest cam frae the burrows-town,
And slew them baith thegither.

They thought to lye in Methven kirk-yard,
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lye in Stronach Haugh,
To biek forenent the sin. (to shelter from the sun)

And Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
They war twa bonnie lasses;
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae,
And theekit it oer wi rashes.

It’s short, and there’s no supernatural element but in other respects it fits the bill. For many enthusiasts the clinching argument is that it appears as item 201 in Francis J.Child’s would-be definitive collection of “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, a five volume compendium published between 1882-1898 which drew together ballads from earlier printed collections and manuscripts.

In many ways, it is the influence of these earlier collections and the texts they presented that governs our expectation of what a ballad should be. The most familiar ballad versions – certainly the ones in the Oxford anthologies derive from Sir Walter Scott’s “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”. They were favoured because of the completeness of the text and their historical and romantic elements which sat fairly well with contemporary models of what poetry should be but that polished, satisfying literary quality owes a good deal to Scott’s careful editorship. Research has shown that he invented very little but he certainly pieced together verses to create what he saw as a recreation of the fullest ‘original’ form. ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘The Battle of Otterburn’ as we know them, all owe their popularity to the success of Scott’s publishing and editorial work. An interesting exercise is the comparison of the traditional ballad ‘Jock of Hasilgreen’ with Scott’s ‘Jock o’ Hazeldean’.

This argument is taken a stage further in Dave Harker’s provocative study “Fakesong”. He suggests that the concepts of the ‘ballad’ and even ‘folksong’ itself are artificial, constructed partly knowingly, partly innocently by the mainly middle-class song collectors of the last three hundred years. It is his view that the collectors – Scott and Child included – patronised the working-class singers from whom they collected and carefully selected areas of their repertoire to preserve, shaping it, enhancing it and giving it a certain sort of gloss and prestige by the way they presented it.

Modern, comprehensive collecting practices prove that singers always have, and therefore probably always had, a mixed repertoire of narrative, lyric, comic and serious songs, both old and contemporary and of course, it’s all ‘folk’ music wherever it comes from. When we ask what a ballad is we should perhaps follow one definition from around 1700 which gives it as no more than ‘Common song sung up and down the Streets’ (Harke,p.r8). You can put it another way as the famous quip often attributed to American blues singer Big Bill Broonzy has it: any song is a folk song ‘cause I ain’t never heard a horse sing.’

I would suggest that there is a case to answer about the sanctification of some areas of folk life and lore. With the increasing awareness of oral history projects and the growth of Media Studies, it is time to be more adventurous in the selection of ballad/folk texts, not always selecting the items that look most like standard high poetry or prose.

The best response to the question of who wrote the ballads is that it doesn’t matter but here again there has been some controversy. The answers that have been given to this question are all coloured by issues of social values and class or gender perspectives. Matthew Macdiarmid argues that the best ballads are so good they must have been created by men of poetic genius, well-educated in literary composition and traditions: Lord Hailes, Burns and Scott himself. By contrast, many of the best transmitters of ballads seem to have been women: Anna Brown, whose manuscripts Scott used, Bell Robertson and Margaret Gillespie both significant contributors to the Greig-Duncan collection in the northeast.

Macdiarmid is not alone in rejecting the myth of some spontaneous outpouring by ‘the folk.’ There is an argument that each song must have had an originator whose presence is now blurred by the accretions and distortions of the transmission process. David Buchan suggests that singers in traditional, non-literate communities did not learn a fixed version of a narrative song. Instead they stored away the skeleton of the narrative and recreate the song anew each time – a bit like the way good jokes are stored and repeated. He claims that singers used well-known formulaic phrases, repetitions and patterns of threes to build up and develop the song. In a sense each singer is the author, recreating the song each time it is performed. The idea of a fixed text to be memorised and passed on verbatim in the same form each time only becomes established after the advent of print.

One useful classroom spin-off of this approach is that you needn’t feel too worried about tailoring your own ballad from the version as available in Child or Greig-Duncan. Better still, you can get your students to edit their own preferred version.

Often the first question that springs to mind in dealing with the ballads is why teach them – or any traditional form at all? The answer has as much to do with national self-esteem as with practical criticism.

The ballad represents the persistence of a vernacular culture and some sort of continuous indigenous literary tradition which survived the hiatus brought about in the high literary tradition in Scots after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 and the transfer of the court and its patronage to London. When the literary revival came in Scots, it developed in some measure out of a popular song tradition with Allan Ramsay’s song collections “The Evergreen” (1724) and “The Tea-Table Miscellany” (1724-32) and his use of songs in his pastoral drama “The Gentle Shepherd” (1725). The line from Ramsay through Burns and Scott, all collectors, all poets, is quite clear. In drama,even Home’s “The Douglas” of 1756 draws on ‘Gil Morice’ (Child 83 `Child Maurice’).

The ballads are something are something to be proud of – a national symbol. The number and quality of songs collected in Scotland have earned us the right to speak about these loosely as ‘Scots’ ballads even where versions of many of these songs have also been collected elsewhere and the extent of motifs shared with other – frequently Scandinavian – cultures suggests some earlier European root. Even if we dismiss this form of chauvinism, then we can still point with pride to the development of quite distinctive regional contributions which have come to be regarded almost as separate genres: the Border riding ballads and the North-east bothy ballads. Each of them reflects a particular society and its own heritage.

The next issue is probably where to begin. There are 305 titles in Child’s 5 volumes and there is the prospect of 8 volumes in the Greig-Duncan collection to contend with. The best point of entry is probably through the magical ballads like ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ or ‘Tam Lin’ and there is good background material available on these in Matthew Macdiarmid’s tape. ‘Clyde’s Water’ (Child 216, Greig-Duncan 1231) is perhaps more challenging.

This is a song that grows on you. Most versions are fairly long and the different tunes to which it is most familiarly sung are usually striking but plaintive. The story itself contains elements that cannot fail to impress. There is something implacable in Maggie’s mother’s relentless, incremental list of stables/horse/, barns/corn, bowers/gentlemen and it doesn’t really matter that there’s a tradition pattern of three, for the concrete power of the corn/horse/men images is so definite and conclusive.

Willie’s hat and cane again introduce a three-part movement and our first reaction may be that these motifs seem slightly anachronistic if we believe that ‘real’ ballads date from the 1600s. They can even seem bathetic and out of place with their eighteenth century broadsheet overtones. What gives them power is the fact that they represent the personal element, as powerful symbols of ordinary, familiar, everyday life specifically set against the dramatic randomness of death and disaster. They are like a bag of messages found at the roadside after a hit and run accident and they seem frail and trivial pitched against the crushing elemental force of the Clyde’s Waters. This is the sort of snapshot detail we admire in Edwin Morgan for instance or in a telling piece of film-making and perhaps it is ultimately more impressive than the superficially more intriguing use of supernatural forces represented by the mother’s curse on Willie.

Ostensibly Willie dies because he has refused to do his mother’s bidding and stay at home. The ballad shows the mother’s love is dangerously all-consuming and Willie properly rejects it to seek romantic love with Maggie although some versions of the ballad show that Willie recognises his mother’s authority by fatalistically accepting the inescapability of the curse and refusing to accept his brother’s suggestion that he cling to his horse who will swim with him to the shore. It is not the curse itself that kills him but his own compact with the river. His burning love for Maggie helps him to defy his mother but his bitter acceptance of Maggie’s apparent rejection snuffs out this positive fire and abandons him to despair and the water.

Willie’s pact with the river – ‘mak me a wrack when I come back but spare me as I’m gaun’ – has all the authentic rashness of a young man in love and it rings well to the ear with the internal rhyme of ‘wrack’ and ‘back’ but it seems that this is perhaps one of the oldest elements of the song and one that puts it in touch with older traditions in literature as it is used in verses on Hero and Leander by the Roman poet Martial. Francis Child thought that ‘the conceit does not overwell suit a popular ballad’ (4,187) but I cannot agree. The idea has obviously been borrowed (and has stuck) because it catches the imagination and proves the balladeer’s ability to recognise an arresting phrase and to take it over in a natural way.

Another striking element of the ballad is Maggie’s devotion. While it is not unusual by ballad standards, her immediate calm determination to find her William is an impressive movement in the ballad. She is more active than many women in conventional literature. She calmly faces the rushing of the Clyde which, we are reminded, would fear nine hunder men.’ She acknowledges the force of the river with a mixture of awe and understatement: `o and alas this lady cries your water’s wondrous deep’.

The final image of the lovers in their chaste death embrace is as powerful as the ending of “Romeo and Juliet” and the two texts make for interesting comparisons in their treatment of the archetypal theme of lovers facing parental disapproval. There is irony but also a curious dignity and consolation in the idea that the lovers will be united ‘like sister and like brother’ while we are well aware that this less, much less, than the wedding and fortune that other ballads and the ‘happy-ever-after’ side of popular fiction and traditional tale-telling offer.

The beauty of this ballad is that it matches the grand scale and power of elemental archetypes against small scale domestic details (Willie’s boots full of Clyde water) in a way that helps us sense William and Margaret as living characters and not just cardboard stereotypes.

One thing ballads are good at is striking openings. It’s not just that they frequently plunge straight into the action; in many cases they open with a stark, figurative image – like the king safely ensconced in Dunfermline downing his wine while Sir Patrick Spens is pacing a cold deserted shore. My own favourite is the opening of ‘Sweet Willie and Fair Annie’ (‘Lord Thomas and Fair Annet’ Child 73E), where

Sweet Wille and Fair Annie
Sat a’ day on a hill
And though they had sitten seven year
They neer wad had their fill.

Child is probably closer to the mark when he describes this as ‘one of the most beautiful of our ballads, and indeed of all ballads.’ Adolescent groups might find Willie’s two-timing a topic that provoked discussion. Bell Robertson’s version (Greig-Duncan 212D) again offers a contrast between the strictly economic considerations of Willie’s mother who advises him to look go for a wealthy bride and the romantic view of his younger sister who bids him follow his ‘heart’s desire’ and marry for love.

One of the difficulties the ballads present to modern readers may be the violent treatment of women who all too often appear to be commodities to be guarded by jealous brothers or tricked and abused by lovers or vindictive mothers. Some, like Willa Muir, have suggested that this is an echo of matrilinear descent where family property and wealth passed to one’s sister’s son. Matrimonial connections with the right families were therefore essential and a brother might well feel more than a passing interest in his sister’s intended. Be that as it may, the women of the ballads and their undertakings often present a very positive view of womanhood. As we have seen, many exhibit tremendous dedication and endurance and they can be ready to take forceful action to secure their aim. See for example ‘Glenlogie, or Jean of Bethelnie’ (Child 238; Greig-Duncan 973), where Jeannie, aged fifteen or sixteen, eventually persuades Glenlogie, whose love is ‘promised awa’, to give up his sweetheart and marry her.

If love with its trials and tribulations proves dangerous, you can always opt for adventure and the hardihood of the Border riding ballads. There’s lots of help here and George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Steel Bonnets” (London, 1971) gives good background while James Reed “The Border Ballads” (London, 1975) is also useful.

As Hamish Henderson says, the riding ballads are a bit like Damon Runyon’s Chicago gangster stories, full of gang lists, revenge killings and treachery. One character, Hobie Noble, actually turns up in two ballads. In one, ‘Jock o’ the Side’ (Child 187), he helps to spring Jock from prison in Newcastle.

Now Hobie was an Englishman,
In Bewcastle-dale was bred and born;
But his misdeeds they were sae great,
They banished him ne’er to return.

Child 187B

The raid is successful:

And now they are fallin to drink,
And they drank a whole week one day after another,
And if they be not given over,
They are all drinking yet.

Child 187C

But all did not end quite so well with Hobie. As an Englishman in hiding in Scotland, he is in great demand for his skill as a guide on Scots raids into the south. He is led into a trap and is arrested and taken to Carlisle. He is well-received by the ordinary folk who have heard of his part in rescuing Jock o Side.

They gave him a wheat loaf to eat
And after that a can o beer
Then they cried a’, wi ae consent,
Eat brave Noble, and make good cheer!

Child 189

Despite all this he is hanged for breaking his banishment and presumably also for the unspecified `great misdeeds’ that prompted his initial flight.

The single biggest problem with the riding ballads is that they can become a confusing tangle of names. Even ‘The Battle of Otterburn’ has the Douglas picking out his team like a Premier League line up:

He chose the Gordons and the Grahams
The Lindsays, light and gay,
But the Jardines wald not with him ride,
And they rue it to this day.

Child 161C

To some extent you can point a similar charge at the bothy ballads. Many of them immortalise masters and their farms (‘The Boghead Crew’,‘The Skranky Black Farmer’, ‘Drumdelgie’, ‘Bogie’s Bonnie Bell’, ‘Guise o Tough’, ‘Swaggers’, ‘Sleepytoon’) and so the basic pattern is easy to characterise. Their real strength lies in the detailed social record they leave behind of life among the ploughman lads and kitchie deems. They usually bitterly attack the broken promises and harsh conditions doled out by parsimonious farmers

As I cam in by Turra Market
At Turra Market for to fee
I fell in wi’ a wealthy farmer
The Barnyards o’ Delgaty

Lintrin adie toorin adie
Lintrin adie toorin ae

He promised me his ae best pair
I ever set my e’en upon
When I gaed hame to the Barnyards
There was naething there but skin and bone

The auld black horse sat on his rump
The auld white meer lay on her wime
And a’ that I could hup and crack
They widna rise at yokin time

Meg MacPherson maks my brose
Her an me we canna gree
First a mote and syne a knot
And I ae the tither jilp o bree

The songs tell their own story with vitality and detailed imagery and are a true record in as much as they often refer to actual characters as Peter Hall has shown. Out of this tradition grew the witty penmanship of George Bruce Thomsom, responsible for some first rate, tongue-twisting songs that brilliantly depict the fermtoun way of life. Each a technical tour de force with words exactly fitting the rhyme of the tune, they present a rich feast of Scottish dialect and an exact record of the food, implements and utensils of the time (about eighty years ago). The songs work because of their humour and also because of the lightning pen sketches of a moment such as the break up of a good going party when one of the farm pigs stumbles in and causes confusion. The moment when one of the farm workers trips in the pantry and pulls all the jars and preserves down on his head is particularly good and if this isn’t balladry in the high tradition then it’s certainly an eloquent advocate for casting a wider net.

Johnnie Murphy he ran efter her, and ower the pig was leapin’
Wan he trampit on an ashet that was sittin’ fu’ o’ dreepin
An’ he fell doon and peel’t his croon ,an’ quidna’ haud frae greetin’
At McGinty meal and ale whaur the pig ga’ed on the spree.
And the pantry shelf cam’ ricklin’ doon an’ he was lyin’ kirnin
Amang saft soap, pease meal, corn floor and yirnin’
Like a gollach amang trickle(treacle) but McGinty’s wife was girnin’
At the soss upon her pantry fleer and wadn’ lat him be.

Further Reading:

David Harker – “Fakesong”, (OUP 1985)
George MacDonald Fraser – “The Steel Bonnets” (London 1971)
James Reed – “The Border Ballads” (London 1975)

There are many selections of ballads, the main reference being made to F.G. Childe – “English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, but an easily available collection is Emily B.Lyle’s “Scottish Ballads” published by Canongate.

The Greig-Duncan Folksong collection is currently being published in several volumes.

Scotsoun have also produced a tape on the ballads by Matthew Macdiarmid.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


Cite this Document

APA Style:

Sing Us One of the Old Songs - Why Teach Ballads?. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 17 June 2024, from

MLA Style:

"Sing Us One of the Old Songs - Why Teach Ballads?." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 17 June 2024.

Chicago Style

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Sing Us One of the Old Songs - Why Teach Ballads?," accessed 17 June 2024,

If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 961

Sing Us One of the Old Songs - Why Teach Ballads?


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Informed lay people
Audience size 100+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 1997
Word count 3470

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher Association for Scottish Literary Studies
Publication year 1997
Part of larger text
Contained in Laverock 3
Editor Ronald Renton, Duncan Jones

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 870
Forenames Elaine
Surname Petrie
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1950
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation College Manager
Place of birth Aberdeen
Region of birth Aberdeen
Birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Falkirk
Region of residence Stirling
Residence CSD dialect area Stlg
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Smallholder
Father's place of birth Orkney
Father's region of birth Orkney
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Ork
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's place of birth Portlethen
Mother's region of birth Kincardine
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Kcdn
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes
Scots Yes Yes No Yes