Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Border Ballads

The Border Ballads are poems and songs, anonymously composed between the Middle Ages and the 17th century, which reflect the turbulent, violent life on the frontier between Scotland and England during this period (The two kingdoms not being united under a single monarch till 1603). There were several major invasions from either side, but also endemic lawlessness, with constant local raids and feuds. The raiding-parties were known as "reivers". The monarchs in London and Edinburgh had no effective control over the border lands; what authority there was being in the hands of the great lords: the Howards, Percies and Nevilles, the Douglases and the Homes. Since to be isolated and alone in these lawless conditions was to be "every man's prey", the people banded together in extended families or clans; Armstrongs, Eliots, Grahams, Nixons and others; who in turn formed alliances or conducted feuds which might last for generations. Those who could afford it built themselves little castles for protection, known as "Pele" towers, the ruins of which still dot the borders.

One of the most amusing accounts of Borders life in the 15th century was written by an Italian priest, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later to become Pope Pius II). Whilst on a diplomatic mission to Britain, he stopped at a farmhouse on the English side of the river Tweed. When nightfall approached, the  men took refuge in a nearby tower, for fear of Scots reivers, but left the women behind. They explained that the reivers did not kill women: the worst that could happen to them was rape, which didn't matter. Aeneas was also left in the farmhouse: it was explained that, being a stranger, he was unlikely to have his throat cut. During the night, two of the women asked Aeneas if he wanted sex. He turned them down; reflecting that if the reivers did then cut his throat, he would have died in a state of mortal sin! He preferred to spend the night bedded down in the straw with the farm animals.

The Border Ballads tell of the lives lived by the border people. Most of them tell of actual historical incidents. They tell of robberies and murders, feuds and betrayals. The atmosphere is entirely pagan: there is little trace of Christianity there, or indeed of any moral code other than the virtue of courage and the necessity of exacting revenge. As the great historian G. M. Trevelyan (who was himself brought up in the borders) says of the border people in an essay "The Middle Marches",

"Like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, and infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less perpetually inflicted upon one another."

These ballads were collected and written down in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most assiduously by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote several poems himself in this style, as did another contemporary Borderer, James Hogg, "the Ettrick shepherd".

My favourite Border Ballad tells of the Battle of Otterburn, which took place in 1388. Like many of the ballads, it is quite long; but here are the first few verses (I have retained some of the archaic spelling, which I think is quite evocative):-

"It fell about the Lammas tide
When the moor-men win their hay
The doughty Douglas vowed him ride
Into England, to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams
The Lindsays, light and gay
But the Jardines would not with him ride
And they rue it to this day.

Now he has burned all the dales of Tyne
And parts of Bamburghsire,
Three tall towers on Redeswire fells
He left them all on fire.
He marched up to Newcastle
And rade it round about,
Crying, "Wha's the lord of this castle?
And wha's the lady o't?"

Then up and spake proud Percy there
And oh, but he spake high!
"I am the lord of this castle
My wife's a lady gay."
"If thou art the lord of this castle
Right well it pleaseth me,
For ere I cross the border fells
The ane of us shall die!"

And then he took a long spear in his hand
Shod with the metal free.
For to meet the Douglas there
He rade right furiously.
But oh! how pale his lady looked
Frae off the castle wall,
When down before the Scottish spears
She saw proud Percy fall."

(But Percy wasn't killed! He was Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, and he survived to be better known as "Harry Hotspur" of Shakespeare's history plays)

For more information about the Border reivers, see "The Steel Bonnets" by George Macdonald Fraser.

This is Hermitage Castle, latterly a stronghold of the Hepburns, up in the desolate lands of Liddesdale, north of Carlisle. The peculiar low arch on the left led to a local legend that the castle had sunk into the ground under the weight of its own wickedness!


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