Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Fragment from a Border Ballad

Having been brought up in the Lake District, I've always loved the Border Ballads; those anonymously-composed tales of the turbulent, lawless world of the Scots-English frontier in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the region was the haunt of  the "rievers": clans of armed raiders such as the Armstrongs, Eliots, Nixons, Grahams and many others. No doubt this was the reason why one morning, awaking from a dream, I found I had the following lines of verse in my mind:-

"Young Jamie Hepburn was a braw lad,
He thought the Kirk ould no' do wi'out him.
He went to Bothwell Brig with a feather in his hat
And the Covenant lords all about him".

I tried to construct how these lines had come about. The start was easy enough: I once knew someone called Jamie Hepburn, and the Hepburns, Earls of Bothwell, were a powerful Borders family, the lords of Hermitage castle; their most notorious member being the lover of Mary Queen of Scots. The Kirk was the Calvinist Presbyterian Scottish church, established in the 16th century but outlawed when the monarchy was restored in 1660. But what was Bothwell Brig, and how did it link to what followed? This remained mysterious until I learned from Walter Scott's historical novel, "Old Mortality" that Bothwell Brig was a battle in which in 1679 the government forces under the Duke of Monmouth and James Graham of Claverhouse crushed the Covenanters: the extreme Calvinist rebels. This accounted for the references to the Kirk and the Covenant Lords. Now I suppose I must have come across the story of Bothwell Brig some time earlier, but if so, I had totally forgotten it. 

Of course, my fragment won't really do as a proper Border Ballad. The Border was pacified after the union of the Scots and English crowns under James I in 1603, and although the violent world of the ballads overlapped with the establishment of the Presbyterian Kirk in the 16th century, it was long past by the time of the Covenant and Bothwell Brig. Furthermore, the Border Ballads are notorious for their lack of any trace whatsoever of Christianity, whether Catholic, Anglican or Presbyterian. They are entirely pagan in spirit; telling of raids and feuds, heroism and betrayal, and the heroic deeds of men who were really no more than thieves, cut-throats and cattle-rustlers ("Ma name is little Jock Eliot; Wha dares to meddle wi' me?"); in fact, a world-view scarcely different from that of the Viking sagas, or even of Homer. 

(The story of the Borders and their violent history can be found in "The Steel Bonnets" by George MacDonald Fraser) 

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