Border Ballads: A Selection

Border Ballads: A Selection

by James Reed

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The Border Ballads are rooted in the wild and beautiful lands that lie between England and Scotland, a traditionally lawless area whose inhabitants owed allegiance first to kin and laird, and only then to the authorities in London or Edinburgh. Recording a violent, clannish world of fierce hatreds and passionate loyalties, the ballads tell vivid tales of raids,


The Border Ballads are rooted in the wild and beautiful lands that lie between England and Scotland, a traditionally lawless area whose inhabitants owed allegiance first to kin and laird, and only then to the authorities in London or Edinburgh. Recording a violent, clannish world of fierce hatreds and passionate loyalties, the ballads tell vivid tales of raids, feuds and betrayals, romances and acts of revenge. They celebrate ungovernable heroes and powerful women, often in laments for the murderous results of breaking tribal codes, and they evoke the presence of an older border, between the natural and the supernatural worlds. The Border Ballads were long regarded as primitive poems. This selection restores their identity within the oral tradition, setting them in the context of their time and place with the aid of maps and a glossary.

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Border Ballads: A Selection

By James Reed

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2012 James Reed
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-619-8


    [Child 186]

This incident took place on 13 April 1596. The hero was William Armstrong, called Will of Kinmonth, of Morton Tower in the Debatable Land.

Salkeld was deputy to Lord Scroope, Lord Warden of the English West March; he is 'false' because he has broken Border Law in taking Kinmont during the twenty-four-hour truce which followed a Warden's meeting.

Hairibee: the place of execution in Carlisle.

Bateable Land: the Debatable Land. Barren territory of disputed nationality around the junction of the Rivers Esk and Liddell, notorious for its shifting population of outlaws.

    O have ye na heard o' the fause Sakelde?
        O have ye na heard o' the keen Lord Scroope?
    How they hae ta'en bauld Kinmont Willie,
        On Hairibee to hang him up?

    Had Willie had but twenty men,
        But twenty men as stout as he,
    Fause Sakelde had never the Kinmont ta'en
        Wi' eight score in his companie.

    They band his legs beneath the steed,
        They tied his hands behind his back;
    They guarded him fivesome on each side,
        And they brought him ower the Liddel-rack.

    They led him thro' the Liddel-rack
        And also thro' the Carlisle sands;
    They brought him to Carlisle castell
        To be at my Lord Scroope's commands.

    'My hands are tied but my tongue is free,
        And wha will dare this deed avow?
    Or answer by the border law?
        Or answer to the bauld Buccleuch?'

    'Now haud thy tongue, thou rank reiver!
        There's never a Scot shall set thee free;
    Before ye cross my castle-yate
        I trow ye shall take farewell o' me.'

    'Fear na ye that, my lord,' quo' Willie;
        'By the faith o' my body, Lord Scroope,' he said,
    'I never yet lodged in a hostelrie
        But I paid my lawing before I gaed.'

    Now word is gane to the bauld Keeper
        In Branksome Ha' where that he lay,
    That Lord Scroope has ta'en the Kinmont Willie,
        Between the hours of night and day.

    He has ta'en the table wi' his hand,
        He garr'd the red wine spring on hie;
    'Now Christ's curse on my head,' he said,
        'But avenged of Lord Scroope I'll be!

    'O is my basnet a widow's curch?
        Or my lance a wand of the willow-tree?
    Or my arm a lady's lily hand?
        That an English lord should lightly me!

    'And have they ta'en him, Kinmont Willie,
        Against the truce of Border tide?
    And forgotten that the bauld Buccleuch
        Is Keeper here on the Scottish side?

    'And have they e'en ta'en him, Kinmont Willie,
        Withouten either dread or fear?
    And forgotten that the bauld Buccleuch
        Can back a steed, or shake a spear?

    'O were there war between the lands,
        As well I wot that there is none,
    I would slight Carlisle castle high,
        Tho' it were builded of marble stone.

    'I would set that castle in a low,
        And sloken it with English blood!
    There's never a man in Cumberland,
        Should ken where Carlisle castle stood.

    'But since nae war's between the lands,
        And there is peace, and peace should be;
    I'll neither harm English lad or lass,
        And yet the Kinmont freed shall be!' –

    He has called him forty marchmen bauld,
        I trow they were of his ain name,
    Except Sir Gilbert Elliot call'd,
        The Laird of Stobs, I mean the same.

    He has called him forty marchmen bauld,
        Were kinsmen to the bauld Buccleuch
    With spur on heel, and splent on spauld,
        And gleuves of green, and feathers blue.

    There were five and five before them a'
        Wi' hunting horns and bugles bright;
    And five and five came wi' Buccleuch,
        Like warden's men, array'd for fight:

    And five and five, like mason gang,
        That carried the ladders lang and hie;
    And five and five like broken men;
        And so they reach'd the Woodhouselee.

    And as we cross'd the Bateable Land,
        When to the English side we held,
    The first o' men that we met wi',
        Whae sould it be but fause Sakelde?

    'Where be ye gaun, ye hunters keen?'
        Quo' fause Sakelde; 'come tell to me!'
    'We go to hunt an English stag,
        Has trespassed on the Scots countrie.'

    'Where be ye gaun, ye marshal men?'
        Quo fause Sakelde; 'come tell me true!'
    'We go to catch a rank reiver,
        Has broken faith wi' the bauld Buccleuch.'

    'Where are ye gaun ye mason lads,
        Wi' a' your ladders, lang and hie?'
    'We gang to herry a corbie's nest,
        That wons not far frae Woodhouselee.'

    'Where be ye gaun, ye broken men?'
        Quo' fause Sakelde; 'come tell to me!'
    Now Dickie of Dryhope led that band,
        And the never a word o' lear had he.

    'Why trespass ye on the English side,
        Row-footed outlaws, stand!' quo' he;
    The never a word had Dickie to say,
        Sae he thrust the lance through his fause body.

    Then on we held for Carlisle town,
        And at Staneshaw-bank the Eden we cross'd;
    The water was great and meikle of spate,
        But the never a horse nor man we lost.

    And when we reached the Staneshaw-bank,
        The wind was rising loud and hie;
    And there the laird garr'd leave our steeds,
        For fear that they should stamp and nie.

    And when we left the Staneshaw-bank,
        The wind began full loud to blaw;
    But 'twas wind and weet, and fire and sleet,
        When we came beneath the castle wa'.

    We crept on knees, and held our breath,
        Till we placed the ladders against the wa';
    And sae ready was Buccleuch himsell
        To mount the first before us a'.

    He has ta'en the watchman by the throat,
        He flung him down upon the lead –
    'Had there not been peace between our land,
        Upon the other side thou hadst gaed! –

    'Now sound out trumpets!' quo' Buccleuch;
        'Let's waken Lord Scroope right merrily!'
    Then loud the warden's trumpet blew –
        'O wha dare meddle wi'

    Then speedily to work we gaed,
        And raised the slogan ane and a',
    And cut a hole through a sheet of lead,
        And so we won to the castle ha'.

    They thought King James and a' his men
        Had won the house wi' bow and spear;
    It was but twenty Scots and ten,
        That put a thousand in sic a stear!

    Wi' coulters and wi' fore-hammers,
        We garred the bars bang merrily,
    Until we cam to the inner prison,
        Where Willie o' Kinmont he did lie.

    And when we cam to the lower prison,
        Where Willie o' Kinmont he did lie –
    'O sleep ye, wake ye, Kinmont Willie,
        Upon the morn that thou's to die?'

    'O I sleep saft, and I wake aft;
        It's lang since sleeping was fleyed frae me!
    Gie my service back to my wife and bairns,
        And a' gude fellows that speer for me.'

    Then Red Rowan has hente him up,
        The starkest man in Teviotdale –
    'Abide, abide now Red Rowan,
        Till of my Lord Scroope I take farewell.

    'Farewell, farewell, my gude Lord Scroope!
        My gude Lord Scroope, farewell!' he cried –
    'I'll pay you for my lodging maill,
        When first we meet on the Border side.'

    Then shoulder high, with shout and cry,
        We bore him down the ladder lang;
    At every stride Red Rowan made,
        I wot the Kinmont's airns played clang!

    'O mony a time,' quo' Kinmont Willie,
        'I have ridden a horse baith wild and wood;
    But a rougher beast than Red Rowan,
        I ween my legs have ne'er bestrode.

    'And many a time,' quo' Kinmont Willie,
        'I've pricked a horse out o'er the furze;
    But since the day I backed a steed,
        I never wore sic cumbrous spurs!'

    We scarce had won the Staneshaw-bank,
        When a' the Carlisle bells were rung,
    And a thousand men, in horse and foot,
        Cam wi' the keen Lord Scroope along.

    Buccleuch has turned to Eden water,
        Even where it flowed frae bank to brim,
    And he has plunged in wi' a' his band,
        And safely swam them thro' the stream.

    He turned him on the other side,
        And at Lord Scroope his glove flung he –
    'If ye like na my visit in merry England,
        In fair Scotland come visit me!'

    All sore astonished stood Lord Scroope,
        He stood as still as rock of stane;
    He scarcely dared to trew his eyes,
        When thro' the water they had gane.

    'He is either himself a devil frae hell,
        Or else his mother a witch maun be;
    I wadna have ridden that wan water,
        For a' the gowd in Christentie.'

        [Child 187B]

    The hero of this ballad, another Armstrong, is identified by his
    tower near Mangerton.
        Ne'er played paw: never stirred.

        'Now Liddisdale has ridden a raid,
        But I wat they had better staid at hame;
        For Mitchel o' Winfield he is dead,
        And my son Johnie is pris'ner tane.'

        For Mangerton House auld Downie is gane;
        Her coats she has kilted up to her knee,
        And down the water wi' speed she rins,
        While tears in spaits fa' fast frae her ee.

        Then up and bespake the Lord Mangerton:
        'What news, what news, sister Downie, to me?'
        'Bad news, bad news, my Lord Mangerton;
        Mitchel is killed, and tane they hae my son Johnie.'

        'Ne'er fear, sister Downie,' quo' Mangerton;
        'I hae yokes of oxen four and twentie,
        My barns, my byres, and my faulds a' weel filled,
        And I'll part wi' them a' ere Johnie shall die.

        'Three men I'll take to set him free,
        Weel harnessed a' wi' best o' steel;
        The English rogues may hear, and drie
        The weight o' their brade swords to feel.

        'The Laird's Jock ane, the Laird's Wat twa,
        Oh, Hobie Noble, thou ane maun be;
        Thy coat is blue, thou hast been true,
        Since England banished thee, to me.'

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

        Lord Mangerton them orders gave,
        'Your horses the wrang way maun a' be shod;
        Like gentlemen ye must not seem,
        But look like corn-caugers gawn ae road.

        'Your armour gude ye maunna shaw,
        Nor aince appear like men o' weir;
        As country lads be all arrayed,
        Wi' branks and brecham on ilk mare.'

        Sae now a' their horses are shod the wrang way,
        And Hobie has mounted his gray sae fine,
        Jock his lively bay, Wat's on his white horse behind,
        And on they rode for the water o' Tyne.

        At the Cholerford they a' light down,
        And there, wi' the help o' the light o' the moon,
        A tree they cut, wi' fifteen naggs upo' ilk side,
        To climb up the wa' o' Newcastle town.

        But when they cam to Newcastle town
        And were alighted at the wa',
        They fand their tree three ells o'er laigh,
        They fand their stick baith short and sma'.

        Then up and spake the Laird's ain Jock,
        There's naething for't, the gates we maun force;'
        But when they cam the gates unto,
        A proud porter withstood baith men and horse.

        His neck in twa I wat they hae wrung,
        Wi' hand or foot he ne'er played paw;
        His life and his keys at anes they hae tane,
        And cast his body ahind the wa'.

        Now soon they reach Newcastle jail,
        And to the pris'ner thus they call:
      'Sleips thou, wakes thou, Jock o' the Side?
        Or is thou wearied o' thy thrall?'

        Jock answers thus, wi' dolefu' tone:
        Aft, aft I wake, I seldom sleip;
        But wha's this kens my name sae weel,
        And thus to hear my waes does seek?

        Then up and spake the good Laird's Jock,
        'Ne'er fear ye now, my billie,' quo' he;
        'For here's the Laird's Jock, the Laird's Wat,
        And Hobie Noble come to set thee free.'

        'Oh, had thy tongue, and speak nae mair,
        And o' thy tawk now let me be!
        For if a' Liddisdale were here the night,
        The morn's the day that I maun die.

        'Full fifteen stane o' Spanish iron
        They hae laid a' right sair on me;
        Wi' locks and keys I am fast bound
        Into this dungeon mirk and drearie.'

        'Fear ye no that,' quo' the Laird's Jock;
        'A faint heart ne'er wan a fair ladie;
        Work thou within, we'll work without,
        And I'll be bound we set thee free.'

        The first strong door that they cam at,
        They loosed it without a key;
        The next chained door that they cam at,
        They gar'd it a' in flinders flee.

        The pris'ner now upo' his back,
        The Laird's Jock's gotten up fu' hie;
        And down the stair him, irons and a',
        Wi nae sma' speed and joy brings he.

        'Now, Jock, I wat,' quo' Hobie Noble,
        Part o' the weight ye may lay on me;'
        'I wat weel no,' quo' the Laird's Jock,
        'I count him lighter than a flee.'

        Sae out at the gates they a' are gane,
        The pris'ner's set on horseback hie;
        And now wi' speed they've tane the gate,
        While ilk ane jokes fu' wantonlie.

        'O Jock, sae winsomely 's ye ride,
        Wi' baith your feet upo' ae side!
        Sae weel's ye're harnessed and sae trig!
        In troth ye sit like ony bride.'

        The night, tho wat, they didna mind,
        But hied them on fu' mirrilie,
        Until they cam to Cholerford brae,
        Where the water ran like mountains hie.

        But when they cam to Cholerford,
        There they met with an auld man;
        Says, 'Honest man, will the water ride?
        Tell us in haste, if that ye can.'

        'I wat weel no,' quo' the good auld man;
        'Here I hae lived this threty yeirs and three,
        And ne'er yet saw the Tyne sae big,
        Nor rinning ance sae like a sea.'

        Then up and spake the Laird's saft Wat,
        The greatest coward in the company;
        'Now halt, now halt, we needna try't;
        The day is come we a' maun die!'

        'Poor faint-hearted thief!' quo' the Laird's Jock,
        There'll nae man die but he that's fie;
        I'll lead ye a' right safely through;
        Lift ye the pris'ner on ahint me.'

        Sae now the water they a' hae tane,
        By anes and twas they a' swam through;
        'Here we are a' safe,' says the Laird's Jock,
        'And, poor faint Wat, what think ye now?'

        They scarce the ither side had won,
        When twenty men they saw pursue;
        Frae Newcastle town they had been sent,
        A' English lads, right good and true.

        But when the land-sergeant the water saw,
        'It winna ride, my lads,' quo' he;
        Then out he cries, 'Ye the pris'ner may take,
        But leave the irons, I pray, to me.'

        'I wat weel no,' cried the Laird's Jock,
        'I'll keep them a', shoon to my mare they'll be;
        My good grey mare, for I am sure,
        She's bought them a' fu' dear frae thee.'

        Sae now they're away for Liddesdale,
        E'en as fast as they could them hie;
        The pris'ner's brought to his ain fire-side,
        And there o 's irons they make him free.

        'Now, Jock, my billie,' quo' a' the three,
        'The day was comed thou was to die;
        But thou's as weel at thy ain fire-side,
        Now sitting, I think, tween thee and me.'

        They hae gar'd fill up ae punch-bowl,
        And after it they maun hae anither,
        And thus the night they a' hae spent,
        Just as they had been brither and brither.


Excerpted from Border Ballads: A Selection by James Reed. Copyright © 2012 James Reed. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Reed is the author of Walter Scott: Landscape and Locality.

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