Ballads/Songs

Glen Artney. Photo by Hugh Rose, 2013.

Glen Artney. Photo by Hugh Rose, 2013.

A few samplings from my sampling of traditional ballads in the Scots-English tradition & from translations of Gaelic songs known or believed to have been composed by women…

Griogal Cridhe / Beloved Gregor
is one of the best loved and most widely sung of the Gaelic laments. More properly known as Cumha Ghriogair Mhicghriogair Ghlinn Sreith / Lament for Gregor MacGregor of Glenstrae, it is believed to have been composed by Mòr Caimbeul / Marion Campbell after her kinsmen captured and beheaded her husband, Ghriogair Mhicghriogair Ghlinn Sreith / Gregor MacGregor of Glen Strae. Historians believe this Romeo-and-Juliet couple married during one of the many short-lived truces between their families, and her surviving poems show that it was a love match. Their son, Alasdair MacGregor of Glen Strae, Clan Gregor’s last chief of the old line, was executed in Edinburgh 1604.

Margaret Bennett

Margaret Bennett

Though Mòr Caimbeul’s authorship cannot be definitively proven, details in the text prove Griogal Cridhe to have been composed, if not by Marion herself, then by someone extremely close to the events surrounding Gregor’s execution. Though the song includes elements of folk song, its classical meter (séadna) shows it to be the work of a skilled poet. Somhairle MacGill-Eain / Sorley Maclean described it as “surely one of the greatest poems ever made in Britain,” a phrase adopted by historican Martin MacGregor in his article on the poem’s historical grounding. (Look under the Sources tab.

  • Glen Lyon CDFind Margaret Bennett’s recording of Griogal Cridhe on Glen Lyon, a CD on which she collaborated with her son, Martyn Bennett.
  • On Margaret’s website, read notes from her diary about recording this song–caught between her mother’s authority as a tradition bearer and her son’s passion for performance. Passing tradition down in the family is not always a simple matter…

    Martyn Bennett

    Martyn Bennett

The lyrics I quote in “Night Orders” are elided from several similar translations, such as this one by Meg Batemen, in An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets

They put his head on an oaken block
and spilled his blood on the ground,
if I had had a cup there
I’d have drunk my fill down

And in “Hairst” I snipped and restitched from Iain Crichton Smith’s translation in The Poetry of Scotland: Gaelic, Scots and English–

Better to be with Gregor
in the wood of wild rain,
than with the withered Baron
in his house of lime and stone.

* * * * * *

Clann Ghriogair Air Fogradh / Clan Gregor in Exile is one of a cluster of anonymous Clan Gregor songs and poems that date from the late 17th c. I used snippets from Meg Bateman’s translation in An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets in Proscribe and In Purpose at My Booke.

I am sitting by myself
by the level of the road,

looking out for a fugitive
coming from Cruachan of the fog,

who has word of Clan Gregor
and can tell me where they have gone.

That they were yesterday in the Straths
is all their news I have.

You left handsome John slumped
face-down on the moor

That there are no traditional McGruther songs is just one of the reasons American Magruders are loath to give up the Clan Gregor dream.

* * * * * *

Anent

Norman Kennedy

The Fause Knicht, traditional (Child ballad #3), from the singing of Norman Kennedy, & others.

What’s that upon your back,
Quo the fause knicht upon the road.
My bannoch and my books,
Quo the wee child, and still he stood.

In this version of the ballad, every verse ends with and still he stood…because everyone knows it is fatal to move when talking to the devil. My rash exactitude replaces that line.

* * * * * *

& Anent

Jeannie Robertson

Jeannie Robertson

The Dowie Dens o Yarrow, traditional (Child #214), from the singing of Belle Stewart, Jeannie Robertson, Dick Gaughan, & others.

Then will ye tak the gun, the gun,
Or will ye tak the arrow,
Or will ye tak the gey broadsword
And fight for me on Yarrow.

Dick Gaughan

Dick Gaughan

My text calls for a different task.

* * * * * *

Night Orders

Botha Airigh Am Braigh Raithneach / The Shieling in Brae Rannoch, Anonymous, c. 1700. Translated by Meg Bateman, An Anthology of Scottish Women’s Poetry.

With snipping & stitching of a few phrases, I sampled this woman’s song in praise of her husband, a bold and accomplished cattle thief.

My beautiful gloves
with gold tips to the fingers,

My brown thonged purse
and knife with wrought handle.

My kertch comes from Dunkeld
my belt from Edinburgh.

Why should we want for riches
when the Lowlanders have cattle?

. . .

In the bothy of courtship,
closed over with brushwood,

With cuckoo and ringdove
singing in the branches,

And the brown rutting stag
arousing us at morning.

* * *

My Son David / Edward, traditional (Child ballad #13), from the singing of Jeannie Robertson.

JeannieRobertson plaqueO what’s the blood that’s on your sword,
My Son David, o Son David,
What’s the blood that’s on your sword?
Come promise, tell me true.

O that’s the blood of my grey mare,
Hey lady mother, o lady mother,
That’s the blood of my grey mare,
Because it wadnae rule by me.

“Edward,” in all its variants, was believed extinct in the oral tradition until Jeannie Robertson sang it to the poet and folklorist, Hamish Henderson, at her home in Aberdeen in the year I was born. Use this link to find a recording in which Jeannie sings “My Son David,” followed by conversation with Hamish.

* * * * * *

In Peace of Warres & Hairst

Nach Fhreagair Thu, Chairistiana / Won’t You Answer, Cairistiona?, Anonyous, c. 1500. Translated by Meg Bateman, An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets.

trimming silk, sewing linen,
embroidering the shirts of my kinsmen
. . .
[T]he larks rose up, startled before me
they told me I wouldn’t be lucky

Few of my kin will be happy with my way of trimming and sewing; but so be it.

* * * * * *

In the Stranger’s Land

Stór Mo Chroí/ Treasure of My Heart, traditional (Irish), translated by Biddy Fitzgerald, from the singing of Sean Keane, & others.

A Stór Mo Chroí in the stranger’s land
There is plenty of wealth and wailing,
When gems adorn the great and the grand
There are faces with hunger paling.

* * * * * *

Hairst

False Hae Ye Been, traditional, singing of Sheila Stewart, Isabel Sutherland, & others.

Sheila Stewart

Sheila Stewart

I were climbing up a tree, it were too tall for me,
I were asking for fruit that never grew,
I were lifting warm water out beneath cold stone,
And the stream I did row.

“Impossibles” characterize the writing of Trafficke as well as anything.

* * *

Loch Erne, traditional (Irish), from the singing of Dick Gaughan, & others.

But when I woke out of my dream
And I found my bosom empty,
Well you may be sure and very sure
That I lay discontented.

* * * * * *

In Purpose at My Booke

Cumha do Sheumas Mac-Gilleain, a Fear / Lament for Her Husband, James MacLean, by Catriona Nic Gillean, fl. 1680. Translated by Meg Bateman, Anthology of Scottish Women Poets.

When I was laying you out,
though I showed great courage,
there was an arrow in my liver
embedded to its feather

More snipping and stitching here, mingled with another couplet from “Clan Gregor in Exile”–

In my side, the arrow
from the battle is lodged.

–produced I was brave the day we parted / but I had an arrow in my side, to register the parting of wife from husband, mother from child, under the oppression of slavery.

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