Article MT146

Two Problematical Scottish Ballad Texts

Mary Hamilton and The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie


I believe it to be axiomatic that collectors will inevitably find whatever it is that they seek.  A collector setting out to find versions of Child ballads will find such ballads, for the simple reason that the collector will be asking his, or her, informants whether or not they know any of the ballads that Professor Child included in his major work.  Occasionally, however, collectors can come across the unexpected, such as the two ballads that follow.  In the first instance I had gone to the island of Skye to record folk-tales from George Macpherson and was totally unprepared for him to begin humming the well-known tune of Mary Hamilton one evening after we had returned to his home, following a meal at a restaurant in Dunvegan.1. A selection of folktales told by George Macpherson can be heard on the CD The Swans on the Loch - Kyloe Records CD 104.1  I asked if he knew the ballad and he promptly sang the following words:

Mary Hamilton

My name is Mary Hamilton,George Macpherson
I was born o high degree.
But for ma service tae ma Queen,
On the gallows I maun dee.

Chorus:
Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
The nicht she'll hae but three.
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton,
Mary Carmichael and me.

O little did my mither ken,
The day she swaddled me;
O the life that I maun lead,
The death that I maun dee.

I took a message frae ma Queen,
Lord Bothwell for tae see;
But when he cast his een o'er it,
Richt weel he beddit me.

Tae Edinboro I then returned,
His answer for tae gie;
But when she kent that I was bairn't,
Richt black she glowered on me.

'Ye bear the fruit o my ain love,
This treason is tae me;
And for the blot o shame ye bring,
On the gallows ye shall dee.'

Mary Hamilton (Roud 79, Child 173, Greig/Duncan 195).
From George Macpherson, Glendale, Skye, 12.9.03.
George's tune may have been well-known, but three of his verses were totally new to me.  George had learnt the song from his great-aunt, Annie Gibb, of Crumnock, Ayreshire, c.1946.  Annie was then in her 80s.  I asked George if he knew anything else about Mary Hamilton and he replied that once, whilst visiting Brodick Castle on the island of Aran, he had met an elderly man who had told him that Mary Hamilton was the daughter of one of the Dukes of Hamilton, the owners of the Castle.  (This, I suspect, was a local, apocryphal story.)

In George's version of Mary Hamilton we find Mary pregnant by Lord Bothwell, lover to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 - 1587).  She is then condemned to death by Queen Mary for the 'treason' of sleeping with Bothwell.  And this, of course, is a totally different story from the one that we usually find associated with this ballad, namely that Mary Hamilton has had an affair 'To the highest Stewart of a'.

In just about all the known versions of Mary Hamilton, Mary is condemned to die, not for committing 'treason', but rather for committing infanticide, as these verses collected from Jean Macqueen, a servant at Largs, clearly show:

Out then spak a bonnie wee burd
An it spak sharp an keen
O what did ye do wi yon wee babie
Ye had in your airms yestreen

O I tied it up in a napkin
An flang it in the sea
I bade it sink or I bade it soum (swim)
It wad get nae mair o me

Out an spak king Henrie
And an angrie man was he
Aw for drouning o that wee bairn
Hie hangit ye sall be.2. Child's version K, from Motherwell's manuscript. The text was originally sent to Motherwell by Andrew Crawfurd. See Andrew Crawfurd's Collection of Ballads and Songs edited by Emily Lyle. Volume 2. Edinburgh, 1996.2
Professor Child originally believed that the ballad, although apparently set in the Scottish Court of Mary Stuart, was actually based on an event that occurred in the year 1718 in the Imperial Russian Court of Tsar Peter the Great.  It seems that a person called Mary Hamilton, of Scottish descent, was executed some months later (in 1719) for killing her child.
'It will be observed that this adventure at the Russian court presents every material feature in the Scottish ballad, and even some subordinate ones which may or may not have derived from report, may or may not have been the fancy-work of singers or reciters.  We have the very name, Mary Hamilton; she is a maid-of-honor; she has, as some versions run, an intrigue with the king, and has a child, which she destroys; she rolls he child in a napkin and throws it into a well (rolls the child in her handkerchief, apron, and throws it in the sea); she is charged with the fact and denies; according to some versions, search is made and overwhelming proof discovered; she is tried and condemned to die; she finds no grace.'3. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume 3 (Dover reprint, 1965. p. 383).3
Child subsequently discovered further texts of the ballad and came to realise that the ballad was based, not on the Russian tale, but rather on an event that had occurred in Scotland in the year 1563.  It seems that Mary Queen of Scots had an apothecary who had an affair with a French lady of the court.
'The Queen's apothecary got one of her maidens, a Frenchwoman, with child.  Thinking to have covered his fault with medicine, the child was slain.'4. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume 5 (Dover reprint, 1965. p. 298).4
The pair were executed in December, 1563, and at least one version of the ballad mentions the apothecary.
'My love he was a pottinger,
Mony drink he gae me,
And a' to put back that bonnie babe,
But alas! It wad na do.'5. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume 4 (Dover reprint, 1965. p. 509).5
So, having established that the story of Mary Hamilton does relate to the Scottish court of Mary Queen of Scots, what can we say about George's apparently unique version?  Tucked away in the various writings of the Scottish collector Gavin Greig we find the following sentence:
'In recent years some stanzas of the ballad (Mary Hamilton) were revived, and were sung with the addition of a few of modern origin.'6. The Greig/Duncan Folk Song Collection Volume 2. Edited by Patrick Shuldham-Shaw & Emily B Llye. Aberdeen, 1983, p.519.6
Gavin Greig fails to provide us with a sample of this 'revived' version, but his words are of great interest because he says that this version contains both old and 'modern' stanzas.7. Greig is rather vague here. It may be that he is referring to his version A (from Miss Susan Strachan and Miss Mary Strachan) which contains unique mention of a person called 'Geordie Cooper'.7  And this could be what we find in George's version, which opens with two well-known stanzas and a much-used chorus, together with the three 'new' stanzas which speak of the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Bothwell and Mary Hamilton.  Gavin Greig died in 1914.  By saying 'in recent years' he must have been talking about a time when George's aunt, Annie Gibb, was in middle-age, and it may be that Annie did pick up a 'revived' version of Mary Hamilton, such as Greig was describing.  This is, of course, speculation on my part and I may be wrong.  It does, however, seem strange that the last three stanzas of George's version have not appeared elsewhere, and so I must conclude that they are a 'modern' addition to the ballad, rather than being previously unknown 'original' stanzas.


The second ballad, or, to be accurate, fragment of a ballad, comes from Joe Rae, a singer and story-teller who lives near Beath in Ayreshire.  I first met Joe in 2001 and spent several days with him and his family, recording his repertoire.8. For a selection of Joe's songs, ballads and stories see The Broom Blooms Bonny - Musical Traditions MTCD313.8  A few months later Joe phoned to say that he had remembered a few lines of a piece that he had learnt from Tom Hughes, 'The Border Fiddler'.  Joe RaeTom had sung the song to him some years before at a Newcastleton Folk Festival.  Accordingly, I called on Joe when I was next in the area and recorded him narrating the following set:

The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie

The young, young laird o Gilnockie,
A-wooing went yae nicht-o.
The lassie raise an let him in,
Was neither coal nor candle licht-o.

The lassie lay on the kitchen flair,
'Twas weel covered o'er wi straw-o;
An Johnny then beside her lay,
And I wat that wasnae all-o.

He's raked her up, he's raked her doon,
He's raked her fore and aft-o;
An he's tyned her o her maidenheid,
And that's the worst of aa-o.

From Joe Rae, near Beath, Ayreshire, 9.9.01. 
Sadly, Joe could not remember the tune to the words, try as he might.  I have spoken to members of Tom's family, including the fiddle-player Jimmy Nagle, Tom's grandson, but the standard reply has always been, "I never knew that he sang" or "I never heard him sing anything".

Gilnockie is, of course, the ancestral home of Johnny Armstrong, and Joe's fragment does say that the Laird is called Johnny.  But, as this is not a version of the ballad Johnny Armstrong (Roud 76. Child 169), what exactly is it?  Interestingly, there is a slight connection with, of all things, the ballad of Mary Hamilton.  In Child's collection we find this short fragment of Mary Hamilton which comes from Kinloch's mss:

My father's the Duke of Argyll,
My mither's a lady gay,
And I myself am a dainty dame,
And the king desired me.

He schawed [me] up, he shawed me doun,
He schawed me to the ha;
He schawed me to the low cellars,
And that was waurst of a'.9. Child's version P.9
Clearly, the second stanza of this version is very similar to Joe Rae's third stanza and there must surely be some kind of connection between the two.  Is the Kinloch version a bowdlerised text based on the verse that Joe knew, or has someone 'spiced up' Kinloch's 'traditional' verse and added it to Joe's song?

Now it may be that this stanza is something of a 'filler' - a 'floating' verse, suitable for insertion in any ballad which deals with a similar story-line.  And, in a slightly different form, it does turn up all over the place in various songs and ballads.  Here's an example from The Knight and Shepherd's Daughter (Roud 67. Child 110), where the final two lines are close to lines in Joe's third stanza.  In this case the verse occurs during a conversation between a shepherdess, who has been raped by a Knight, and the King, to whom she has complained:

'He hath not robbed me, my liege,
Of purple nor of pall;
But he hath got my maidenhead,
Which grieves me worst of all.'10. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume 2 (Dover reprint, 1965. p. 460).10
But, as with George Macpherson's version of Mary Hamilton, we really do not know what we are dealing with in Joe Rae's ballad.  At the end of the day I am unable to trace any other version of The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie and so it too remains another tantalising mystery.

Mike Yates - 24.10.04

Footnotes:

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