Ballads & Broadsides
True Thomas ·
Tam Lin ·
Shake Loose the Border
by Paula Katherine Marmor
Count back twelve generations, and each of us has about four thousand
ancestors. The only one of mine that I can lay a name to is one
John Rutherford of Knowe in Roxburghshire near the English-Scottish border,
who subscribed solemn assurances
in the year of grace 1553 that he would uphold "the gude peace" of Scotland
and of England. They made him swear it again a few years later for good measure,
but I suspect it still didn't take.
"The Borders" is the desolate region on either side of the Tweed and
Hadrian's Wall; in the centuries leading up to the Union of England and
Scotland it was a morass of reiving and rustling, blood-feud and butchery,
rough justice and rougher vengeance. It was also the cradle of the
Border Ballad, as often as not telling the exploits of some outlaw like
Johnie Armstrong or Kinmont Willie.
George Macdonald Fraser wrote:
There is a school of Border writers who may be called the romantics.
The first of these is the greatest man the region ever produced, Sir
Walter Scott. It is not too much to say that Scott made the legendary
Border as most people vaguely understand it; a land of brave men and daring
deeds, of gothic mystery and fairytale beauty, of gallant Scot and sturdy
Saxon, of high ideals and sweet dreams clothed in ballads that are the
very heart of a nation's poetry. All perfectly true in its own way,
but not the whole story. Scott knew the other side as well, the blood
and the terror and the cruelty and the crime... [The Steel Bonnets]
The One Essential Reference
The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border
Reivers by George Macdonald Fraser [HarperCollins
trade paperback ISBN: 0002727463].
To get a proper
handle on the Borders in the sixteenth century, you need
The Steel Bonnets. Macdonald writes history with the
rollicking pace of his swashbucklers, and provides an even-handed,
clear-eyed look at the world of hot trods and March treason. Here
is the background to the Scott-Kerr feud, the songs of Kinmont Willie
Armstrong, and the double-dealing of John Maxwell, 4th Lord Herries.
Historical outlaw Border Ballads, some with commentary on the legends behind them:
- "The Death of
- "The Lament of a
- "Hughie the
- "Johnie Armstrang"
About Sir Walter Scott's
Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders.
"Scott originally intended to concentrate on ballads celebrating historical
incidents, particularly those connected with the old Border raids,
but the first two-volume edition of the Minstrelsy, which appeared on
February 24, 1802, eventually contained twenty-nine historical
pieces and twenty-four romantic ballads, together with a handful of
'imitations' mostly by Scott himself." From Edinburgh University. New !
of the Scottish Borders online at Electric Scotland. New !
Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrelsy by
Andrew Lang (Project Gutenberg). "It is a common, cheap, and ignorant scepticism that disbelieves in
the existence, in Scott's day, or in ours, of persons who know and
can recite variants of our traditional ballads..." New !
with texts fron Child and Scott's Minstrelsy, classified
as ballads of the West Marches, ballads of the Middle Marches, and
supernatural ballads. "Very much a work in progress." New !
Three Border Ballads from
Motherwell's Minstrelsy, Bishop Percy's Reliques, and the Glenriddel MS,
at the Clan Johnstone site.
The Lymond Chronicles.
The shifting political winds of the Borders in the mid-sixteenth century
form much of the background to Dorothy Dunnett's phenomenally popular series
The Lymond Chronicles, set in Scotland, England, France, Malta,
the Levant and Russia, but returning again and again to the Borders.
Vintage has brought the six volumes of Lymond's adventures back into
print in the US, in a lovely matched trade paperback edition, indifferently
photoreproduced from the British hardcovers. Vintage maintains a
Dorothy Dunnett page,
where you can read a letter by Dunnett on the
origins of the Lymond novels.
Bill Marshall, of
the James Thin, the lamented Edinburgh booksellers, maintains the
Dorothy Dunnett page in the UK.
George Macdonald Fraser
wrote the screenplays for the Richard Lester films The Three Musketeers,
The Four Musketeers, and Return of the Musketeers. He is
the author of The Pyrates, starring Calico Jack Rackham
and others of that salty brotherhood, and of the Flashman novels (the
best-known of these is a cynical Ruritanian adventure, Royal Flash,
also filmed by Richard Lester). For more information, visit
Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada and read
Flashman Papers Project. George Macdonald Fraser also wrote
The Hollywood History of the World : From One Million
Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now, a volume sadly out of print.
Sir Walter Scott's romantic novels of the Borders online:
J. G. Lockhart's Life
of Scott is also available online, as are
Poems and two selections from Scott's
On the Fairies of Popular Superstition, one from
and one from the Isle of Man.
(or Lochwood Castle), the seat of the
Johnstone Clan, lies a few miles southwest of Moffat in Dumfriesshire,
Scotland. It is now a ruin, but you can read a description
with a plan of the tower, a photo, and a period sketch at the
page maintained by Jeffrey M. Johnstone, FSA Scot.
Clan Johnstone Heritage Page, also maintained by Jeff Johnstone,
has even more information about the Borders, including links to Border
clan maps, castle photos, and other resources.
Search of the Border Reivers is the official home of
the Reivers Project, devoted to the Borders; if
you can't read the front page go directly to the the
text version. [Thanks, Jeff!]
Seed: Four British Folkways in America by
David Hackett Fischer (Oxford, ISBN: 0195037944 hardcover,
ISBN: 0195069056 trade paperback) is one of my favorite books.
Grows in the Cumberland Gap at the University of Virginia uses
excerpts from Albion's Seed to illustrate
the folk culture of the Borders that was transplanted to the
Cumberland Gap area in the eighteenth century; of particular relevance is
Borders of North Britain--an Introduction to Border Culture.
Border Wardens enforced the peace on
the Borders in the sixteenth century; here are
from The Steel Bonnets and The Border
Reivers, The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Borderland by Keith Durham and
Angus McBride, edited by Lee Johnson [Reed Consumer Books, 1995]
on the role and rule of the Wardens. New URL.
Notes on the Illustrations ·
8 May 2005