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* * * * *

The designs and ornaments of this volume are by Mr. Joseph Brown, and
the printing from the press of Messrs. T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh.

* * * * *


Not much more has been attempted in these pages than to extract the
marrow of the Scottish Ballad Minstrelsy. They will have served their
purpose if they help to awaken, or to renew, a relish for the contents
of the Ballad Book. To know and love these grand old songs is its own
exceeding great reward; and it is also, alas! almost the only means now
left to us of knowing something concerning their nameless writers.

Questions involving literary or critical controversy as to the age and
genuineness of the ballads have been, as far as possible, avoided in
this popular presentation of their beauties and their qualities; and in
case any challenge may be made of the origin or authenticity of the
passages quoted, I may say that, in nearly every case, I have prudently,
and of purpose, refrained from giving the authority for my text, and
have taken that which best pleases my own ear or has clung most closely
to my memory.

J. G.

_July 1896._


















'Layés that in harping
Ben y-found of ferli thing;
Sum beth of wer, and sum of wo,
Sum of joye and mirthe also;
And sum of treacherie and gile;
Of old aventours that fell while;
And sum of bourdes and ribaudy;
And many ther beth of faëry,--
Of all things that men seth;
Maist o' love forsoth they beth.'

_The Lay of the Ash._

Who would set forth to explore the realm of our Ballad Literature needs
not to hamper himself with biographical baggage. Whatever misgivings and
misadventures may beset him in his wayfaring, there is no risk of
breaking neck or limb over dates or names. For of dates and names and
other solid landmarks there are none to guide us in this misty
morning-land of poetry. The balladist is 'a voice and nothing more'--a
voice singing in a chorus of others, in which only faintly and
uncertainly we sometimes fancy we can make out the note, but rarely
anything of the person or history, of the individual singer. In the
hierarchy of song, he is a priest after the order of Melchisedec--without
father or mother, beginning of days or end of life.

The Scottish ballads we may thus love and know by heart, and concerning
their preservation, collection, collation, we may gather a large store
of facts. But the original ballad-writers themselves must remain for us
the Great Unknown. Here and there one can lay down vague lines that seem
to confine a particular ballad, or group of ballads, within particular
bounds of place and of time. Here and there one seems to get a glimpse
of the balladist himself, as onlooker or as actor in the scenes of
fateful love and deathless grief which he has fixed for ever in the
memory of men of his race and blood. There are passages in which, in the
light and heat of battle, or in agony of terror or sorrow, we are made
to see something of the minstrel as well as his theme. But by no
research are we likely at this late date to recover any clew to the
birthplace or to the lineaments of the life and face of the grand old
poet who wrote the grand old ballad of _Sir Patrick Spens_; nor do towns
contend for the honour of having produced the sweet singer of
_Kirkconnel Lea_, the blithe minstrel of _Glenlogie_, or the first of
all the bards who made the _Dowie Dens of Yarrow_ vocal with the song of
unavailing sorrow.

And in truth towns--even such towns as were in those days--could have
had but little to do with the birth and shaping of the Scottish
Balladists. Chief among the marks by which we may the true ballad-maker
know among the verse-makers of his age, is the open-air feeling that
pervades his thought and style. Like the Black Douglas, he likes better
to hear the laverock sing than the mouse cheep. It is not only that he
cares to tread 'the bent sae brown' rather than the paved street; that
the tragedies of fiery love and hate quenched by death, in which he
delights, are more often enacted under the blue cope of heaven than
under vault of stone. What we seem to feel is that these simple old
lays, in which lives a passion that still catches the breath and makes
the cheek turn pale--whose 'words of might' have yet the power to waft
us, mind and sense, into the 'Land of Faëry,' must have been conceived
and brought to full strength under the light of the sun and the breath
of the wind. 'The Muse,' says Robert Burns, himself of the true kin of
the balladists:

'The Muse, nae Poet ever fand her,
Till by himsel' he learned to wander,
Adown some trottin' burn's meander,
An' no think lang.'

Certainly no true ballad was ever hammered out at the desk. It may have
been wrought and fashioned for singing in bower or hall; but the fire
that shaped it was caught, in gloaming grey or under the 'lee licht o'
the mune,' in birken shaw or by wan water.

It is true that one of the earliest of the Scots ballad-makers whose
names have been handed down to us--Robert Henryson, who taught the
Dunfermline bairns in the hornbook in the fifteenth century--has told us
that he sought inspiration at the ingleside over a glass:

'I mend the fyre, and beikit me about,
Then tuik ane drink my spreitis to confort,
And armit me weill fra the cold thairout;
To cut the winter nicht, and mak it schort,
I tuik ane quhair, and left all uther sport.'

But this was while conning, in cold weather, the classic tale of
_Troilus and Cressid_. _Robin and Makyne_, which among Henryson's
acknowledged pieces (except _The Bluidy Sark_) comes nearest to our
conception of the ballad--after all it is but a pastoral--has the scent
of the 'grene wode' in summer.

In sooth, the Ballad Poet was neither made nor born; he grew. The 'wild
flowers of literature' is the name that has been bestowed, with some
little air of condescension, upon the rich inheritance he has left us.
They are the purest and the strongest growth of the genius of the race
and of the soil; and though they owe little save injury and mutilation
to those who have deliberately sought to prune and trim them to please a
later taste, they are as full of vigour and sap to-day as they were in
the Ballad Age, when such poetry sprung up naturally and spontaneously.
It is probable that not one of the old ballads that have come down to us
by oral recitation is the product of a single hand; or of twenty hands.
The greater its age, and the greater its popular favour, the greater is
the number of individual memories and imaginations through which it has
been filtered, taking from each some trace of colour, some flavour of
style or character, some improving or modifying touch. The 'personal
equation' is, in the ballad, a quantity at once immense and unknown. As
in Homer's _Iliad_, the voice we hear is not that of any individual
poet, but of an age and of a people--a voice simple, almost monotonous,
in its rhythmic rise and fall, but charged with meanings multitudinous
and unutterable.

The Scottish ballads are undoubtedly, in their present form, the outcome
of a long and strenuous process of selection. In its earlier stages, the
ballad was not written down but passed from mouth to mouth. Additions,
interpolations, changes infinite must have been made in the course of
transmission and repetition. Like a hardy plant, it had the power to
spread and send down fresh roots wherever it found favourable soil; and
in its new ground it always, as we shall see, took some colour and
character from the locality, the time, and the race. Golden lines and
verses may have been shed in the passage from place to place and down
the centuries. But less of this happened, we may feel sure, than a
purging away of the dross. As a rule, what was fittest--what was truest
to nature and to human nature--survived and was perpetuated in this
evolution of the ballad. When, in the course of its progress, it
gathered to itself anything that was precious and worthy of remembrance,
then, by the very law of things, this was seized and stored in the
memories of the listeners and handed down to future generations.

But this process of purging and refining the ballad, so that it shall
become--like the language, the proverbs, the folklore and nursery tales,
and the traditional music of a nation--the reflection of the history and
character of the race itself, if it is to be genuine, must go on
unconsciously. As soon as the ballad is written down--at least as soon
as it is fixed in print--the elements of natural growth it possesses are
arrested. It is removed from its natural environment and means of
healthy subsistence and development; and from a hardy outdoor plant it
is in danger of becoming a plant of the closet--a potted thing, watered
with printer's ink and trimmed with the editorial shears. Ballads have
sprung up and blossomed in a literary age; but as soon as the spirit
that is called literary seizes upon them and seeks to mould them to its
forms, they begin to droop and to lose their native bloom and wild-wood

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Keywords: himself, character, little, literary, history, growth, greater, individual, colour, anything
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