Hello, hope you’re all having a good week? It’s Jen here, and today, I’m going to share some of my favourite border ballads with you. No, don’t worry, it doesn’t involve me singing – I wouldn’t do that to you…
I’m talking about the ballads, often poetry set to music, which were performed as entertainment, and were particularly famous during the medieval period. They were a key part of the story-telling world during these times, with limited scope for stories being put to paper – they allowed news of infamous criminals, or exciting escapades, to be passed from village to village, most likely embellished plenty along the way!
I came across a few of the most popular during my research for The Raided Heart, and thought I would share these with you today.
Kinmont Willie, or William Armstrong of Kinmont, is one of the most famous of the reivers, and he had a truly eventful life. Following a Day of Truce (where legal disputes would be settled, and reivers were supposedly safe to travel over the border), Kinmont was captured by the English, who he had been tormenting with raids for years, and taken to Carlisle Castle by the Warden. As the arrest had been done illegally, the Keeper of Liddesdale, who controlled the land where it had happened, protested, but to no avail. More drastic action was needed – the Keeper led a group of men into England, and broke Kinmont out of Carlisle Castle, an impressive feat. This then led to anger between Elizabeth I and James VI, as the countries were meant to be at peace at the time, with no legitimate reason for a raid on one of her border castles.
One of my favourite stories is of Midside Maggie, or Maggie Hardy, who lived in Lauderdale during the 17th century. Although inherently a tale of hardship, it also has a positive feel to it.
As was so often the case in the borderlands, the Hardy’s farm was suffering after a bad winter, and the family was simply unable to pay the rent they owed their landlord, an unpleasant type, unconcerned with the wellbeing of his tenants. When Maggie went to plead for the rent to be waived for that period, he didn’t say no, but set her a challenge: she either had to bring him the rent in June, when it was due, or a snowball in the same month, to prove her point regarding the harsh winter. Now, Maggie had her wits about her, and when she returned home, she gathered as much snow as she could, and packed it tightly into a sheltered crack in the hillside, where the sun never reached. Miraculously, when June rolled around, some of the snow still remained, enough to form a snowball to take to the landowner. In all fairness, he at least stuck to his side of the deal, and over time, the farm recovered. His kindness in this instance was rewarded when he subsequently found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London (a place I know well as a writer!), and Maggie travelled to London, with their saved-up rent from the time he had been away, which she baked into a bannock, and presented it to their landlord. He used the money to buy his release, and on his return home, granted Maggie and her heirs the permanent lease of their land as thanks, showing how much he had changed.
See, the reivers were a clever bunch, and the infamous tale of the ‘Scabbit sheep’ tells that nicely.
A group of Charltons had ridden into Cumberland, rather than Scotland (attacks on fellow countrymen were not unheard of – not all attacks crossed the border), and stole several hundred sheep from the Grahams, before riding home and putting the sheep with their own. Within days, they realised all was not well – the Grahams’ sheep had been infected with sheep scab, which they had now passed onto the Charltons’ own herd. They returned to the Grahams’ land, and killed several men, leaving behind a written warning: Next time gentlemen cam to tak ther shepe, they were no to be scabbit.
There are so many others to choose from, and I like to think that the romantic tale of Will and Meg might just have made it into the collection too – what do you think?
2 Replies to “The border ballads”
I love your sheep image…and the story behind the ballad!