Osred playing the Northumbrian bagpipes
The borders of England and Scotland are a wildly beautiful land of rugged mountains and deep, isolated valleys carved during the last ice age.
From the time of Edward I to that of James I, three hundred years, no king’s writ carried any weight in the borders. Queen Elizabeth once sent troops in to quell the independent borderers, but the Queen’s men simply disappeared and were never heard of again. It is thought that they were slaughtered to a man. One part of the borders was even known as “The Debatable Land”, since neither Scotland nor England even dared to claim it.
The people living on the borders had no protection from any government, so they relied on their families for support. Great clans sprawled across both sides of what is now the border, with names like Maxwell, Johnstone, Scott, Rutherford, Kerr, Trotter, Dixon, Selby, Gray, Ridley, Fenwick and Forster.
Life was harsh, and physical survival often depended on successful cattle-raiding. It is recorded that when the larder was bare, the woman of the family would sometimes bring a roasting dish to the table. Removing the lid, she revealed that the dish contained nothing but a horse-riding spur. That was the sign for the men of the clan to go out raiding.
In their isolated fastnesses the borderers kept alive many elements of an earlier Anglo-Saxon culture that had been suppressed elsewhere. It is no coincidence that the only Odinist song known from the Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian era, Teribus, survived in precisely this region. Through their ballads, in particular, the borderers kept alive older beliefs, thoughts, practices and folklore, passing them by word of mouth from generation to generation.
The ballads are essentially short stories in verse, swift, impersonal, terse and dramatic, turning the daily lives of the borderers into poetry that still ranks among the glories of English literature.
Murder, treason, love, and death all feature in the ballads, but so do magic, sorcery, and necromancy. The ballad world is one in which a woman might drown her sister to gain access to the sister’s lover. In the ballad that pursues this story, The Twa Sisters, a passing musician makes a harp of the dead girl’s breast bone and strings it with her golden hair. He takes the instrument to the wedding of the guilty sister to the drowned girl’s betrothed. There the harp speaks, accusing the murderess.
The ballads don’t just mention magic of this kind in passing. They insist on it. It is clearly an integral part of the life and thought of the people from whom the ballads sprang.
As the folklorist T. F. Henderson commented, the border ballads “bring us into immediate contact with the antique, pagan, savage, superstitious, elemental characteristics of our race.” (His language may be Christian, but at least he makes the point.)
More valuable than buried coins, the ballads are a treasure hoard of the traditions and usages of our ancestors. Taken collectively, they almost amount to a slightly corrupted autobiography of a late Anglo-Saxon, mostly pagan tribe.
J. A. MacCulloch discussed early forms of literature in a book called Childhood of Fiction. What he had to say there about folk-stories can be applied to those of the border ballads into which a degree of Christianity has intruded:
“The ideas of later ages have entered into and coloured these primitive stories; comparatively modern social customs and names jostle those of a remote antiquity without any feel of incongruity; the tales have a firm root in a past paganism, but they are full of later Christian conceptions. … But this is only the veneer of a later age; the material of the stories is old, so old as to be prehistoric.”
The Christian intrusions are obvious, and usually so inept that the essential viewpoint of the ballad is not twisted. A supernatural being, for instance, may be given a cloven foot to identify him as the devil. This sort of contamination is easily set to one side, and it is appropriate to recall York Powell’s comments on the ballads (in Corpus poeticum boreale):
“The religion of the … ballads, save for the few poems that deal with the popular Catholic mythology, is absolutely as heathen as that of the Helgi Lays; the sacredness of revenge, remorse, and love, the horror of treason, cruelty, lust and fraud are well given, but of Christianised feelings there are no traces. The very scheme on which the ballads and lays are alike built, the hapless innocent death of a hero or heroine, is as heathen as the plot of any Athenian tragedy can be.”
The magic that occurs in the ballads is quite straight-forward. It is not like the metaphors of later genres of poetry, and it requires no special pleading to be accepted. It is portrayed as something that unquestionably happens, that is simply part of the way things are – just like the ghosts and sorcerers of the Icelandic sagas.
The ballad characters inhabit a world that is only precariously stable. In several ballads (such as Child Rowland and Burd Ellen) this world is called “middle-eard”, which is, of course, cognate with the Norse “Miðgarðr”. Dwellers of other worlds, including the dead, can manifest in middle-eard. If a human kisses them, or accepts food from them, he or she will fall under the jurisdiction of the Otherworld to which they properly belong.
This is a common Germanic pagan theme, forming a main plot strand in Saxo’s account of King Gormo’s visit to Guthmund. In the ballads, though, it can appear with a beautiful and sudden brevity. The Unquiet Grave is a lovely example. A lover mourns his dead favourite for too long. Here is part of one version:
“The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.
“I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day”
The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
“Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?”
“Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,
And will not let you sleep;
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips,
And that is all I seek.”
“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips?
But my breath smells earthy strong;
If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips
Your time will not be long.”
Many of the ballads express ideas and themes that are similarly found in the sources on Norse and German paganism. Thus in both Allison Gross and The Laily Worm, the enchantress blows a horn as part of her magic. As the great ballad collector Francis James Child commented, “The horn is appropriate. Witches were supposed to blow horns when they joined the wild hunt”.
The Wild Hunt! Child’s comment here is as terse as any ballad, but it takes us straight back to the Wild Hunt of 1127 CE described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
“… many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. … All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.”
It is impossible to do justice here to all the aspects of Germanic pagan folklore that the border ballads, (which were composed right down to the seventeenth century), accept as being perfectly normal, unremarkable. Readers who wish to explore them fully should obtain a copy of Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, available in a handsome five-volume Dover reprint.
One question, though, needs to be raised here. What light do the ballads, with their unquestioning acceptance of the Germanic supernatural, shed on the religion of those who composed them, listened to them, and orally transmitted them?
Most of these people – but certainly not all – would have called themselves Christians. The threat of being burned at the stake would have seen to that. A brave few clearly set themselves apart from the official creed. Both the Christian writers and the essentially pagan composers of the ballads tended to call these people “witches”. But the “witches” portrayed in the ballads are far removed from the traditional image of the old peasant hag tortured into confessing to Christian fantasies such as congress with the devil.
For instance, Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas is concerned with the aftermath of a 1569 plot to depose Protestant Queen Elizabeth in favour of her Catholic rival Mary. The two nobleman heading this movement were the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland. Lacking money, troops and proper leadership, the insurrection petered out within a month. Westmoreland slipped away, but Lord Northumberland tried to escape to sanctuary across the border. Legal sanctuary should have been automatic, but it was not forthcoming. The Scottish Armstrong family stole all of Northumberland’s belongings, then betrayed him for a sum of money to the Regent of Scotland, who put him under a form of house arrest in William Douglas’ castle of Lochleven. In 1571 he was lured to Berwick, betrayed to the English forces, and beheaded in 1572.
The ballad follows this story closely, but incorporates other details. In particular, it adds another intriguing character to the whole sorry mess. This is Douglas’ sister, Mary Douglas. She is the only character that the ballad respects. Northumberland is an incompetent, trusting fool. Douglas is a smiling hypocrite who values money more than honour.
Mary, however, makes an unsolicited offer to help Northumberland flee to safety in Edinburgh. The Lord replies that he cannot believe Mary’s brother would ever betray him. Mary offers to show him what lies in store. He declines, priggishly saying he “never loved no witchcraft”, but allows his servant to go to her.
Mary instructs the servant to look through the hollow of her ring, and he sees the host of English lords waiting to seize his master. He asks how far away they are. Mary says fifty miles, adding that
“My mother, she was a witch woman,
And part of itt shee learned mee;
She wold let me see out of Lough Leuen
What they dyd in London cytye.”
The distraught servant is unable to convince his master, who goes off blithely and unsuspectingly into captivity – and execution. Having done her best to save Northumberland, Mary Douglas plays no further part in the ballad.
The magical device of seeing far-off people through a ring doesn’t sound at all like humble peasant “witchcraft”. It takes us straight back to Saxo, in whose pages Ruta’s arm is bent into a ring and, looking through it, Biarco sees Odin on a white horse.
During the period depicted in Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas, accusations of “witchcraft” were frequently made against high-born ladies in Scotland and the borders. Among those accused were the Lady Buccleuch, the Countess of Athole, and the Lady Foulis. The sister of the earl of Angus, Lady Janet Douglas, a relative of the Douglases of Lochleven, was burnt for “witchcraft” in 1537.
To gain a broader perspective on all this, we should remember that in Iceland as late as the seventeenth century people were still being burnt for the possession of runes. Clearly the ancient pagan practices were continued in both these isolated parts of the world, even after centuries of persecution.
We should also recall that the composer of the ballad seems to endorse both Mary Douglas’ magic and her character. The ballad makes it clear that if Northumberland hadn’t been such a fool, Mary would have saved him. Why? Mary wouldn’t have called herself an Odinist, and the ballad calls her a “witch”, but she is clearly an educated northern pagan. So why should she bother to try to save the life of some Christian partisan? Pagan horror of treason might explain her motives, or the sacredness of hospitality. But it is tempting to believe that Mary was not acting entirely on her own, and that there was more religious intrigue in the sixteenth century borderlands than the main participants, the Catholics and Protestants, were aware of.
The ballads, and the strange times in which they are set, need more study from an enlightened modern pagan perspective.