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Première partie : Montagnes poétiques et esthétiques

Over Hill and Dale in the Border Ballads

Roland Bouyssou
p. 87-91


Les Border Ballads procèdent d’un art oral qui rassemble les talents du conteur, du poète, du musicien et du chanteur. Elles sont l’œuvre de communautés aux confins montagneux de l’Angleterre et de l’Écosse, qui leur ont donné naissance et les ont maintenues vivantes en les renouvelant. Chaque ballade est un condensé, souvent tragique, de passions primaires—amour, haine, jalousie, instinct guerrier—parfois associées à un surnaturel maléfique. Dans un décor à peine esquissé, l’action dramatique est brève et rapide, les dialogues sont vifs et heurtés, les sentiments bruts et violents. Enfin, le rythme prosodique propre à la ballade, les procédés du style oral et des mélodies simples contribuent à créer un art complexe et dépouillé d’une rude beauté

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1The Border Ballads originate in a wild tract of country between the Hadrian Wall to the South and the Tweed to the North. There are no spectacular mountains, but high hills,—such as the Cheviots—cut by boggy glens. That wilderness has a lonely, eerie feel, particularly in the winter when fog, snow, low, dark clouds and blustering winds add to the desolation. In the summer, the heather, the sedge and some clusters of trees make a haunting beauty.

2In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when most of the Border Ballads developed, that land was more wooded, a few crops were grown, and some cattle and sheep grazed the scanty grass on bleak moors, such as Bewcastle Waste. Subsistence could be a problem. So, preferably in the autumn, "reivers" or thieves ("reif"= robbery) would make forays into more fertile borderland, and steal herds and flocks. Those expeditions are told in the "reiving" ballads, such as Dick ο’ the Cow, Kinmont Willie, Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead. Tracks, fords and passes were far between, and "reivers", also known as "mosstroopers" ("moss": boggy moorland), would bring back their booty along byways known as "drove roads", which were bordered by a strip of grass where the stolen sheep and cattle could graze. Violence was rife; so, places of refuge were built. They were "pele towers" or "bastles", consisting of a byre on the ground level, and living quarters above. Some are still standing (Hole Bastle, Mervinslaw Tower).

3There were more important fortifications, proper castles, as the Borders were a buffer zone, known as the Marches, between England and Scotland, and placed under the authority of Wardens from both countries. As often as not, those wardens were drawn from powerful families who had their own territories. The Percies, the Douglases, the Armstrongs, the Crozers, the Halls, the Reeds are mentioned in many ballads, e.g. Chevy Chase, Battle of Otterbourn, Percy Reed, Dick o’ the Cow. Feuds, treasons, kidnappings, murders, and battles about ownership were recurrent. Some areas, such as "the Debatable Land", East of Gretna Green, were claimed by England and Scotland. Kintmont Willie, Parcy Reed, Georgie are set in that territory, the haunt of fugitives, criminals and outlaws.

4The people living in the Borders were rugged, like the scenery. There was not much place for gentleness. Nature and men could be equally harsh, and the threat of death was ever present. In their vast majority, the Border Ballads tell of tragedies. They deal with violent passions and bloody conflicts. Doomed love, hatred, revenge are recurrent motifs, as if the people of that inhospitable region were driven by cruel forces. It is never easy to assess the impact of a landscape on the imagination and the habits of mind of its inhabitants. But it appears that the inspiration of the Ballad poets and composers is in keeping with the wildness of their surroundings.

5And yet in the Border Ballads the setting is no occasion for descriptive evocations of a scenery. Actually, there was no need for them, as the listeners to the Ballads knew the country. Place-names are frequently mentioned: Otterburn, Reedsdale, Liddisdale, Bambrough. The location of some ballads is remarkably precise: Thomas the Rhymer, for instance, is set on the banks of the Huntlie and in the Eildon Hills near Melrose. Such familiar names would immediately conjure up a setting in the minds of the Border people. Furthermore, many local words are evocative of specific features of that country. A "brae" (i.e. a hill), a "moss" (a bog), a "law" (a meadow), a "chase" (a hunting ground) possess characteristics of their own, which are not suggested by their English counterparts. So, a few words from the local dialect suffice to depict a scenery typical of the Borders, and serve as a backdrop to the story.

6As a matter of fact, a Border Ballad tells a story, straightforward and short. It relates a single and simple event. Take for instance Bonny Barbara Allan: Sir John Graeme had fallen in love with her; he is now dying and calling for her help; but she reminds him he had once slighted her; she lets him die; and she too dies. There is a singleness of action focused on the protagonist. That is the reason why so many ballad titles consist of one name: Clark Sanders, Young Hunting, Tarn Lin, Lord Randal. When no name is given,—as in The Cruel Mother, The Carpenter’s Wife,—the title still brings one figure in focus. There are generally no more than two characters; and little space is left to characterization. Their presence is made lively by direct speech. Brisk contests in words, a match of questions and answers, short and plain statements make the driving power of those ballads. Feelings can be strong, but their outburst does not give rise to rhetorical pieces. Those ballads are charged with dramatic intensity, thanks to their vivid brevity and plain directness.

7The progress of the story is remarkable for its rapid pace. The dramatic situation, revealed in the opening stanzas, instantly reaches its climax, and abruptly finds its resolution. The story is stripped to its essentials, and it is left to the audience to fill the gaps. Now, as those ballads belonged to a fund of traditional lore, most of the listeners would already know the story, and could dispense with the narrative links; so the balladist could focus on the peak of the event. So efficient is this technique of cutting the story down to the bare bones, that in Lord Randal he deals with the resolution only,—the lament of the dying lover,—and merely hints at previous incidents. Moreover, the storyline is cut into self-contained stanzas set to a fixed tune. Each verse is a musical, dramatic unit, and a new step forward in the story. This cumulative (or incremental) technique precludes any flourishes. The art of balladry is condensed and terse.

8The Borders, like most mountain regions, have their unwritten rules of conduct, particularly in matters of love and sex. Isolated communities are prone to consider that some evil is lurking in love, and is definitely at work in lust. The presence of seducers, in the form of daemons, witches or wicked elves and fairies in the love ballads is a sign of the devil threatening to disrupt the moral code of such closed societies. Hence a set of stringent laws: a young girl is expected to be a maiden until she gets married, and married according to her father’s or brothers’ wishes. No man should yield to the lure of some fairy. As to wedlock, it admits of no breach. Anyone breaking those rules shall be cursed or doomed to death. Clark Sanders is having a secret relationship with a young lady: he is murdered by one of her brothers. In The Gay Goss Hawk the lady is forbidden by her father to meet her lover, and she commits suicide. Lady Maisry who was made pregnant by an Englishman is burnt at the stake by her brother. What often adds to the tragedy of love is bad feeling, treachery and seduction. In The Cruel Sister a lady drowns her sister out of jealousy and is cursed; Clerk Colvill is lured by a false mermaid who kills him; Lord Randal is poisoned by his beloved, probably a witch.

9In some ballads death is magnified by its association with a curse or some ghostly visitation. The curse can be all the more ominous as it is uttered by the dying, or even the dead. The Cruel Mother is cursed by her dead baby; the Cruel Brother is cursed by his sister whom he killed; in Edward, Edward the son curses his mother who urged him to kill his father; Barbara Allan is cursed by her dying former lover. The threat of damnation creates a weird effect, which is heightened by a dismal foreboding of death, and some vengeful last will and testament: Lord Randal, on his deathbed, cursing his poisoner and distributing his chattels to his next of kin, stirs gloomy emotions. Another uncanny evocation of death arises from the words of the living dead. Clark Sanders speaks to his beloved from the grave. The Unquiet Grave tells of a buried woman conversing with her beloved. The Wife of Usher’s Well is visited by her three dead sons. Those ghosts testify that human affairs do not end with death.

10Superstition has always been widespread in remote hills, and the Border Ballads echo beliefs in strange beings bent on casting spells. Fairies and elfins, traditionally dressed in green, have their favourite haunts: wells and riverbanks where they lure or abduct their victims. Thomas the Rhymer, Clerk Colvill, Tarn Lin are whisked away by enchanting creatures; the Carpenter’s Wife is spirited away and drowned by her former daemon lover. As for the Wee Wee Man, he is a fleeting, quaint dwarf out of some magical world. Such encounters create a sense of mystery and awe, as faith in supernatural powers lurking around on earth teaches that none is master of his own destiny. Country people are deeply aware of the unknown, and prone to imagine signs of the supernatural. They frequently endow plants and animals with a soul, and a moral conscience apt to expose human sins. The thorn under which the Cruel Mother killed her baby no longer grows leaves; and a bird that had witnessed the murder of Young Hunting by his wife exposes the culprit. Mysterious interventions to redress wrongs are not uncommon. In The Cruel Sister the breast-bone and hair of the drowned lady are turned into a harp, which plays alone and curses the guilty sister.

11Now, in mountain people fanciful imaginings can go hand in hand with a spirit of adventure. The Borderland culture is one of challenge and defiance. As lovers defy conventions, so hunters and "reivers" challenge the law. In Chevy Chase Lord Percy deliberately trespasses on Lord Douglas’s hunting ground, and in Battle of Otterbourn Douglas invades Percy’s land. The rivalry between the English and Scottish Lieutenants of the Marches adds a political dimension to ordinary feuds, and the imagination of country folk, always fond of legend and wonder, readily turns those fights into epic battles, thus endowing lawless lords with a touch of chivalric bravery.

12Trespassing is naturally at the core of the "reiving" ballads. The reivers’ forays are made into bold expeditions, traditionally followed by daring acts of retaliation. Now, the main topic of a reiving ballad is not the raiding, but the redressing of wrongs. In Dick o’ the Cow, or Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead, the thieving of kyne from a peelhouse by the Armstrongs or the Captain of Bewcastle serves only as a starting point to an eventful attempt at recovering the stolen cattle. The victim is seeking for help from the Lairds to whom he paid "black-mail" or protection money. They will rally to his support and launch a retrieving or retaliating expedition. In the Borders enmity and solidarity coexist within a culture of allegiance and dependency, as the payment of the "rescue shot" (or cost of the rescue) by Jamie Telfer testifies.

13There is no "reiving" without encounters with death. Hobie Noble, a notorious "reiver", is hanged by the English, and Parcy Reed is murdered by Crozer, the leader of a band of "moss-troopers" he has delivered to the law. But such events are commonplace, when compared with the reiver’s legend. Its ingredients are treason, rescuing, and bravado. They all contribute to his fame. Kinmont Willie, Hobie Noble, Parcy Reed are magnified by their being victims of foul play. As for the bold expeditions to rescue Jack o’ the Side from Newcastle jail and Kinmont Willie from Haribee, the place of execution in Carlisle, they are feats of daring and gallantry. When executions take place, they are occasions for showing strength of character. Neither Hobie Noble nor Hughie Graham are prepared to compromise to save their lives. Not surprisingly, "reiving" and counter-reiving are exalted, and their heroes are turned into fearless, legendary figures.

14Those hunting, "reiving", rescuing, hanging ballads constitute the memory of the Borders. The events, place names, famous figures are deposits which have accumulated over the years, and make a complex of tradition and culture. Those ballads are the chronicles, historical or legendary, of the land. However, they are no ordinary chronicles, but oral chronicles. In consequence, they are being constantly reshaped. There are numberless versions of the most popular ballads, as the oral tradition allows variations on one motif. Here, the motif is the result of the combination of a theme, a story and a tune. That combination can be modified by the balladist according to his skill, his inspiration, and the response from the audience. As the listeners are already familiar with the story and the mood, they are not always satisfied with a repeat performance; they will enjoy a new version, so long as it is patterned on the conventional form. Improvisation, therefore, is not free. The performer must retain some of the words, the storyline, the rhythm of the stanzas, and make the innovations fit the tune, or a new tune. His creativity must be in keeping with conventions. Fortunately, he can resort to a fund of ready-made phrases, known as "formulas", such as these ones; to express distance:

She had na sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three, (
The Carpenter’s Wife)

... or to express time:

They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three, (
The Wife of Usher’s Well)

15Those "formulas", typical of oral art, are more than mere padding to complete a line. Their traditional quality offsets the novelty of some additions or variations. Now, as repetition would be static, the balladist combines recurrence with progression, thanks to an incremental movement, which reminds one of the constantly renewed motion of waves on the shore. Many a stanza recalls the topic of the previous one, adds to it, and provides a springboard for the next one.

16So, the art of balladry is constantly in the making. The performer, who is simultaneously poet, singer, and at times composer, must make the tradition new. He is both the curator and creator of a culture; his duty is to keep it alive, not simply by recalling or restoring it, but by energizing it with new inputs. Invention grafted on tradition,—this is a hallmark of balladry.

17Now, a ballad without a tune is not a ballad. One must not forget that mountain people have a natural ability to sing, and possess rich funds of traditional songs. The Border Ballads belong to that culture, remarkable for combining dialect with music. The words may sound outlandish to our ears. But the ballads were made by the locals for the locals, in the local dialect. The Border vernacular is no gimmick to add a touch of local colour. Its terse, abrupt phrases, together with its harsh melody, bring forth the violence of the feelings, the rugged character of the people and the wildness of the land.

18The tune will provide a lyrical accompaniment to the words of the dialect. Ballad music is based on modes, such as the Ionian, the Dorian, the Aeolian, the Mixolydian ones. Their particular scales make the framework of the melodic line. Moreover, the tune must fit the ballad stanza pattern. Its metrical structure usually consists of a quatrain in which the first and third lines have 4 stresses, and the second and fourth lines 3 stresses. This Common Measure can also be described as a rhyming couplet of 7-stressed lines, as in Lord Randal. The tune often consists of 4 melodic phrases corresponding to the 4 lines. As in many songs, some ballads (The Cruel Mother, Dick ο’the Cow) have a refrain, allowing the audience to join in a chorus. But, as often as not, the recurrent element is found, not in the refrain sung between the stanzas, but within the stanzas. In Clark Sanders, for instance, phrases and lines are taken up again at different stages of the story, thus creating echoes. So, the refrain is not superimposed on the verse; it is a built-in part of the wording and the melody. So, a Border Ballad is tightly bound by a network of echoes, verbal and musical.

19The dialogues, too, contribute to a melodic incantation. Questions and answers reverberate, as the answer takes up words from the question. In Parcy Reed for instance, the persona is asking for help; "0 turn, 0 turn, 0 johny Ha’, / 0 turn now, man, and fight wi’ me..." And the answer comes: "I winna turn, I canna turn, / I darena turn and fight wi’ thee..." Finally the incantation is further enhanced by sequences of alliterative exclamations, whenever the emotion is at its highest.

0 mother, mother, make my bed,
0 make it soft and narrow,
Since my love dy’ d for me to-day,
I’ll die for him to-morrow. (
Bonny Barbara Allan).

20Excitement, anger, suffering, grief are not enlarged upon; they burst out in words spoken suddenly, briefly, repeatedly, and forcefully.

21To sum up, the Border Ballads are the outcome of a corporate, composite, evolving art. They are not the work of one man, but of communities scattered over hills and dales. Their purely oral culture fostered the combined skills of poet, musician and storyteller. Their achievements are meant for entertainment, but they are no romantic shepherd’s songs; there is nothing pastoral, or sentimental, about them. They deal with the basics of human life: love, death, greed, treason, envy, retaliation, defiance and violence, rebellion against moral conventions, the lust for adventure, the supernatural. The feelings may not be refined, the impulses can be wild, the technique may seem unsophisticated, and yet the Border Ballads possess a spell-binding beauty, robust and rugged.

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Bibliographical reference

Roland Bouyssou, « Over Hill and Dale in the Border Ballads », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 87-91.

Electronic reference

Roland Bouyssou, « Over Hill and Dale in the Border Ballads », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 24 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Roland Bouyssou

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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