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Betsy Bell and Mary Gray

  • Trad - Child 201

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
They were bonnie lasses
They built them a bower on yon burn-side
They theeked it all over wi' rashes (theeked - thatched)
They theeked it all over wi' rashes green
They theeked it all over wi' heather
The plague cam' from the borough town
And slew them both together

They would not have their shoes of red
Nor would they have them yellow
But they would have their shoes of green
To ride through the streets of Yarrow
They thought to lie all in the church-yard
Among their noble kin
But they were laid in Stronach Haugh
All out beneath the sun

As sung by Martin Carthy & Maddy Prior - incomplete)

... the ballad itself, which was first printed by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe,under the title of

The Twa Lasses:

O Bessie Bell and Mary Gray
They were twa bonnie lasses
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae
And theekit it o'er wi' rashes
They theekit it o'er wi' rashes green
They theekit it o'er wi' heather
But the pest cam' frae the borough's toun
And slew them baith thegither
They thocht to lie in Methven kirkyard
Amang their noble kin
But they maun lie in Dronach-haugh
And beik fornenst the sun
Repeat 1

Susannes Folksong-Notizen

[1880:] First published in Lyle's Ancient Ballads and Songs, where it is said the compiler collated it from the singing of two aged persons, one of them a native of Perthshire. The story of the unfortunate young ladies is given by Chambers. [...]
"Bessie Bell and Mary Gray were the daughters of two country gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Perth, and an intimate friendship subsisted between them. Bessie Bell, daughter of the Laird of Kinnaird, happening to be on a visit to Mary Gray at her father's house at Lyndoch, when the plague of 1666 broke out. To avoid the infection, the two young ladies built themselves a bower in a very retired and romantic spot, called the Burnbraes, about three quarters of a mile westward from Lyndoch House, where they resided for some time, supplied with food, it is said, by a young gentleman of Perth who was in love with them both. The disease was unfortunately communicated to them by their lover and proved fatal; when, according to custom in cases of plague, they were not buried in the ordinary parochial place of sepulture, but in a sequestered spot called the Dronach Haugh, at the foot of a brae of the same name, upon the banks of the River Almond."
It is little wonder that the popular imagination seized upon the incident, and that some unknown singer gave expression [...] to the pathetic feeling of the district. (Ord, Glasgow Weekly Herald, February 21)

[1880:] Mr. W. Anderson Smith, writing from Benderloch, says: "In the ballad of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, the version I recollect for upwards of 20 years has the following words - They wadna lie in Brecknock Kirk
Beside their gentle kin
But they must sleep on Brecknock bank
Beside the roaring linn
The delicate distinction between lying in the kirk and sleeping on the bank to the lullaby of the waters seems more in keeping with the other verses. [...] I am neither acquainted with the above kirk nor with the names in your version [Meffin, Dornoch], so cannot vouch for the local colouring." (Ord, Glasgow Weekly Herald, February 28)

[1900:] The story on which this popular fragment of a ballad is founded has been often told, and is so charged with tender pathos that it never fails to command attentive hearing. It belongs to the time of the great plague or pestilence which, for some time previous to 1665, was the terror of Scotland, and at one time [...] reduced the city of Perth of about one-sixth of its population.
The common tradition is that Bessie Bell and Mary Gray were the daughters of two country gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Perth, between whose families an intimate friendship subsisted. Bessie Bell, daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid, was on a visit to Mary Gray, at her father's house at Lednock, now called Lynedoch, when the plague of 1666 broke out in the country. Taking alarm at the report, the two young ladies, in order to avoid the deadly infection, set to work and built themselves a bower, which they "theekit wi' rashes", in a very retired and romantic spot known as the Burn Braes, on the side of the Brachie Burn, situated about three quarters of a mile west from Lynedoch House.
Here they lived in safety for some time, whilst the plague raged with great fury. But, ultimately, they caught the infection from a young gentleman of Perth, who, it is said, was in love with the one or the other - it is not known which - but who, having discovered their rural habitation, and the scanty fare it afforded, made it his daily duty to supply them with provisions from the "borough toun". According to a traditionary story which I have received at various times from the lips of old persons in Perthshire, the provisions were not, however, the vehicle by which the pestilence was conveyed. But the young gentleman, on one of his visits, having brought with him, among other presents for their gratification, a
rare necklace which he had purchased of a wandering Jew, and which, unhappily, had been the property of one who had died of the plague, the infection was in this way communicated, to the young ladies, and proved fatal to them both. According to custom in cases of plague, the bodies did not receive the ordinary form of sepulture. We may believe, indeed, that they were allowed to lie in the open and "beik fornenst the sun", as the ballad avers, until the flesh had disappeared and only the bone skeletons remained, when these were taken with safety and put beneath the green sod of the Dronach-haugh, at the foot of the brae of the same name, and near to the bank of the river Almond. The young man, having also died of the plague, was laid at their feet. Of course, I know that a local tradition relates how the bodies were, immediately after death, carried to be interred in Methven kirkyard, when the people met the mournful procession at Dronach-ford and opposed their passage, in apprehension of the spread of the fell disease. But I prefer to take the statement of the ballad, even though the other may have happened; although it is not likely that the bodies, if once lifted for burial, would be left to waste in the open, whether entrance to the kirkyard was denied or granted. In Dronach-haugh they were at length laid, in any case. Dranoch, or Dronach, in the Gaelic, means sorrowful. Therefore, the likelihood is that this piece of ground, previously undistinguished, takes its name from the fact of these hapless young persons being buried within its borders.
But now, the ballad itself, which was first printed by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe,under the title of

  • The Twa Lasses:

    Variations have been made on these simple stanzas, only to mar their tender and natural beauty. But to come again to the scene of the ballad. The earliest authentic information concerning the grave of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray is found contained in a letter dated 21st June, 1781, written by Major Barry of Lednock, and published in the "Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland", vol. II, 1822. This gentleman explains that when he came first to Lednock he was shown in a part of the grounds called the Dronach-haugh, a heap of stones almost covered with briers, thorn, and fern, and which he was assured was the burial-place of the hapless ladies whose names are immortalised in the fragment of ballad poetry bearing their name as its title. Major Barry caused all the rubbish to be removed from the little spot of classic ground, and enclosed it with a wall, planted it round with flowering shrubs, made up the grave double, and fixed a stone on the wall, on which were engraved the names of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.
    In 1787 Lynedoch estate passed into the possession of Mr. Thomas Graham of Balgowan, "the gallant Graham", afterwards Lord Lynedoch, and the wall erected round the graves in the Dronach-haugh by Major Barry half a century before, being discovered by this later proprietor, on his return from a lengthened pilgrimage abroad, to have fallen into a dilapidated state, he had the remains of the wall removed and a neat stone parapet and iron railings, 5 feet high, placed round the spot. He also covered the graves with a stone slab, on which was inscribed the words, "They lived, they loved, they died." This railing still stands; but the stone slab within the railing is not visible to the eye, being covered with stones heaped up cairn-wise, brought hither by the many visitors who have made pilgrimages to the famous Scottish shrine.
    [...] Starting with the first few lines of the original, Allan Ramsay produced a song which is frequently printed in the collections. It is a performance not without merit, but as the author has dared to transform the burden of the verses from tender pathos to lively humour, we give him credit for it with a grudge, for the good reason that in so far as his version gains popularity, a sweetly-pathetic historic romance loses ist hold on the public mind. [Ramsay's version see above.]
    Other bards have followed in the wake of the author of The Gentle Shepherd. One of the only two poems which Robert Nicoll allowed to drift into print before the publication of his "Poems and Lyrics" dealt with the fate of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray. Dr. John Leyden (who assigned a Border locality to it) and, strange to say, Ebenezer Elliott, "the Corn-Law Rhymer", each found in it a theme for his muse. Also a long but somewhat flabby ballad on the subject was written by James Duff, "the Methven poet", which appears in the volume of his poems published in Perth in 1816. Not Ramsay's song, however, nor any of these, but the four simple original verses will live in the Scottish breast to celebrate Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, who, "beautiful in their lives, in death are not divided". (Ford, Histories 142ff)

    [1980:] Included in this budget of 'curious tracts' [the James Mitchell collection of songs and ballads in the British Museum] is a version of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, which starts off with four lines of the old ballad but is shortly purveying a completely different idiom:

    And Mary's locks are like the craw
    Her een like diamonds glances
    She's aye sae clean, redd up and braw
    She kills whene'er she dances
    Blyth as a kid, with wit at will
    She blooming, tight and tall is
    And guides her airs sae gracefu' still
    O Jove, she's like thy Pallas

    Dr [David] Buchan [author of 'The Ballad and the Folk'] goes on to say: 'In this song, which is actually reprinted from the works of Allan Ramsay, there are three linguistic varieties; there is poetical English, ordinary vernacular Scots, and in the first quatrain [the only surviving lines from the traditional song Ramsay based his poem on] the formulaic language of the old tradition. The language of the songs the folk were singing was in a state of flux. It is in the light of this fact that linguistic vulgarities and incongruities of Peter Buchan's ballads must be considered.'
    Sung by the folk ... the fact that a song is printed in a chapbook is in itself no evidence that it was actually sung by the 'folk'. Furthermore, this version of the song was in print a quarter of a century before Mrs Brown of Falkland was born [mid-eighteenth century]. There is no evidence whatever that this ludicrous, wishy-washy, pedantic ditty (reprinted almost word for word from Ramsay's 'Poems', 1721) was ever sung by the 'folk' in Aberdeenshire, although it was no doubt hawked around at feeing markets and elsewhere by enterprising colporteurs. (Hamish Henderson in Cowan 73f)

Quelle: Scotland

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