The Battle of Otterburn (161)

I think it’s important to recognize that the Child Ballads came from a particular place and culture – the English-Scottish border region. This fact explains much of the peculiar qualities of the songs such as their general bloodiness. Life was hard there, especially in the medieval era. The armies of Scotland and England were always marching through on their way to fight each other and, as armies of the day did, they lived off the land – a polite way of saying they stole their food from the inhabitants, usually murdering and raping as well. When those countries weren’t at war, local raiders took advantage of the lawlessness of the area and plundered both sides of the border leaving more dead and starving in their wake. Loyalty to clans was everything. A clan was who protected you from raiders and allowed you to form raiding parties of your own.

I find it fascinating that horrible, oppressive circumstances often produce wonderful music. Who, for instance, has contributed more to the musical traditions of the United States than African Americans? Anyway, the the ballad I want to talk about here concerns a historical battle that took place in the borderlands in the 14th century.

Skirmish Line at otterburn
“Skirmish line at the battle of Otterburn” – S. Walsh

Around that time the Earl of Douglas gathered a bunch of Scottish clans for a large scale raid into Northern England. He plundered the countryside, burning towns and castles as he went. Eventually he faced off against Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland in several skirmishes that culminated in the battle of Otterburn, near the town of the same name. Douglas was killed but the Scottish forces, though outnumbered, won the day and took Percy captive. Apparently the Bishop of Durham, who was coming to reinforce Percy, declined to attack when he saw the Scots arrayed before him. I mostly find this interesting because it reminds me there was a time when “Bishop” was as much a political and military position as it was religious.

The ballad is mostly accurate in its content though it provides much embellishment in the face-off between Douglas and Percy. It begins by describing the raid across the border.

It fell about the Lammas tide,

When the muir-men [lowland Scots] win their hay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

Into England, to drive a prey.

You can always tell how old a ballad is by how it describes the time of year. Before the four seasons became the agreed upon standard, people in Britain often kept time by festivals. “Lammas tide” was a harvest festival around August. Also, describing a raid as “driving a prey” is a little chilling. When I would go hunting in rural Minnesota we would “drive” deer through the woods. The use of a term you’d normally use when hunting animals to describe your very human foes says something about how your enemy is viewed.

The song goes on to describe the face off between Percy and Douglas where Douglas makes prophetic remarks about how one of them is fated to die here. There’s also a short stanza about Percy’s wife watching her husband from the castle wall, pale and frightened. It’s a lovely humanizing element. This song would become a sort of patriotic song celebrating a Scottish victory but there’s really nothing in it vilifying the English. It describes them fighting bravely. It reminds me of how the Hector and the Trojans are humanized in Homer’s Iliad.

After the first clash of armies, Percy and Douglas meet in single combat.

When Percy with the Douglas met,

I wat [saw] he was fu fain [glad];

They swakked [swung] their swords, till sair they swat [greatly they sweat],

And the blood ran down like rain.

'After Chevy Chase' (Battle of Otterburn 1388) by Herbert Thomas Dicksee (London 1862 ¿London 1942)
‘After Chevy Chase’ (Battle of Otterburn 1388) – Herbert Thomas Dicksee

Douglas is killed by a crushing blow to the head. The armies clash once more and the Scots beat back the English but Percy refuses to yield to anyone until asked by Sir Hugh Montgomery, nephew to Earl Douglas. I guess it was considered dishonorable to surrender to anyone not of high rank.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by the English singer June Tabor. It’s significantly more melancholy than the other renditions I’ve linked below which are all high spirited and full of martial vigor, though excellent in their own right.

Something about “melancholy” just feels right for this subject. Much is made here about the English and Scottish heroes but I keep thinking about the peasants whose homes and crops were devastated in the raid. It can be frustrating to read history which is generally so focused on the nobility and so silent on the experiences of peasants, ordinary soldiers, laypeople, etc. Even the songs from the borderlands, which offer many rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary folk, still tend to have historical songs be about kings, earls, bishops, and knights. These were songs sung by the lower classes! I don’t know why those prejudices were so pervasive but they were. It’s an eternal irritation even if I love the songs themselves.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Pirt, Janet Russell – YouTube | Spotify

Wolfhound – YouTube | Spotify

Gaberlunzie – YouTube | Spotify

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