Glasgow Peggie (228)

Last time I wrote about how certain songs survived the British diaspora and others, more tied to their homeland, did not. This month’s ballad is one that is not sung much in America, Australia, or even England. It’s peculiarly Scottish and in Scotland it has remained. It’s also a love song (of sorts) and I felt the tenor of my posts had been rather morose as of late. So today it’s something lighthearted and cheery!

The Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland

“Glasgow Peggie” or “Kilbogie” concerns a Scottish Highlander who rides into the Lowlands to take Peggie, a woman who has caught his fancy, as his bride. Much of Scottish history in the last half millennium has revolved around relations between the Highlands and the Lowlands. I’ve included a map that gives a rough approximation of where one ends and the other begins. There were a number of real and important differences between these regions. The Lowlands (with the large cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh) contained the majority of the population. The people tended to farm and they spoke Scots, a sort of dialect of English with a lot of Gaelic influence. Many of the Child ballads were sung and written in Scots. You’ve probably seen examples of it in the lyrics I’ve quoted: “Mother” becomes “mither”, “make” becomes “mak”, and “from” becomes “frae.” For another example “Auld Lang Syne” – a song most everyone has heard – is Scots for “Old Long Since.” The Lowland Scots were usually viewed as (comparatively) civilized and settled.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, were stereotyped as uncivilized, violent, and backwards. They organized in clans and inhabited the rocky, mountainous areas of Scotland. The terrain was unsuitable for agriculture, thus they tended to herd sheep and cattle. Being more removed from the reach of England and the Lowland Scottish aristocracy, they spoke Scottish Gaelic, an older language not related to English.

The Highlanders were viewed by the Lowlanders (whose views were more likely to survive in written form) with a mix of prejudice, terror, and romanticism. Sort of like cowboys in the American West. The Highlands were the wild frontier, beautiful but dangerous. These attitudes are important to understanding “Glasgow Peggie.” When the Highlander arrives in Glasgow he is leading an armed company and demands Peggie’s father give her up. Her father, furious, at first refuses but is forced to give in. Peggie leaves, sometimes with a warning from her mother about what kind of men Highlanders are, and rides with her suitor into the hills of the North.

After several days riding they lay together in the grass and she bemoans her fate – missing her soft bed back home. But he treats her kindly and reveals himself to be a wealthy Lord (usually wealthier than her own family) and she quickly changes her tune.

Now a’ that Peggy had before

Was a wee cot-house and a little kail-yairdie,

But now she is lady o the whole Isle o Skye,

And now bonny Peggy is ca’d my Lady.

So, despite the abduction and warning from her mother, things work out for Peggie in the end. It reminds me of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where seven women each fall in love with their abductors. Or if you substitute a wealthy Scottish Lord for a handsome prince you get Beauty and the Beast.  These stories are recognized as problematic today and perhaps even in their own time but music can serve as a way of coping with and rationalizing problematic things.

Part of the allure of this ballad, I find, is the wonderfully charming tune. The version I’m choosing to highlight is by the Glasgow born singer Alex Campbell who, along with Ewan MacColl, was the seminal figure of the British folk revival of the 50s. Though the two were friends they differed on some key points of theory. MacColl was a bit of a purist who believed folk musicians should only play songs tied to their own regional background. Campbell believed in cultivating an eclectic repertoire (a philosophy I happen to agree with) and sang English and American songs as well as Scottish.

It’s hard to explain why exactly his version of the song resonates with me. It has a warm quality almost like a reminiscence. And there’s just so much feeling and emotion radiating from Cambell’s voice. Listening to it just now was sort of transportive. I had such a vivid image of Peggie and her Highland lover sitting on a wind-blown grassy hilltop. I’m well aware of how silly it sounds but there were tears in my eyes. Sometimes, reading history or listening to these ballads I feel hit with the weight of past lives. So many people saw and felt and did so much. It’s a spooky feeling that makes me feel very small. I don’t know, like I say it’s hard to put into words.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Alex Campbell – YouTube | Spotify

Silly Wizard – YouTube | Spotify

Distant Oaks – YouTube | Spotify

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Ray Fisher & Archie Fisher – YouTube | Spotify

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