The Dowie Dens of Yarrow
The Border Ballad The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow was in the repertoire of many traditional and revival singers:
Jimmy McBeath sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow on 14 November 1953 in a recording by Alan Lomax that was released in 2002 on his Rounder Records anthology Tramps and Hawkers.
Ewan MacColl sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd's Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume III. This and 28 other ballads from this series were reissued in 2009 on MacColl's Topic CD Ballads: Murder·Intrigue·Love·Discord. Kenneth S. Goldstein noted in the album's booklet:
Child printed nineteen texts of this beautiful Scottish tragic ballad, the oldest dating from the 18th century. Sir Walter Scott, who first published it in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803), believed that the ballad referred to a duel fought at the beginning of the 17th century between John Scott of Tushielaw and Walter Scott of Thirlestane in which the latter was slain. Child pointed out inaccuracies in this theory but tended to give credence to the possibility that the ballad did refer to an actual occurrence in Scott family history that was not too far removed from that of the ballad tale.
In a recent article, Norman Cazden discussed various social and historical implications of this ballad (and its relationship to Child 215, Rare Willie Drowned in Yarrow), as well as deriding Scott's theories as to its origin.
The ballad still exists in tradition in Scotland. It has been reported rarely in America, a fine text having been collected in New York State.
Davie Stewart sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow in a recording by Hamish Henderson in 1954/55 or 1962 that was released in 1978 on his eponymous Topic LP Davie Stewart. Another recording by Alan Lomax in London in 1957 was included in 2002 on Stewart's Rounder Records CD Go On, Sing Another Song. One of these two versions was also included on the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).
Gordeanna McCulloch sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 1965 on the Topic album New Voices from Scotland. This track was included in 1997 on the Fellside CD reissue of her Topic album Sheath and Knife. and in 2009 on Topic 70th anniversary anthology Three Score and Ten.
Isla Cameron sang Yarrow in 1966 on her eponymous Transatlantic album Isla Cameron.
Willie Scott sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow on 3 November 1967 in a recording by Bill Leader that was released on his 1968 Topic record The Shepherd's Song. This track was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day (The Voice of the People Series Volume 17).
Shelagh McDonald sang Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1971 on her second and last album, Stargazer.
John MacDonald sang The Dewie Dens o' Yarrow in November 1974 in a recording by Tony Engle and Tony Russell that was released on his 1975 Topic record The Singing Molecatcher of Morayshire. This track was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Volume 3).
Bob Davenport and The Rakes sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 1977 on their Topic LP 1977. He learned this song from the singing of Davie Stewart.
Jean Redpath sang Dowie Dens o' Yarrow on her 1977 album Song of the Seals. She noted:
One of the many versions of a ballad which has retained its popularity in the oral tradition in Scotland. The Yarrow flows from St Mary’s Loch towards the Tweed, joining Ettrick Water near Philiphaugh above Selkirk.
Paul and Linda Adams sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1978 on their Fellside album Among the Old Familiar Mountains.
Jane Turriff of Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, sang Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in a 1979 recording made by Peter Cooke on her 1996 Springthyme album Singing Is Ma Life. This track was also included in 2000 on the EFDSS anthology Root & Branch 2: Everybody Swings. The original album's notes commented:
The Yarrow valley runs from the Border hills south of Edinburgh to join the river Tweed near Selkirk. Although this is a genuine Border Ballad, James Duncan calls it “unquestionably the most widely known of our old ballads in the North East.” Greig-Duncan has eleven texts, none with Jane's distinctive opening verse. There is much similarity, however, when it comes to the combat verses. It is not clear in Jane's version who the murderer is, but she has her own ideas: Jane: He wis goin for them aa, bit een o them came at him fae the back. It must have been his brither-in-law.
On one occasion, Jane sang this song to a different melody, unusual for a traditional singer and she sometimes begins with two extra verses which do help clarify the motive. These lines also appear as verses two and three in Agnes Lyle of Kilbarchan's version, noted by William Motherwell in 1825 (Child C). Tennies Bank probably refers the Tinnis Burn near Newcastleton in the Scottish borders.
Alison McMorland and Peta Webb sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 1980 on their Topic LP Alison McMorland & Peta Webb.
Gary and Vera Aspey sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow, “a Scottish traditional song which happens to be a great favourite of ours”, in 1979 on their Topic album Seeing Double.
Iain MacGillivray sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 1986 on his Fellside album Rolling Home.
Rod Paterson sang Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1988 on his Greentrax album Smiling Waved Goodbye.
Heather Heywood sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1993 on her Greentrax CD By Yon Castle Wa'.
Steve Tilston sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow on his 1995 album And So It Goes….
Elspeth Cowie sang Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1998 on Chantan's Culburnie CD Primary Colours.
Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton sang The Dewy Dells of Yarrow on their 1998 album The Bee-Loud Glade.
Janet Russell sang Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 1998 on the Fellside CD Fyre and Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. The album's sleeve notes commented:
Arguably one of the finest of the Border Ballads. In simple terms the theme is Romeo and Juliet. This fits conveniently with the reiving theme of two families is dispute. It also deals with the theme of the girl courting beneath her station in life. Whatever, the young man is clearly regarded as unsuitable by the girl's family. As with many of the songs with no clear historical connection attempts have been made to give the song a real-life background. A version of the song collected from one William Walsh, a Peebleshire cottar and poet has as its opening line, “At Dryhope lived a lady fair”. This has led to the theory that the lady was the daughter of Scott of Dryhope, a notorious Reiver. Whether or not it has an historical basis becomes less significant against the overwhelming tragedy of the song. Janet's text, given to her by Sandra Kerr, has a place name “Thurrow” which we have not been able to locate. The text was collected in the Borders and so it has probably been altered by the oral process from Yarrow. The text has several ritual, magical and folklore allusions: the dream, the long yellow hair being wrapped three times around the body, etc. Janet's stunning delivery of the song serves to illustrate why these songs are often called the “Big Ballads”.
Willie Beattie of Caulside, Dumfriesshire, sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow to Mike Yates in 2000. This recording was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of song and music from the Mike Yates Collection, Up in the North and Down in the South, and in 2003 on his Kyloe anthology of ballads, songs and tune from the Scottish Borders, Borderers. Yates noted on the first album:
One of the best-known of the ‘Border ballads’, although very few sets have been collected outside of Scotland itself. While the ballad is set in a known location, the Yarrow Valley—a few miles to the west of Selkirk, it is not known if it is based on an actual historic event. Sir Walter Scott believed that it referred to a duel fought between John Scott of Tushielaw and his brother-in-law Walter Scott of Thirlestane, where the latter was slain; but others have doubted this, citing the ballad's similarity to the Scandinavian Herr Helmer. In this ballad Helmer has married a lady whose family are at feud with him for the unatoned slaughter of her uncle; he meets her seven brothers, who will hear of no satisfaction; there is a fight; Helmer kills six, but spares the seventh, who treacherously kills him.
The ballad has been sung for a long time in Liddesdale and Eskdale, and Frank Kidson noted a set from a Mrs Calvert of Gilnockie—he same Gilnockie that is close to Willie Beattie's home and which is mentioned in the ballad of Johnny Armstrong. Mrs Calvert was the granddaughter of Tibbie Shiel, who had previously given songs to Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, the ‘Etterick Shepherd’. Willie learnt his version of the ballad from his one-time neighbour, the well-known shepherd and singer Willie Scott, who can be heard singing it on [It Fell on a Day, a Bonny Summer Day (The Voice of the People Series Volume 17)]. Davie Stewart's version is on [The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968)], and an Irish set, sung by Brigid Murphy, of Forkhill, Co Armagh, is included on the European Ethnic cassette Early Ballads in Ireland 1968-1985, edited by Hugh Shields and Tom Munnelly.
William Williamson of Ladybank, Fife (the son of Duncan Williamson) sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow to Mike Yates on 3 September 2001. This recording was included in the following year on Yates' Kyloe anthology of songs, stories and ballads from Scottish Travellers, Travellers' Tales Volume 1.
Sara Grey sang Derry Dens of Arrow in 2005 on her Fellside CD A Long Way from Home. She noted:
From the singing of Mrs. Lola Stanley, Fayettville, Arkansas on 30 December 1958. Its found in the The Max Hunter Collection in Springfield-Greene County Library in Springfield, Missouri.
This ballad is a version of The Dewy Dens of Yarrow (Child #214) which was first published in Scott’s Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border where he says he found it easy to collect a variety of versions. Scott says that the ballad refers to a duel fought between John Scott of Tushielaw and his brother-in-law Walter Scott of Thirlestane in which the latter was slain. It is also known as Fair Willie Drowned in Yarrow. However the story also occurs in the Scandinavian ballad Herr Helmer and in various others. This version is a continuation of its migration. What I like about the Ozark version is the simplicity of her actions as she lowers him into the grave. It’s such a stark contrast to the imagery in Scottish versions of the woman binding her long hair around her dead husband to lower him into the grave.
Tom Spiers sang The Dowie Dens o Yarrow on Shepheard, Spiers & Watson's Springthyme 2005 CD They Smiled As We Cam In. He noted:
This was one of the first ballads I learnt back in the 1960s and the text is pretty close to the version in Norman Buchan’s 101 Scottish Songs which was the most accessible source of traditional song in those days. The haunting tune is from the singing of Jessie MacDonald and was collected by Peter Hall on one of his field recording expeditions.
Karine Polwart sang Dowie Dens of Yarrow in 2007 on her CD Fairest Floo'er (the album title is a phrase from this song). This track was also included in 2013 on her Borealis anthology Threshold. A live recording from Cambridge Folk Festival 2008 was included on her festival EP A Wee Bit Extra.
Pete Wood sang The Dowie Dens of Yarrow on his 2007 CD Manchester Angel. He noted:
Yarrow is the name of a river in south west Scotland, which has given rise to a prodigious number of epic ballads, of which this one is the best known. The ballad seems to have been with me ever since I got interested in folk song in Sheffield in the early 60s, where an academic friend gave me a copy of Beattie's Border Ballads, which I still have, and that's the text I use.
Drew Wright sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow in 2011 on the B-Side of the Drag City single with Alastair Roberts and Karine Polwart, Captain Wedderburn's Courtship.
Andy Turner heard Dowie Dens of Yarrow for the first time in 1977 on Bob Davenports album mentioned above. He sang it as the 28 January 2017 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.
Joshua Burnell learned The Dowie Dens of Yarrow from Shelagh McDonald's 1971 album, and sang it on his 2018 CD Songs from the Seasons. He commented on his obession in his Folk Radio UK essay, A Folk Quest: Joshua Burnell on The Dowie Dens of Yarrow & Shelagh McDonald.
Dougie Mackenzie sang The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow on his 2019 Greentrax album Along the Way. He noted:
This border ballad has the lot: love, class discrimination, family dispute and murder.
Rose Byers learned The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow from the singing of Karine Polwart and sang it at home in July 2020:
|Willie Scott sings The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow||Janet Russell sings The Dowie Dens of Yarrow|
There lived a lady in the north,
In Thurrow town there lived a maid,
Her faither he got word o' that
She's washed his face and she's kaimed his hair
“Stay here, stay here, my bonnie lad
As he came ower yon high, high hills
As he gaed up by Tennies Hill
“Did ye come here tae drink the wine?
“I am not come tae drink the wine
“If I see you all, you are nine men,
There was three he slew and three withdrew,
And three he slew and three they flew
“Go home, go home, you false young man,
As he gaed ower yon high, high hills
“ Oh, brother dear, I've dreamt a dream
“O mither, I hae dream'd a dream,
“Oh, sister dear, I'll read your dream
“O dochter I hae read your dream,
As she gaed up yon high high hill
She's washed him in a clear well-strand,
Now this fair maid's hair was three-quarters long
Her hair it being three quarters lang,
“Oh, daughter dear, dry up your tear
“O hold your tongue, my daughter dear
“Oh, father dear, you have seven sons,
“O faither, ye hae siven sons,
Jane Turriff sings The Dowie Dens o Yarrow
“You took my sister to be your wife
And you thought not her marrow;
You rook her frae her father's side,
When she was a rose on Yarrow.”
“I took your sister to be my wife
And I made her my marrow;
I took her frae her father's side
And she's still the rose o Yarrow.”
He's gaen tae his lady gan,
As he had done before o,
Sayin, “Madam I maun keep a tryst
On the dowie dens o Yarrow.”
“O bide at hame ma lord,” she said,
“O bide at hame my marrow,
For my three brothers, they will slay thee,
In the dowie dens o Yarrow.”
“Hold yer tongue, ma lady dear
What's aa this strife and sorrow? [grief and
For I'll come back to thee again,
In the dowie dens o Yarrow.”
She kissed his cheeks, she kissed his hair,
As she had done before o
And gied him a brand doon by his side
An he's awa tae Yarrow.
So he's gan up yon Tennies Bank
A wite he gaed wi sorrow [i.e. I know he gaed
An there he met nine armed men [spied nine
In the dowie dens o Yarrow.
“O come ye here tae howk or hound, [i.e. hawk
Or drink the wine sae clear o,
Or come ye here tae pairt yer land
On the dowie dens o Yarrow?”
“I come not here tae howk or hound,
Or drink the wine sae clear o,
Nor come I here tae pairt ma land,
But I'll fight wi you in Yarrow.”
So four he's hurt an five he's slain
In the bloody dens o Yarrow,
Till a cowardly man cam him behind
An he's pierced his body through o.
“Oh gae hame, gae hame, ma brither John,
Whit's aa this grief and sorrow? [dule and
Gae hame an tell ma lady dear
That I sleep sound in Yarrow.”
So he's gane up yon high, high hill
As he had done before o
An there he met his sister dear,
She wis comin fast tae Yarrow.
“Oh I dreamt a dreary dream yestreen,
God keep us aa fae sorrow!
I dreamt I pulled the birk sae green,
(or: I dreamt that I wis pu'in heather bells)
On the dowie dens o Yarrow.”
“O sister I will read yer dream
And oh it has come sorrow:
Your true love he lies dead an gone,
He was killed, was killed in Yarrow.”