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Child Waters / Fair Ellen / Fair Margaret

[ Roud 43 ; Child 63 ; G/D 6:1229 ; Ballad Index C063 ; DT CHDWATER ; trad.]

Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs The Oxford Book of Ballads

Ewan MacColl sang Fair Ellen in 1964 on his Folkways album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. 3—Child Ballads. He noted:

Child refers to this somewhat far-fetched story of devotion and cruelty as “a charming ballad which has, perhaps, no superior in English”. The Professor’s choice of adjective is, to say at the least, curious and one wonders what he would have made of a Hirschfield case-history. Of the eleven texts published by Child, ten are from Scots sources. Learned from Greig and Keith.

Peggy Seeger also sang Child Waters in 1979 in her and Ewan MacColl’s album Blood & Roses Volume 1.

Gordeanna McCulloch sang Lord William and Lady Margaret on the 1971 Tangent album of songs from the Greig-Duncan Collection, Folk Songs of North-East Scotland.

Frankie Armstrong sang Child Waters in 1997 on her Fellside CD Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn. Brian Pearson noted:

Francis James Child was inclined to think that “this charming ballad … has perhaps no superior in English”. ‘Charming’ is not, one hopes, the word which would spring to the minds of most modern listeners. Bronson referred to it as “too cruel” and it is easy to see why. Yet Child Waters’ apparent callousness perhaps makes Burd Ellen’s eventual triumph all the more potent. Frankie sees the story, not as a literal recipe for successful relationships, but as a battle between two principles or views of the world. Child Waters represents the status quo, the immovable force of established tradition and power; as such, he must marry the ‘right’ worldly mate. Ellen represents the dissolving and recreative power of love, passion and relatedness; she stays close to the ground and to animals and embodies a more instinctual, more subversive consciousness. This reading gives us a classic archetypal ballad where the ‘female’ principle wins out. No wonder Frankie loves it! The text is collated from various versions, and the melody Frankie sings is from that prolific source of good tunes, Alexander Robb of New Deer, Aberdeenshire.

The Gaugers sang Fair Ellen in a recording probably from the late 1960s on their 2000 Sleepytown anthology No More Forever.

Katherine Campbell sang Fair Margaret on her 2004 CD of Scots songs and ballads from Perthshire tradition, The Songs of Amelia and Jane Harris. Peter Shepheard noted:

Fair Margaret is bearing a child by her lover Lord John. As he prepares to leave to return to the highlands she asks to go with him but is warned that “if ye waur in the wide Hielands ye wald be owre far frae hame.” She insists on going with him and “she kilted up her green cleiden” to appear as a pageboy and they journey north together. They ride to the river Clyde across which they swim. They come to the wide Hielands where “every ane spak Erse (i.e. Gaelic) tae anither, but Margaret she spak nane.” When they come to Lord John’s castle they are welcomed in for food, drink and a rest. Lord John asks his mother to make a bed for him with his “futeboy” at his feet. During the night Margaret rises and goes into labour and asks for a bed for “your young son and me”. Lord John replies:

But cheer up your heart noo, Fair Margaret,
For be it as it may;
Your kirken and your fair weddin
Sall baith be on one day.

This beautiful and moving ballad was considered by Child as one of the finest ballads in the language. He gave it the title Child Waters (Child 63) after the earliest publication of the ballad in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The ballad was widely known in Scotland well into the nineteenth century with versions in Jamieson as Burd Ellen, in Kinloch as Lady Margaret and Buchan as Burd Helen. There are closely related ballads in Scandinavian tradition. Version collected in northeast Scotland are in The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection and in Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs as Fair Ellen.


Frankie Armstrong sings Child Waters

Child Waters in his stable stood,
Stroking his milk-white steed;
When to him come a fairest woman
That ever wore woman’s weeds.

Crying, “Christ you save, Child Waters dear,
Christ you save and see;
My girdle of gold that was too long,
It’s now too short for me.

“And it is with one child of yours
I feel stir in my side.
My gown of green is now too straight;
Before, it was too wide.”

“And if it is a child of mine,
Burd Ellen, as you do swear;
Then take you Cheshire and Lancashire,
And make this child your heir.”

She says, “I would rather had one kiss,
One kiss of your sweet mouth,
Than I’d have Cheshire or Lancashire
That lie to north and south. ”

“But tomorrow, Ellen, I must ride
Into the north country.”
“Then I will run low by your side,
Your foot-page let me be.”

“If you would be my little foot-page,
As you do tell it me,
Then you must kilt your gay green gown
An inch above your knee.

He’s mounted on his milk-white steed,
And fast away did ride,
Burt Ellen’s kilted her gay green gown
And run by the horse’s side.

And he has rode and she has run,
Run barefoot through the broom,
And never was he so courteous a knight
To say, “I’ll buy thee shoon.”

And he has rode on high horseback,
She’s run low beside,
And never was he so courteous a knight
To say, “Burd Ellen, ride.”

And all next day Child Waters rode,
She’s run low beside,
Until they came on the one waters,
The waters called the Clyde.

“Oh see you not yon waters, Ellen,
That flow from bank to brim?”
“I vow to God, Child Waters,” she says,
“You would not see me swim.”

The firsten step Burd Ellen stept,
The waters come to her knee;
“Alas, alas,” cries Burd Ellen,
“It’s ower deep for me!”

And the nexten step Burd Ellen stept,
The waters come to her waist;
The babe between her two full sides
For cold began to quake.

“Lie still, lie still, my own dear babe!
You cause your mother rue;
Your father who rides on high horseback
Cares little for we two.

“But I learned it in my mother’s bower,
I wish I’d learned it better;
But I can swim this one waters
As well as seal or otter.”

And he has taken the narrow ford,
She has taken the wide;
But long before he’s reached the middle
She was sitting on the other side.

And when he’s reached the other bank,
She’s come on to his side,
“Oh where’ll be now our resting place
That we this night may bide?”

“Oh see you not yon castle, Ellen,
That shines so fair to see?
There is a lady living there,
Will sunder you and me.”

“Oh see you not yon castle, Ellen,
With red gold shines the gates?
There is a lady living there,
To be my worldly mate.”

“I wish no ill to your lady,
She ne’er comes in my thoughts;
But I wish the women most of your love,
The dearest you have bought.

“I wish no ill to your lady,
I’m sure she’s none for me;
But I wish the women most of your love,
The dares this and more for thee.”

When bells were rung, songs were sung,
And all were bound to eat,
Burd Ellen at the low table
With the footmen she was set.

“Oh eat and drink, my bonny boy,
The white bread and the beer.“
“Oh ne’er a whit I can eat
For my heart’s so full of fear!”

And out and spoke Child Waters’ mother,
And a canny dame was she,
“How come you by this little foot-page,
That looks so fond on thee?;

“For sometimes his cheeks are rosy red,
Sometimes deathly wan;
He’s like a two-er(?) woman with child
Than a young lord’s serving-man.”

“Rise up, rise up, my bonny boy,
Fetch my horse oats and hay!”
“Oh that I will, my master,” she says,
“As fast as e’er I may.”

She’s took the hay beneath her arm,
The oats into her hand,
And she’s away to the great stable
As fast as e’er she can.

“O room you round, you bonny brown steed!
O room you next the wall!
I feel a pain between my sides
I fear will make me fall!”

She sat her back against the wall
And gripped ere it was done;
And there between his great steed’s feet
Burd Ellen’s brought forth her son.

And this beheard Child Waters’ mother,
Sat in her bower alone.
“Rise up, rise up, Child Waters!” she says,
“For I do hear a moan!

“There’s either a ghost in your stable, son,
So grievously doth groan,
Or else a woman brought forth with child,
So piteous she doth moan!”

And up and got Child Waters,
Stay’d for neither hose and nor shoon,
And he’s away to the great stable
By the light of the moon.

And when he’s come to the stable-door,
Full still there did he stand,
That he might hear Burd Ellen
As she made her monand.

“Lullaby, my own dear child!
Lullaby, my dear!
I wish your father were a king,
Your mother laid on a bier!”

He’s kicked the great-door with his foot
And pushed it with his knee;
And iron locks and iron bolts
Unto the floor flung he.

And he’s taken up his own young son
Go wash him in the milk;
And he has ta’en up Burd Ellen
Go dress you in the silk.

“Peace now, Burd Ellen,” he says,
Be of good cheer I pray,
Your bridal and his christening both
Will be all on one day!”