> Frankie Armstrong > Songs > Clerk Colven

Clerk Colven / Clerk Colvill

[ Roud 147 ; Child 42 ; Ballad Index C042 ; trad.]

David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs James Kindley: The Oxford Book of Ballads

Jean Redpath sang Clerk Colven in 1976 on her Trailer album There Were Minstrels. She commented in her liner notes:

1769 seems to have been the earliest printed version of this supernatural tale. Starting from Ewan MacColl’s version, I think what I have here is a slightly altered text (unconscious) and the addition of a chorus (conscious) which I found in Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.

Frankie Armstrong sang Clerk Colven on her 1997 Fellside CD Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn. She noted:

Clerk Colven is a two-timer: his wife suspects as much, but his mermaid lover is quite sure of it and acts accordingly. In these islands, the ballad has only ever been collected in Scotland, although the closely related George Collins has been found often in America and occasionally in England in the present century. Child cites numerous European analogues, in most of which the supernatural lover is an elf rather than a mermaid. Harbison Parker suggests that the Scottish versions were derived from a similar Faeroese ballad via Orkney and Shetland, islands where elves are rare, but merfolk common. There cannot be a more unpleasant macho couplet in balladry than Colven’s sneering boast to his wife that

“I never saw a fair woman
But with her body I could sin.”

This level of hubris ensures his inevitable and well-merited demise. The mermaid is not one to forgive and forget and, says Frankie, while not a wholly desirable role model from a marriage counsellor’s point of view, she is very satisfying to sing about. The tune is Frankie’s variation on Mrs Brown of Falkirk’s air, the only one ever found for this ballad.

Kate Fletcher sang Clerk Colville on her and Corwen Broch’s 2017 CD Fishe or Fowle. They commented in their liner notes:

One of many ballads from across Europe in which a man is doomed to death by his Otherworldly lover. We have used the words of Child #42 version B and the only existing melody for them from Mrs Brown (Anna Gordon) of Falkland. The transcribed melody has given rise to endless debate about how the words should fit to the refrain line of the music. We have chosen to sidestep the argument and sing the verses as given omitting the problematic line of melody.

Alasdair Roberts sang Clerk Colven on his, Amble Skuse and David McGuinness’ 2018 CD What News. They noted:

This ballad, which appears in Child’s collection as Clerk Colvill, comes from the singing of the late Jean Redpath, who observes that 1769 appears to have been the earliest known documented version of the tale. The original source of this variant seems to have been Miss Brown (Anna Gordon) of Falkland (1747-1810), from whom were noted some 35 ballads in total. This song perhaps has its origins in Sir Olaf, a Scandinavian ballad on a similar theme, the oldest known version of which appears on a Danish manuscript of 1550.


Frankie Armstrong sings Clerk Colven

Clerk Colven and his gay lady
Were walking in yon garden green,
A belt around her middle so small
Which cost Clerk Colven crowns fifteen.

“O harken to me, my lord,” she says,
“O, harken well to what I do say:
If you go to the walls of Stream,
Be sure you touch no well fair’d maid.”

“O, hold your tongue,” Clerk Colven said,
“And do not vex me with din.
I never saw a fair woman
But with her body I could sin.”

He’s mounted on his berry-brown steed
And merrily merrily rode he on,
Until he came to the walls of Stream,
And there he spied the mermaiden.

“You wash, you wash, you mermaiden,
O, I will wash your sark of the silk.”
“It’s all for you, my gentle knight,
My skin is whiter than the milk.”

He’s taken her by the milk white hand
And likewise by the grass-green sleeve,
he’s laid her down all on the grass,
Nor of his lady need he ask leave.

“Alas! Alas!” says Clerk Colven,
“For oh so sore is grown my head.”
Merrily laughed the mermaiden,
“Aye, even on, till you be dead.”

“But you pull out your little pen-knife,
And from my sark you shear a gore,
And bind it round your lovely head,
And you shall feel the pain no more.”

So he’s took out his little pen-knife,
And from her sark he sheared a gore,
He’s bound it round his lovely head;
But the pain it grew ten-times more.

“Alas! Alas!” cries Clerk Colven,
“For now so sore is grown my head.”
Merrily laughed the mermaiden,
“’twill I be away and you’ll be dead.”

So he’s pulled out his trusty sword,
And thought with it to spill her blood;
But she’s turned to a fish again
And merrily sprang into the flood.

He’s mounted on his berry-brown steed,
And drear and dowie rode he home,
Until he’s come to his lady’s bower
And heavily he’s lighted down.

“O, mother, mother, make my bed,
O, gentle lady, lay me down;
O brother, brother, unbend my bow,
It’ll ne’er be bent by me again.”

His mother she has made his bed,
His gentle lady laid him down,
His brother he unbent his bow,
It ne’er was bent by him again.