> June Tabor > Songs > Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight

Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight

[ Roud 4015 ; Child 195 ; Ballad Index C195 ; DT MAXGDNIT ; Mudcat 80426 ; trad.]

June Tabor sang the Border ballad Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight in 1977 on her second solo album, Ashes and Diamonds. She was accompanied by John Gillaspie on synthesiser and Nic Jones on fiddle and guitar. This recording was also included in her compilation The Definitive Collection.

June Tabor recorded Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight again in 2003 for her CD of Border Country ballads, An Echo of Hooves. She noted:

Behind these courtly lyrics lie the last stages of “probably the bitterest and bloodiest family quarrel in British history” (G.M. Fraser), between the Maxwells and the Johnstones, the two leading reiving families of the Scottish West March. The theft of “ane black horse” on a fine summer’s day in 1592 set in train a chain of events that culminated in the battle of Dryfe Sands on the 6th December 1593 where John, 8th Lord Maxwell, was struck from the saddle by James, the Laird Johnstone. As Maxwell stretched out his hand in surrender it was cut off. He then went down and was cut to pieces. Despite being outlawed after the battle, the Johnstones were soon back in power and the feud continued to fester. In 1608, in an effort to finally resolve matters, a meeting was arranged between Johnstone and John, the 9th Lord Maxwell. During the parley a dispute broke out between their servants, and as Johnstone turned, Maxwell shot him in the back. He fled the country but returned in secret four years later, only to be betrayed by a kinsman. He was beheaded in Edinburgh in May 1613.

Compare to this Janet Russell singing Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight with longer and somewhat different Scottish verses on the similar themed Fellside album of 1998, Fyre & Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. This album’s notes comment:

George MacDonald Fraser calls the feud between the Maxwells and the Johnstones “probably the bitterest and the bloodiest family quarrel in British history”. The origins of the troubles are uncertain, but by the middle of the 16th Century the families were sworn enemies. Both families had members who had served as wardens. Their disputes serve to illustrate the way in which the Reivers story cannot be told as simply English versus Scots. The Maxwells and the Johnstones had family “territories” in the Scottish West March. The Johnstones were not averse to enlisting the help of English Grahams, and, similarly, the Maxwells might well call upon Armstrongs, Scotts, Beatties and Littles to aid them.

The events described in verse three refer to the Battle of Dryfe Sands (1593). John, 8th  Lord Maxwell, according to legend, having become dismounted, had his arm cut off by one Will Johnstone whilst raising it to surrender. Dumfries is regarded as a “proper place” because a Maxwell traditionally held the post of provost. The song concerns the events of 1608 when a reconciliation meeting was called by the then Lord Maxwell (John) with his Johnstone counterpart. Predictably it went wrong: Maxwell shot Johnstone and as a consequence was forced to flee the country. He returned four years later, was betrayed and executed. There are several “Last Goodnight” songs and the term merely means a “farewell” song. There is some poetic licence here because Maxwell’s wife was dead by this time. It is ironic that such a noble song should come from such despicable circumstances.

Jack Rutter sang Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight on his 2023 album This Is Something Constant. He noted:

I first heard the amazing June Tabor singing this song, though my melody for it changed in the singing.


June Tabor sings Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight on Ashes and Diamonds

“Good, my lord, will you stay then about my father’s house
And walk into these gardens green? In my arms I’ll thee embrace.
Ten thousand times I’ll kiss your mouth, make sport and let’s be merry.”
“I thank you, lady, for your kindness, trust me, I may not stay with thee.

For I have killed the Laird Johnstone, I care not for the feud.
My loyal heart did still incline, he was my father’s death.
By day and night I did pursue and all on him revenged to be;
Now I have gotten what I long sought, trust me, I may not stay with thee.

Adieu Dumfries, my proper place, adieu, adieu Caerlaverock fair;
Adieu my castle of the Threave, and all my buildings there.
Adieu Lochmaben’s gates so fair and the Langholm shank where the birk bops bonny;
Adieu my lady and my only joy, trust me, I may not stay with thee.”

Now he has taken a good gold ring whereat hang signets three,
Says, “Take you this, my own dear love, and aye, have mind of me.
But if you wed another lord while I am on the sea,
His life is but a three day’s lease, though I may not stay with thee.”

The wind was fair, the ship was clear, the good Lord went away;
The most part of his friends were there to give him fair convoy.
They ate the meat, they drank the wine, presenting in that good Lord’s sight.
Now he is over the floods so grey, Lord Maxwell’s taken his last goodnight.

June Tabor sings Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodnight on An Echo of Hooves

The verses are the same as in the previous version except for a few differences in the second half of the second-last verse:

“But if you have another lord while I am o’er the sea,
His life is but a three day’s lease, trust me, I may not stay with thee.”