> June Tabor > Songs > Rare Willie

Rare Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow

[ Roud 206 ; Child 215 ; G/D 6:1227 ; Ballad Index C215 ; Bodleian Roud 206 ; Mudcat 5976 , 141479 ; trad.]

Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads The Oxford Book of Ballads

Yarrow Water runs in the Scottish Borders between Selkirk and St Mary’s Loch.

Isla Cameron sang Willie’s Rare in 1964 on the album Northumbrian Minstrelsy.

Mrs Eva Bigrow of Calumet, Quebec, Canada, sang Willie Drowned in Ero in October 1964 to Edith Fowke. This recording was included in Fowke’s The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs and on its companion album on the Leader label, Far Canadian Fields.

Alex Campbell sang Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow in 1965 on his eponymous Transatlantic album Alex Campbell.

Almeda Riddle from Heber Springs, Arkansas, sang Rare Willie Drowned in Yarrow in 1972 on her Rounder album Ballads and Hymns From the Ozarks.

Margaret Christl with Ian Robb sang Willie Drowned in Ero on their 1976 Folk-Legacy album of traditional songs found in Canada, The Barley Grain for Me, giving Mrs Bigrow as her source. She noted:

Ballads that people can “join in with” have always appealed to me, and here’s a great one, if ever there was one.

Louis and Sally Killen sang Willie Drowned in Ero on the 1976 fundraiser album The Second Folk Review Record. According to the sleeve notes it was

Taken from the singing of Mrs Eva Bigrow of Calumet, Quebec, recorded on Far Canadian Fields. See Bronson III 328-31.

Patsy Seddon sang Willie’s Fair and Rare on Sileas’ 1990 CD Harpbreakers.

Gordeanna McCulloch got Willie’s Droon’d in Yarrow from Norman Buchan’s 101 Scottish Songs and sang it in 1997 on her Greentrax CD In Freenship’s Name. She noted:

Although I had been aware of this song for years I had never sung it till I went on tour to Denmark with Clutha in the late 1980’s. The young clarsach player Charlotte Petersen was also part of the package and she and I shared accommodation, so it was hardly surprising that we eventually shared a musical collaboration with this particular song. This was my first experience of singing with the harp, and I am delighted to be able to repeat the experiment with William Jackson, whose playing raises hairs on the back of my neck.

Border piper Gordon Mooney played Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow on his 1998 CD O’er the Border.

Kate Rusby sang The Fairest of All Yarrow in 1999 on her CD Sleepless, in 2002 on her CD 10, in 2003 on her and John McCusker’s soundtrack CD Heartlands. She also sang it in a live recording at Leeds City Varieties Music Hall in September 2002 that was released in 2004 on her DVD Live From Leeds.

June Tabor sang Rare Willie, with “words and tune from Thomson, Orpheus Caledonius, 2v, 1733”, on her 2003 album of (mostly) Border ballads, An Echo of Hooves.

Hector Gilchrist sang Willie’s Drooned in Yarrow in 2014 on his WildGoose CD Days o’ Grace. He noted:

I first heard this Border song sung by the MacEwan brothers, Rory and Alex, around 1957. Their important contribution to Scottish Folk song was not always acknowledged by the politically oriented folk song community of the day, due to the brothers’ perceived privileged background. The song is about a lassie who has been “twined o’ her marrow” i.e. parted from her lover.

You Are Wolf sang If Boys Could Swim on their 2018 album Keld. They noted:

Rare Willie Drowned in Yarrow is a Scottish border ballad in which a girl dreams that her absent lover is pulling heather, but when she seeks him, finds him drowned. It seems to have links with a much longer ballad which has the man killed in a duel and thrown in a river. The second half of this track steals and twists a verse from Hares on the Mountain.

Vic Shepherd and John Bowden sang The Banks of Yarrow in 2022 on their Hallamshire Traditions album Revel in the Stories. They noted:

John heard the magnificent Helen Schneyer sing this lovely ballad at Mariposa Folk Festival in 1971. He remembered Helen announcing simply that it came “from Ohio”, and later research (i.e. googling!) revealed that it was collected by Mary O. Eddy from a Mrs Small and published in her Ballads and Songs of Ohio (1939). where it is simply called Yarrow. The song derives from the well-known Scottish Border Ballad Bare Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow, which appeared in the fourth volume of The Tea-Table Miscellany (1763) by the Scottish writer and collector of poetry Allan Ramsay, and has often been confused in tradition with The Braes of Yarrow (Child 214), a different story with which it shares a number of images. Unfortunately John has further confused matters by always having called it The Banks of Yarrow!

Compare to this Nic Jones’ song Annan Water for which he took the text from the appendix of Rate Willie from Child and added the chorus.


Patsy Seddon sings Willie’s Fair and Rare

Willie’s fair and Willie’s rare
And Willie’s wondrous bonnie,
And Willie hecht tae marry me
Gin e’er he married ony.

Yestreen I mad’ my bed fu’ braid,
This nicht I’ll mak it narrow,
For a’ the lee lang winter’s nicht
I’ll lie twined o’ my marrow.

O cam ye by yon waterside,
Pu’d ye the rose or lily
Or cam ye by yon meadow green
Or saw ye my sweet Willie?

She socht him east, she socht him west,
She socht him braid and narrow,
And in the cliftin’ of a crag
She found him drooned in Yarrow.

Her hair it was five quarters lang,
The colour it was yellow;
She tied it roond his middle sae sma’
And pu’d him oot o’ Yarrow.

O mither mak my bed this nicht,
O mak it lang and narrow,
For ne’er a man shall lie by my side
Since Willie drooned in Yarrow.

June Tabor sings Rare Willie

O Willie’s rare and Willie’s fair
And Willie’s wondrous bonny,
And Willie hecht to marry me
Before he married any.

Yestreen I made my bed so broad,
This night I’ll make it narrow,
For all the livelong winter’s night
I’ll lie twined of my marrow.

Oh come ye by yon waterside,
Pulled ye the rose or lily,
Or come ye by yon meadow green
And saw you my sweet Willie?

She sought him east, she sought him west,
She sought him broad and narrow,
’Til in the cleaving of a craig
She found him drowned in Yarrow.