> June Tabor > Songs > The Battle of Otterburn

The Battle of Otterburn

[ Roud 3293 ; Child 161 ; Ballad Index C161 ; DT OTTRBURN ; Mudcat 43181 ; trad.]

Tony Cuffe sang Otterburn in 1998 on his solo album When First I Went to Caledonia.

Graham Pirt sang The Battle of Otterburn in 1998 on the Fellside CD Fyre and Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. Paul Adams noted:

Although essential an English versus Scottish battle from 1388, it was fought in the Borders and the main protagonists came from prominent Border families, Douglas and Percy. It has a place in our collection because it was very much Border ‘inspired’ and takes account of the fact that the border was between countries not always at peace with each other. The Earls of March and Douglas, leading landowners in the Borders urged the Scottish king to renew the Anglo-Scottish War to take advantage of political uncertaincy in England. A truce had been drawn up in 1370 for fourteen years and its expiry saw skirmishing along the Border, much of it instigated by March and Douglas. The English retaliated, another truce was drawn up, but with political instability at both the Scottish and English courts attention increasingly focused on James, second Earl of Douglas and Henry Percy, first Earl of Northumberland. There were raids into Cumberland and Northumberland and eventually all lines were drawn for the Battle of Otterburn.
This song is essentially an English version of Chevy Case (Child #162).

Five years later, in 2003, June Tabor recorded The Battle of Otterburn for her own Border ballads album, An Echo of Hooves. She noted:

The Battle of Otterburn was fought on August 19th, 1388. The ballad follows quite closely Froissart’s contemporary account of this episode in the Hundred Years War. Scottish casualties are believed to have been around 100 killed, 200 captured, while the English lost around 1800 killed, 1000 wounded and 1000 taken prisoner. Earl Douglas was in fact buried at Melrose. Percy’s pennon was never found.

Steve Byrne sang The Battle of Otterbourne on the 2019 album Scott’s Sangs that revisited the ballads of Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Emily Lyle noted:

The Battle of Otterburn, in Northumberland, took place in August 1388, and the ballad details the story of the conflict between prominent families in the England-Scotland borderlands at the time. Scott describes his ballad as a Scottish composition, while he considered the ballad published with the title Chevy Chase (Child 162) by Bishop Percy in Reliques of English Poetry (1765) as the English version. In order to justify his perspective, Scott elaborated in his introduction and notes on the complex history of the families, the battle and the song itself.

The Battle of Otterbourne was first published in 1802, but the revised 1803 text is mainly used here for it incorporates stanzas from oral tradition. The melody adopted here is a faster version of Derwentwater’s Farewell, a 17th-century tune, of which echoes appear in the notation of the ballad tune given in the 1833 edition of the Minstrelsy, published the year after Scott’s death. In James Oswald’s 1781 Collection of Scottish Airs, he gives the Derwentwater tune as being the melody for the ballad Chevy Chase. The late Tony Cuffe of the folk group Ossian recorded a version of Otterburn to this tune on his 1988 album, When First I Went to Caledonia.


June Tabor sings The Battle of Otterburn

And he has burned the dales of Tyne,
And part of Bamburghshire,
And three good towers on Reidswire Fells,
He left them all on fire.

Then he’s marched on down to Newcastle,
“Whose house is this so fine?”
It’s up spoke proud Lord Percy,
“I tell you this castle is mine!”

“If you’re the lord of this fine castle,
Well it pleases me.
For, ere I crossed the Border fells,
The one of us shall die.”

Then Percy took a long, long spear,
Shod with metal free,
And for to meet the Douglas there
He rode right furiously.

How pale, how pale his lady looked
From the castle wall,
When down before the Scottish spear
She saw proud Percy fall.

“Had we two been upon the green,
No other eye to see,
I would have had you, flesh and fell;
Now your pennon shall go with me!”

Now I’ll go up to Otterburn,
There I’ll wait for thee.
If you not come ere three days end
A false knight I’ll call thee.”

“Oh it’s I will come,” proud Percy said,
“I swear by our Lady.”
Then there I’ll wait,” says Douglas,
“My troth I plight to thee.”

They’ve ridden high on Otterburn,
Upon the bent so brown;
They’ve lighted high on Otterburn,
And threw their pallions down.

The day being done and the night come on,
A clear moon o’er the land,
“Awake, awake my lord!
For Percy is hard at hand.”

“You lie, you lie, you little page!
Loud I hear you lie!
For Percy had not men yestreen
To dight my men and me.

But I have dreamed a dreadful dream,
Beyond the Isle of Skye;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I.”

He’s belted on his good broad sword
And to the field he ran,
But he forgot the helmet good
That should have kept his brain.

They hacked their swords ’til the sweat did flow,
Blood ran down like rain.
And Percy wounded Douglas on the brow
And he fell never more to rise again.

He’s called to him the Lord Montgomery,
“What recks the death on one?
Last night I dreamed a dreadful dream
And I know that this day is your own.

Oh bury me by the bracken bush,
’Neath the briar tree,
Oh hide me by the bracken bush
That my merry men might not see.”

The moon was clear, the day drew near,
The spears in flinders flew,
Many’s the bold Englishman
Ere day these Scotsmen slew.

The Percy and Montgomery met,
The blood so free did flow,
“Now yield thee, Percy,” he says,
“Or else I’ll lay you low.

You shall not yield to lord nor loun,
Nor shall you yield to me,
But yield unto the bracken bush
That grows by yonder briar tree.”

“I will not yield to a bracken bush,
Nor to a briar tree,
But I would yield to Earl Douglas,
Or else to Lord Montgomery.”

This deed was done at the Otterburn,
At the break of day.
The buried Douglas by the bracken bush
And led Percy a captive away.