The word ballad is used in two ways when talking about Scottish song traditions. One is as a general word for a song or poem that tells a story using short verses. But 'ballad' is also used as a specialised word for one of a group of songs that are hundreds of years old and tell dramatic stories of war, love and betrayal, magic and trickery or strange events.
Nobody knows who made up these ballads, and some have had their words and tunes so changed by different singers in different places over the centuries that it can be hard to recognise that two songs are versions of the same old ballad. Perhaps only a few lines are shared, but the story is the same.
Sometimes, the traditional 'short verse' Scots ballads are also thought of as poetry rather than as songs and are taught in schools as part of English literary studies. Like the Gaelic poem-songs, this is in part because most of them were first printed without any tune written out beside the words.
Some of these Scots ballads are about historical events and particular Scottish historical characters, eg 'The Baron of Brackley', 'Johnnie Armstrong', 'The Battle of Harlaw', 'The Bonny Earl of Moray'.
The ballads usually set the scene very quickly and get right to the heart of the story without wasting time. In the very first verse of the ballad, the enemy of 'The Baron of Brackley' is at his gates challenging him to a fight to the death.
'Doon Deeside cam
Inverey whistlin and playin,
And he was at Brackley’s yetts ere the day was dawin.
'And are ye there, Brackley, and are ye within?
There’s shairp swords are at your yetts, will gar your blood spin.'
'The Gypsy Laddies' is a ballad that is said to be about Lady Jean Hamilton, the wife of the Earl of Cassilis. They lived in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, in the 1620s. However, there are many versions of this song known in other English-speaking countries. In England there is a version called 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsies', while in the USA the ballad is sometimes called 'Blackjack Davie'. In Jeannie Robertson's version, the gypsies cast a spell over the lady of the castle. She goes with them, but they are caught and hanged.
Variations of ballads
Ballads can have long or short versions, and parts of the story in one version may be left out altogether in another. Sometimes, people who published the ballads would disapprove of certain shocking or risqué parts of the story and leave them out deliberately. Other ballads are Scottish versions of ballads also known in England, the USA and other parts of Europe such as Scandinavia. There is often an element of magic in the traditional ballads, eg 'The Two Sisters (Binnorie O' Binnorie)', 'The Demon Lover', 'Tam Lin', 'Thomas the Rhymer', and 'The Cruel Mother (Greenwood Side)'.
In 'Binnorie' one of the 'Two Sisters'
drowns the other because they both love the same young man. The drowned
sister’s body floats away, and the miller who finds it uses her bones to make a
fiddle or a harp, and her hair becomes the strings. When the instrument is
played at the wedding of the other sister and the young man, it tells of the
murder. (Some of the themes in this story go right back to Greek
In other ballads, the 'Demon Lover' comes back from the dead and takes his sweetheart away. Both 'Tam Lin' and 'Thomas the Rhymer' are stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. The 'Cruel Mother' kills her babies, but their ghosts come back to tell her of her future.