Scottish Ballads and Their Appropriation

[Treaty of Union Articles Contents]

   “HER ancient ballads form no inconsiderable part of the literary wealth of Scotland. They rank next in value to the songs of Burns and the romances of Scott. Some people would place them higher; and it may be that their existence made possible the poetry of Scott and Burns. Nobody, not even the envious foreigner has disputed their beauty, and their suggestiveness of a world of beauty lying all about them. A man may not be able to give a definition of poetry, but he can take those old Scottish ballads in his hand and say of them ‘This is poetry.’ It is not alone in respect of quality that they are allowed to rank high as the products of genuine poesy; their volume and variety are scarcely less remarkable. No nation, it is universally acknowledged, has such a body of traditional poetry. It is rather late in the day to snatch at this green branch from the laurels of Scotland and place it on a foreign brow. It is no wonder, perhaps, that the attempt should have been made when Scotland first began to give herself airs and challenge the attention of her neighbours to the wealth of her native poetry. Her collected ballads made such a rich display that the envy of her neighbours was stirred, and they began to inquire into the Scottish rights to ownership. They coveted, and they laid claim. Now this and now that gem in the Scottish collection was pounced at; it was claimed for France, for Germany, for Denmark. Its original ownership was confidently supposed to be made out by the claimant, generally on the scantiest evidence. But the gems are still in the Scottish collection, and the covetous foreigner has either foregone his former claim or is cherishing his paste imitation. The most recent attempt to spoil the Scottish ballads and transfer them to Devonshire is foredoomed to the same fate. It is feebleness itself. 

   Mr Baring-Gould has hitherto been known to ephemeral fame as one of the most prolific novelists of this prolific age of novels. His activity in authorship, if mere activity be a merit, is undeniably praiseworthy. Not long ago, if we remember rightly, he all but monopolised the field of serial fiction; he was driving his five-in-hand through the most popular of our current magazines. This was surely ambition enough to satisfy any of the ruck of our respectable novelists. The exploit was duly trumpeted, and may or may not have been a ‘tout’ on the genuine horn; at best it was a transitory blast; but Mr Baring-Gould must be talked about or die. He therefore elects, as our cousin across the sea-ditch say, to be notorious rather than be unknown; and accordingly he makes an audacious assault upon the old Scottish ballads. The audacity is only equalled by the absurdity of the attack. His motive is partly jealousy of Scotland, partly English prejudice. It is amusing to observe the successive increments of audacity which the sympathy of his Cockney audience, credulous of the superiority in all things of the Southron, seems to have inspired in his infatuated breast. In his lecture at the Royal Institution the other day he demanded that the ballads of Scotland, confessedly rich in the extreme, and those of England, confessedly ‘mediocrity itself,’ should be thrown into one common stock, and labelled hereafter the Ballads of Britain or – which is the same thing, for England is bounded on the north by the Pentland Firth – the  Ballads of England. This was insidious move the first. The motto of his move is the well-known one – What is yours is ours, and what is ours is our own. The next advance was to arrogate to England – England proper – as rich and varied a bundle of native ballad products as the Scottish collection, if (much virtue in this if) only they had been gathered at the right time some hundred years ago. It is admittedly too late now. The wish is here apparently parental to the belief. There is none but a speculative foundation for it. Its piety is its only merit. The last stop was taken amid the rapturous applause of Cockaigne. The lecturer claimed the Scottish ballads as originally English. Hear the report:- ‘He believed the Scottish ballads were not Scottish originally, but English, and that they acquired a Scottish flavour (generous concession!) across the Tweed was undoubtedly due a good deal to those who gathered them, or to the people among whom they were (not made but) preserved. This might surprise English people.’ No doubt! There are few intelligent people, whatever their nationality, whom the statement is not calculated to surprise. The peculiar humour of Mr Baring-Gould’s three stages on the path of appropriation seems to have escaped his audience. It will scarcely elude the rational faculty of an Irishman in the following brief formula into which it admits of being condensed:- 1. The Scottish ballads, being Scottish, are British. 2. They are very good, but no better than English ballads, which never were, and never can, be collected. 3. They are really English ballads which the Scots stole from us. 

   The statements – it would be a misuse of words to call them arguments – by which Mr Baring-Gould seeks to support his second and third positions are cheaply manufactured, and may be cheaply disposed of. As for the first, it is true that what is Scottish is, by the Treaty of Union, British, but the inference he obviously wishes to draw – viz., that what is British is English – is a false conclusion. Mr Gould may as well insist that black is white because both are colours. As for his assertion that the native English ballads were rich because they were not collected, it seems to us more logical to infer that they were not collected because they were non-existent. English collectors there were, to the full as zealous as those of Scotland, and if they went to the museums and libraries to glean, it was probably because there was no gleaning of the grain they wanted elsewhere that was worth the while. On what basis of fact or fancy does Mr Gould rest his claim that the Scottish ballads are after all of English origin and growth? On a song or two, ‘The Jolly Trooper,’ ‘The Trees that are so high,’ and a few more, one ‘taken from an absolutely illiterate man, now dead, who had lived at Dartmoor,’ another ‘taken down from an utterly illiterate hedger [presumably of Devonshire] who got it from his father, for he belonged to a family who had been musical for generations’ – which all, some with deficiencies, some with additions, more or less ‘similar to ballads in Scotch collections.’ On the strength of these – the matter and nature, the similarity of which we have not the means of discussing – the claim is made. Even allowing them to be the original and superior copies of ballads which are present in the Northern collection – a liberal allowance to Baring-Gouldish avarice! – was ever more audacious conclusion drawn from induction so miserably meagre? ‘A few ballads gathered in the West of England are somewhat similar to Scottish ballads; ergo, all the so-called Scottish ballads really belong to the West of England!’ But Mr Baring-Gould, while supremely satisfied that what is gathered on Dartmoor is English, denies her native products, maugre their ‘Scotch flavour,’ to Scotland. There is no reasoning with such a man; he has been too long wedded to the art and manufacture of fiction to pay much respect to fact and fair reasoning. 

   If Mr Baring-Gould’s demands were a trifle more modest, and if he came a little nearer the Scottish Border – but he refuses to meet us half-way – we should be prepared to deal generously with him. We can easily afford to do so. We should lose none of the best of our genuine collection. But he would seize at one fell swoop upon the whole bundle. As it is, there are scores that are thirled to the Scottish lowlands and borderlands, the undeniable country of their nativity. Sir Patrick Spens haunts ‘the gray toun,’ and the narrow northern seas. Jamie Telfer refuses to cross the Cheviots, except in the hostile array of the ancient regime: the fair Dodhead is not more immoveable. It is only in bonny Teviotdale that a battle could have been fought for ‘ten milk ky’ by the light of ‘a gryming of new-fa’n snaw.’ 

“‘Revenge! revenge!’ auld Wat ‘gan cry;
‘Fy, lads, lay on them cruellie!
We’ll ne’er see Tiviotside again
Or Willie’s death revenged shall be!’
“Then he’s ta’en aff his gude steel cap,
And thice he’s waved it in the air;
The Dinlay snaw was ne’er mair white
Nor the lyart locks o’ Harden’s hair.”

   The Dinlay snaws are not to be lifted lightly to the top of any of the tors of Devonshire. The pathetic wail that echoes all down Yarrow will not ‘fly the vocal vale.’ Our fairies, too, will not budge. They are of a different strain from the Warwickshire fairies, and never entered Shakspeare’s dream; 

“For aye, at ilka seven years,
They pay the teind to hell.”

   Such ballads as these, and many other representatives, like ‘The Twa Brothers,’ ‘The Gay Goshawk,’ ‘The Demon Lover’ – their name is legion – are indisputably indigenous to Scotland. Only madness, or Mr Baring-Gould, would venture to appropriate them. They are steeped in the native Castaly. The geography and history of the country are inextricably woven into the texture of their every stanza. The local colouring of idiom and imagery is part and parcel of their very fabric. Their beauty and their bouquet are as undeniably native to Scotland as are the gowans to her burn-banks or the heather to her hills.” 

– The Scotsman, Tuesday 17th June, 1890.

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