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Mary Scott - some of the personalities behind the tune.

This précis was culled (with kind permission) from the very full essay The “Mary Scott” Complex: Outline of a Diachronic Model by James Porter.

There were in fact two persons named Mary Scott, both of whom had songs composed in their honour; both were connected by family to two famous Walter Scotts; and their virtues as beauties of their respective periods (ca. 1550-1600, ca. 1700-70) in Scotland were     celebrated by, among others, two Allan Ramsays.

Who were these two Mary Scotts, and why should they inspire a host of songs, poems and tunes?

The first Mary was the daughter of John Scott of Dryhope in the Border county of Selkirk. The old Tower of Dryhope, where she was born in the mid-sixteenth century, is situated near the lower end of St. Mary’s Loch, and its ruins are still standing. We know little about her childhood but, having grown into a striking beauty she was married, on March 21 1567 to Sir Walter Scott of Harden, later known as "Auld Watt" who had succeeded his father as laird in 1563. By their marriage contract, Dryhope agreed to keep his daughter for a year and a day after the marriage, in return for which Harden bound himself to give his father-inlaw the profits of the first Michaelmas moon.

Walter and Mary Scott had four sons (one of whom was killed in an affray by rival Scotts) and three daughters. Evidently, it was the gentleness and grace of Harden’s spouse that earned her the sobriquet of "The Flower of Yarrow," a title that reverberates through Border literature. A student of local history has conjectured that the name was conceived by a young English captive whom she rescued from the rough hands of Harden’s freebooters as they returned from a raid into Cumberland; this prisoner may have been the composer of the original song of "Mary Scott". Another, less genteel legend recounts that when the last     bullock brought from English pastures had been consumed, the Flower of Yarrow would place a pair of clean spurs on the table to indicate that her lord and his retainers must ride forth for their next meal.

Life at Harden in those times was undoubtedly harsh, given the semi-feudal character of

Border society and the constant strife between the Scotts and their neighbours, whether English or Scottish. The fortress of Harden itself was well suited to this factious world,   having a situation superior even to those of Branxholm or Hermitage Castles. One of the darkest and deepest glens shielded it from attack, and this glen seems to have been so     frequented by hares that it acquired the name of Hare-dean, afterwards contracted to Harden, Another glen of equal depth converged to form a tongue of land on which the house stood, so close to a precipice that the view from the windows overlooked a depth of some two hundred feet. Just below the castle, the glen facing south admitted the cattle that Auld Watt and his followers would drive from Cumberland. From the castle turrets the reiver, who features prominently in the ballad "Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead" (Child 190) could survey the hills south towards the English border, so that when beacons were lit those at Harden would always be among the first into battle. Mary Scott probably died about 1596-7, for Watt married again in 1598 and lived on until 1629.

Sir Walter Scott refers to Mary in the Minstrelsy, adding a comment in a fragment of     autobiography written at Ashestiel in 1804:

         My father’s grandfather was Walter Scott, well known in Teviotdale by the surname of Beardie. He was the second son of Walter Scott, first laird of Raeburn, who was the third son of Sir William Scott, and the grandson of Walter Scott, commonly called in tradition Auld Watt, of Harden. I am therefore lineally descended from

that ancient chieftain whose name I have made to ring in many a ditty, and from his

    fair dame, the Flower of Yarrow - no bad genealogy for a Border minstrel.

According to Robert Chambers, Scott also spoke of the later, eighteenth-century namesake of Mary (actually Mary Lilias) as "the Second Flower of Yarrow," observing that she was recognized in the fashionable circles of the time by the nickname of “Cadie” because she had once gone to a fancy-dress ball in the costume of a cadie Fr. cadet, or street-porter. Mary Lilias was born around the beginning of the century as the second daughter of John Scott of Harden (which overlooks the valley of Borthwick Water, not the Yarrow) and grew into a woman of acknowledged beauty, reaching the height of her charms about 1725.   Stenhouse links the second Mary to the first in his Illustrations, declaring the latter to be the ancestor of the former. In her youth Mary Lilias was, with her elder sister, an excellent singer, and her vocal talents are confirmed by Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling, who tells how the ladies of Edinburgh would sing traditional airs at tea and after supper without any accompaniment:

The youngest Miss Scott of Harden (called from that circumstance La Cadette, thence vulgarly corrupted to Cadie Scott) sung some of these songs with the greatest expression and effect. She was the reigning beauty of the time, and so much a favourite with

the then Duke of Hamilton that he had her picture painted.... and, it was confidently

         said, wished to marry her. Why he did not, I never learned. I knew her only when above middle age, still a fine, interesting and amiable woman, but her face spoiled with a scorbutic affection; her voice however, was as good as ever, and her singing full of taste and pathos. Her Lochaber No More (of itself indeed a most tender and ex-

pressive song, quite appropriate to the pensive melancholy of the words) bro’t tears

    into her own eyes, and seldom failed of the same effect on her audience.

While the makers of the older Border songs and ballads are inevitably anonymous, there is a tantalizing account of the possible composer of the old song of "Mary Scott" in John Leyden’s Scenes of Infancy (1803): Tradition relates that, amid the plunder of household furniture hastily carried off by them [the Scotts] in one of their predatory incursions, a child was found enveloped in the heap, who was adopted into the clan, and fostered by Mary Scott, commonly known by the epithet of the Flower of Yarrow, who married the celebrated Watt, or Walter, of Harden, about the latter part of the sixteenth century. This child of fortune became afterwards celebrated as a poet, and is said to have composed many of the popular songs of the Border; but tradition has not preserved his name.

Earlier in the same work, Leyden recalls this youth in verse:

    He lived, o’er Yarrow’s flower to shed the tear

    To strew the holly’s leaves o’er Harden’s bier

But none was found, above the minstrel’s tomb

Emblem of peace, to bid the daisy bloom: He, nameless as the race from which he sprung, Saved other names, and left his own unsung.

Is this the composer of the old song? It is quite possible that the young man may have made a song in honour of his patroness. It might even have been expected of him if he showed any talent in that direction. From Leyden’s verses one can at least suppose that, if he did   exist, this shadowy figure outlived both Harden and his spouse, and was also the creator of   numerous songs on local persons and events. Whether he is, on the other hand, the first   person of the old song ("When I look east my heart grows sair") can only be guessed. And to what sort of relationship do the words refer?

There is a youth mentioned in a stanza of "The Douglas Tragedy’ recorded by Veitch from

William Welsh, a Peeblesshire cottar and poet, but this probably refers to a period before Mary’s marriage to Watt of Harden:

At Dryhope lived a lady fair

The fairest flower in Yarrow; And she refused nine whole men For a servan’ lad in Gala.

Such connections with the often more savage side of traditional ballad narratives may be at the root of the episode in Mary Scott's life described in a nineteenth-century journal as taken “from tradition”:

     The single story of her life relates to her secret elopement with her lover, one     of the Douglasses of Blackhouse, who, with his brothers, was in the act of     escorting her to their tower, when the party were intercepted by the Scotts of     Dryhope, who had suspected or been informed of the plot. The two families     being at feud at the time, a deadly combat ensued in which all the brothers on     both sides were either killed or wounded.

Whether this is authentic or "creative history’ adduced from classic Border ballads is unverifiable. The “old song” of Mary Scott, which is essentially lyrical rather than part of a ballad narrative, lived on with its air, at any rate, in rural areas of the Borders during the eighteenth century even after it was supplanted in urban taste by the pastiches of Ramsay and others. The air entitled "Mary Scott" appeared in a later edition of Apollo’s Banquet (1690), replacing its former name of "Long Cold Nights". Playford was probably persuaded to change the title on the basis of some unnamed authority. One may tentatively assume from the evidence that the tune, at least, of "Mary Scott" was known and popular in both England and Scotland in the final decade of the seventeenth century. The words of the old song, however, vanished from favour by 1725. Whitelaw believed them lost, but Notes and Queries for 1854 yields a quatrain of the ‘old song’:

     Mary’s black, and Mary’s white,

     Mary is the King’s delight

     The King’s delight, the Prince’s marrow     Mary Scott, the Flower of Yarrow!

Two textual versions of three stanzas each are included in Lady John Scott’s MS (late   eighteenth century) and Peter Buchan’s MS (1828), the latter being printed later by Charles Mackay in The Illustrated Book of Scottish Song:

     O, Mary’s red, and Mary’s white,

     And Mary she’s the King’s delight;

     The King’s delight, and the Prince’s marrow     Mary Scott, the Flower of Yarrow.

     When I look east, my heart grows sair,

     But when I look west it’s mair and mair;     And when I look to the banks of Yarrow,     There I mind my winsome marrow.

     Now she’s gone to Edinburgh town,

     To buy braw ribbons to tye her gown;

     She’s bought them broad, and laid them narrow,     Mary Scott is the Flower of Yarrow.

The Lady John Scott MS is, apart from "black" instead of "red" in the first line and a few other minor differences, almost identical; more appositely still, it displays the same tune:

If these two textual variants do indeed embody the words of the "old song of Mary Scott", what is their significance? Was the Flower of Yarrow an early favourite of the reigning Monarch, James VI? James acceded to the throne as a one-year-old child a mere three months after the marriage of Mary Scott and Watt of Harden. Does the mention of a visit to Edinburgh and the buying of a gown imply a meeting with the young King some years later, when he was an adolescent and Mary Scott in her thirties? It would not be surprising in the light of her fame as a beauty, if such a meeting, however innocent, took place, although James Stuart was not particularly noted for his interest in the opposite sex. The birth, in 1594, of Prince Henry might, on the other hand, be a reason for mentioning the King and the Prince in the verses. Yet another question arises: who is speaking in the second stanza of the song text?

A final strand in the texture of the "Mary Scott" complex of songs and tunes can be found in the melody known as “Fenwick’s Lament”, still played in the Northeast of England. Bruce and Stokoe printed the air with the title, “Sir John Fenwick’s the Flower Amang them A”.

Believing it to be a "gathering tune" from the time of Border chieftains and their summoning of retainers for some foray, the editors associate it with the March of Fenwick’s Jacobite friends to support his planned overthrow of William III.

Sir John Fenwick was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1697 after being implicated in the plot to assassinate William. Arrested with others in the summer of 1690, and later in 1696, Fenwick apparently implicated a number of highly placed persons who demanded his death. A       fanciful legend recounts how Fenwick’s horse, White Sorrel, was confiscated by the Crown; William later fell from the horse and sustained fatal injuries.

Some commentators hold that the tune was composed at the time of Fenwick’s execution. Brand’s History of Newcastle tells how two gentlemen of the county lost their lives, a few years after, for singing it rather thoughtlessly. Citing McGibbon’s printing of the air under the title "Mary Scott" (ca.1740), Bruce and Stokoe suggest that the tune was known earlier in Northumberland. A more illuminating piece of information given by them concerns a John Bell of Gateshead, who wrote to Sir Walter Scott in 1816 asking if he could provide him with evidence on Northumbrian Jacobite songs, "Fenwick’s Lament" among them. Scott replied, saying "I have heard words somewhat similar, alluding probably to some election business -

     They voted twice over, and so they did wrang him

     They voted twice over, and so they did hang him

     They voted twice over, and so they did wrang him

     But Fenwick o’ Bywell’s the Flower among them

“But you know” Scott adds sagely, “how common it is for new words to be written to any popular tune”. The Antiquarian Society of Newcastle offered a reward for a copy of the original song, without success.

The tune appears in the mid-nineteenth century manuscripts of Robert Bewick, son of the famous engraver Thomas Bewick, who played the Northumbrian small pipes. It was seldom cultivated by later bagpipers in Northumbria, although Billy Pigg, the most famous of these recent times, occasionally performed it. The Folk Revival has brought the air to prominence in the Newcastle area, and it has been recorded under the title of “Fenwick’s Lament”.


The “old song” of Mary Scott, words and music, exists in only one redaction, that of the

Lady John Scott MS, dated to the late eighteenth century. The verses alone appear in Peter Buchan’s MS of 1828. There is no way of knowing whether the words and the melody were composed by the same person or by different hands, nor is it certain that the manuscript version is close to the form of the original song. The song, if indeed it was composed by the young English captive of Harden, may have been made in the period 1594-7, after the birth of Prince Henry (the "Prince" of the song text) but before Mary Scott’s death and   certainly before the departure of King James’s court to London in 1603.                           The text as it stands, however, reads more like late seventeenth than late sixteenth century, and there may have been some reworking of the words, and the tune also, during the inter- -vening period. It is likely that the song became so well known in the seventeenth century that both words and air were ripe for transformation as tastes began to change at the end of the century. The Border ambience doubtless also gave rise to the “Fenwick’s Lament” variants at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Jacobite landowner now being the "flower" of the text. Ramsay and others kept alive the idea of Mary Scott by eulogizing in pastoral lines a contemporary beauty of the same name, though the old song seems to have continued in rural tradition till at least the end of the eighteenth century.

The tune’s origin and diffusion are more difficult still to pinpoint; there are hints in the manuscript tradition that although it may have been composed in the Borders it had strong Highland connections (cf. "Highland Tune” of the Gairdyn MS, ca,. 1729), most prominently in the medium of a fiddle air; this tradition culminated in the late and still popular "Smith’s A Gallant Fireman". The general cast of the tune, however, with its leaping second strain does not mean that it was filched for the song from an instrumental original.

Stylistically it has much in common with the vocal leaps of arrangements in Orpheus   Caledonius (1725) and the genesis of the tune in this form may belong to the period around 1700.

Finally, Jeannie Robertson’s lyric song, “Ainst Upon a Time”, is a parody of MacNeill’s "Dinna Think Bonnie Lassie", itself a probable offshoot in terms of the tune at least, from the early eighteenth century "O Dear Mother".

[From THE BALLAD IMAGE; Essays presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson. Edited by James Porter with a Foreword by Wayland D.Hand. Published by the Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore & Mythology, University of California, Los Angeles 1983]