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Ch. 1: Scott and the Ballads

It was through his collecting and editing of The Border Minstrelsy that Sir Walter Scott glided from law into literature. The history of the conception and completion of his task, "a labour of love truly, if ever such there was," says Lockhart, is well known, but the tale must be briefly told if we are to understand the following essays in defence of Scott's literary morality.

Late in 1799 Scott wrote to James Ballantyne, then a printer in Kelso, "I have been for years collecting Border ballads," and he thought that he could put together "such a selection as might make a neat little volume, to sell for four or five shillings." In December 1799 Scott received the office of Sheriff of Selkirkshire, or, as he preferred to say, of Ettrick Forest. In the Forest, as was natural, he found much of his materials. The people at the head of Ettrick were still, says Hogg, {1a} like many of the Highlanders even now, in that they cheered the long winter nights with the telling of old tales; and some aged people still remembered, no doubt in a defective and corrupted state, many old ballads. Some of these, especially the ballads of Border raids and rescues, may never even have been written down by the original authors. The Borderers, says Lesley, Bishop of Ross, writing in 1578, "take much pleasure in their old music and chanted songs, which they themselves compose, whether about the deeds of their ancestors, or about ingenious raiding tricks and stratagems." {2a}

The historical ballads about the deeds of their ancestors would be far more romantic than scientifically accurate. The verses, as they passed from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation, would be in a constant state of flux and change. When a man forgot a verse, he would make something to take its place. A more or less appropriate stanza from another ballad would slip in; or the reciter would tell in prose the matter of which he forgot the versified form.

Again, in the towns, street ballads on remarkable events, as early at least as the age of Henry VIII., were written or printed. Knox speaks of ballads on Queen Mary's four Maries. Of these ballads only one is left, and it is a libel. The hanging of a French apothecary of the Queen, and a French waiting-maid, for child murder, has been transferred to one of the Maries, or rather to an apocryphal Mary Hamilton, with Darnley for her lover. Of this ballad twenty-eight variants--and extremely various they are--were collected by Professor Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (ten parts, 1882- 1898). In one mangled form or another such ballads would drift at last even to Ettrick Forest.

A ballad may be found in a form which the first author could scarcely recognise, dozens of hands, in various generations, having been at work on it. At any period, especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the cheap press might print a sheet of the ballads, edited and interpolated by the very lowest of printer's hacks; that copy would circulate, be lost, and become in turn a traditional source, though full of modernisms. Or an educated person might make a written copy, filling up gaps himself in late seventeenth or in eighteenth century ballad style, and this might pass into the memory of the children and servants of the house, and so to the herds and to the farm lasses. I suspect that this process may have occurred in the cases of Auld Maitland and of The Outlaw Murray--"these two bores" Mr. Child is said to have styled them.

When Allan Ramsay, about 1720, took up and printed a ballad, he altered it if he pleased. More faithful to his texts (wherever he got them), was David Herd, in his collection of 1776, but his version did not reach, as we shall see, old reciters in Ettrick. If Scott found any traditional ballads in Ettrick, as his collectors certainly did, they had passed through the processes described. They needed re-editing of some sort if they were to be intelligible, and readable with pleasure.

In 1800, apparently, while Scott made only brief flying visits from the little inn of Clovenfords, on Tweed, to his sheriffdom, he found a coadjutor. Richard Heber, the wealthy and luxurious antiquary and collector, looked into Constable's first little bookselling shop, and saw a strange, poor young student prowling among the books. This was John Leyden, son of a shepherd in Roxburghshire, a lad living in extreme poverty.

Leyden, in 1800, was making himself a savant. Heber spoke with him, found that he was rich in ballad-lore, and carried him to Scott. He was presently introduced into the best society in Edinburgh (which would not happen in our time), and a casual note of Scott's proves that he did not leave Leyden in poverty. Early in 1802, Leyden got the promise of an East Indian appointment, read medicine furiously, and sailed for the East in the beginning of 1803. It does not appear that Leyden went ballad-hunting in Ettrick before he rode thither with Scott in the spring of 1802. He was busy with books, with editorial work, and in aiding Scott in Edinburgh. It was he who insisted that a small volume at five shillings was far too narrow for the materials collected.

Scott also corresponded with the aged Percy, Bishop of Dromore, editor of the Reliques, and with Joseph Ritson, the precise collector, Percy's bitter foe. Unfortunately the correspondence on ballads with Ritson, who died in 1803, is but scanty; nor has most of the correspondence with another student, George Ellis, been published. Even in Mr. Douglas's edition of Scott's Familiar Letters, the portion of an important letter of Hogg's which deals with ballad-lore is omitted. I shall give the letter in full.

In 1800-01, "The Minstrelsy formed the editor's chief occupation," says Lockhart; but later, up to April 1801, the Forest and Liddesdale had yielded little material. In fact, I do not know that Scott ever procured much in Liddesdale, where he had no Hogg or Laidlaw always on the spot, and in touch with the old people. It was in spring, 1802, that Scott first met his lifelong friend, William Laidlaw, farmer in Blackhouse, on Douglasburn, in Yarrow. Laidlaw, as is later proved completely, introduced Scott to Hogg, then a very unsophisticated shepherd. "Laidlaw," says Lockhart, "took care that Scott should see, without delay, James Hogg." {4a} These two men, Hogg and Laidlaw, knowing the country people well, were Scott's chief sources of recited balladry; and probably they sometimes improved, in making their copies, the materials won from the failing memories of the old. Thus Laidlaw, while tenant in Traquair Knowe, obtained from recitation, The Daemon Lover. Scott does not tell us whether or not he knew the fact that Laidlaw wrote in stanza 6 (half of it traditional), stanza 12 (also a ballad formula), stanzas 17 and 18 (necessary to complete the sense; the last two lines of 18 are purely and romantically modern).

We shall later quote Hogg's account of his own dealings with his raw materials from recitation.

In January 1802 Scott published the two first volumes of The Minstrelsy. Lockhart describes the enthusiasm of dukes, fine ladies, and antiquarians. In the end of April 1803 the third volume appeared, including ballads obtained through Hogg and Laidlaw in spring 1802. Scott, by his store of historic anecdote in his introductions and notes, by his way of vivifying the past, and by his method of editing, revived, but did not create, the interest in the romance of ballad poetry.

It had always existed. We all know Sidney's words on "The Douglas and the Percy"; Addison's on folk-poetry; Mr. Pepys' ballad collection; the ballads in Tom Durfey's and other miscellanies; Allan Ramsay's Evergreen; Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry; Herd's ballad volumes of 1776; Evans' collections; Burns' remakings of old songs; Ritson's publications, and so forth. But the genius of Burns, while it transfigured many old songs, was not often exercised on old narrative ballads, and when Scott produced The Minstrelsy, the taste for ballads was confined to amateurs of early literature, and to country folk.

Sir Walter's method of editing, of presenting his traditional materials, was literary, and, usually, not scientific. A modern collector would publish things--legends, ballads, or folk-tales--exactly as he found them in old broadsides, or in MS. copies, or received them from oral recitation. He would give the names and residences and circumstances of the reciters or narrators (Herd, in 1776, gave no such information). He would fill up no gaps with his own inventions, would add no stanzas of his own, and the circulation of his work would arrive at some two or three hundred copies given away!

As Lockhart says, "Scott's diligent zeal had put him in possession of a variety of copies in various stages of preservation, and to the task of selecting a standard text among such a diversity of materials he brought a knowledge of old manners and phraseology, and a manly simplicity of taste, such as had never before been united in the person of a poetical antiquary."

Lockhart speaks of "The editor's conscientious fidelity . . . which prevented the introduction of anything new, and his pure taste in the balancing of discordant recitations." He had already written that "Scott had, I firmly believe, interpolated hardly a line or even an epithet of his own." {8a}

It is clear that Lockhart had not compared the texts in The Minstrelsy with the mass of manuscript materials which are still at Abbotsford. These, copied by the accurate Mr. Macmath, have been published in the monumental collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in ten parts, by the late Professor Child of Harvard, the greatest of scholars in ballad-lore. From his book we often know exactly what kinds of copies of ballads Scott possessed, and what alterations he made in his copies. The Ballad of Otterburne is especially instructive, as we shall see later. But of the most famous of Border historical ballads, Kinmont Willie, and its companion, Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead, Scott has left no original manuscript texts. Now into each of these ballads Scott has written (if internal evidence be worth anything) verses of his own; stanzas unmistakably marked by his own spirit, energy, sense of romance, and, occasionally, by a somewhat inflated rhetoric. On this point doubt is not easy. When he met the names of his chief, Buccleuch, and of his favourite ancestor, Wat of Warden, Scott did, in two cases, for those heroes what, by his own confession, he did for anecdotes that came in his way--he decked them out "with a cocked hat and a sword."

Sir Walter knew perfectly well that he was not "playing the game" in a truly scientific spirit. He explains his ideas in his "Essay on Popular Poetry" as late as 1830. He mentions Joseph Ritson's "extreme attachment to the severity of truth," and his attacks on Bishop Percy's purely literary treatment of the materials of his Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765).

As Scott says, "by Percy words were altered, phrases improved, and whole verses were inserted or omitted at pleasure." Percy "accommodated" the ballads "with such emendations as might recommend them to the modern taste." Ritson cried "forgery," but Percy, says Scott, had to win a hearing from his age, and confessed (in general terms) to his additions and decorations.

Scott then speaks reprovingly of Pinkerton's wholesale fabrication of ENTIRE BALLADS (1783), a crime acknowledged later by the culprit (1786). Scott applauds Ritson's accuracy, but regrets his preference of the worst to the better readings, as if their inferiority was a security for their being genuine. Scott preferred the best, the most poetical readings.

In 1830, Scott also wrote an essay on "Imitations of the Ancient Ballads," and spoke very leniently of imitations passed off as authentic. "There is no small degree of cant in the violent invectives with which impostors of this nature have been assailed." As to Hardyknute, the favourite poem of his infancy, "the first that I ever learned and the last that I shall forget," he says, "the public is surely more enriched by the contribution than injured by the deception." Besides, he says, the deception almost never deceives.

His method in The Minstrelsy, he writes, was "to imitate the plan and style of Bishop Percy, observing only more strict fidelity concerning my originals." That is to say, he avowedly made up texts out of a variety of copies, when he had more copies than one. This is frequently acknowledged by Scott; what he does not acknowledge is his own occasional interpolation of stanzas. A good example is The Gay Gosshawk. He had a MS. of his own "of some antiquity," a MS. of Mrs. Brown, a famous reciter and collector of the eighteenth century; and the Abbotsford MSS. show isolated stanzas from Hogg, and a copy from Will Laidlaw. Mr. T. F. Henderson's notes {10a} display the methods of selection, combination, emendation, and possible interpolation.

By these methods Scott composed "a standard text," now the classical text, of the ballads which he published. Ballad lovers, who are not specialists, go to The Minstrelsy for their favourite fare, and for historical elucidation and anecdote.

Scott often mentions his sources of all kinds, such as MSS. of Herd and Mrs. Brown; "an old person"; "an old woman at Kirkhill, West Lothian"; "an ostler at Carlisle"; Allan Ramsay's Tea-Table Miscellany; Surtees of Mainsforth (these ballads are by Surtees himself: Scott never suspected him); Caw's Hawick Museum (1774); Ritson's copies, others from Leyden; the Glenriddell MSS. (collected by the friend of Burns); on several occasions copies from recitations procured by James Hogg or Will Laidlaw, and possibly or probably each of these men emended the copy he obtained; while Scott combined and emended all in his published text.

Sometimes Scott gives no source at all, and in these cases research finds variants in old broadsides, or elsewhere.

In thirteen cases he gives no source, or "from tradition," which is the same thing; though "tradition in Ettrick Forest" may sometimes imply, once certainly does, the intermediary Hogg, or Will Laidlaw.

We now understand Scott's methods as editor. They are not scientific; they are literary. We also acknowledge (on internal evidence) his interpolation of his own stanzas in Kinmont Willie and Jamie Telfer, where he exalts his chief and ancestor. We cannot do otherwise (as scholars) than regret and condemn Scott's interpolations, never confessed. As lovers of poetry we acknowledge that, without Scott's interpolation, we could have no more of Kinmont Willie than verses, "much mangled by reciters," as Scott says, of a ballad perhaps no more poetical than Jock o' the Side. Scott says that "some conjectural emendations have been absolutely necessary to render it intelligible." As it is now very intelligible, to say "conjectural emendations" is a way of saying "interpolations."

But while thus confessing Scott's sins, I cannot believe that he, like Pinkerton, palmed off on the world any ballad or ballads of his own sole manufacture, or any ballad which he knew to be forged.

The truth is that Scott was easily deceived by a modern imitation, if he liked the poetry. Surtees hoaxed him not only with Barthram's Dirge and Anthony Featherstonhaugh, but with a long prose excerpt from a non-existent manuscript about a phantom knight. Scott made the plot of Marmion hinge on this myth, in the encounter of Marmion with Wilfred as the phantasmal cavalier. He tells us that in The Flowers of the Forest "the manner of the ancient minstrels is so happily imitated, that it required the most positive evidence to convince the editor that the song was of modern date." Really the author was Miss Jane Elliot (1747-1805), daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto. Herd published a made-up copy in 1776. The tune, Scott says, is old, and he has heard an imperfect verse of the original ballad--


"I ride single on my saddle,
For the flowers o' the forest are a' wede awa'"


The CONSTANT use of double rhymes within the line--


"At e'en, in the gloaming, nae younkers are roaming,"


an artifice rare in genuine ballads, might alone have proved to Scott that the poem of Miss Elliot is not popular and ancient.

I have cleared my conscience by confessing Scott's literary sins. His interpolations, elsewhere mere stopgaps, are mainly to be found in Kinmont Willie and Jamie Telfer. His duty was to say, in his preface to each ballad, "The editor has interpolated stanza" so and so; if he made up the last verses of Kinmont Willie from the conclusion of a version of Archie o' Ca'field, he should have said so; as he does acknowledge two stopgap interpolations by Hogg in Auld Maitland. But as to the conclusion of Kinmont Willie, he did, we shall see, make confession.

Professor Kittredge, who edited Child's last part (X.), says in his excellent abridged edition of Child (1905), "It was no doubt the feeling that the popular ballad is a fluid and unstable thing that has prompted so many editors--among them Sir Walter Scott, whom it is impossible to assail, however much the scholarly conscience may disapprove--to deal freely with the versions that came into their hands."

Twenty-five years after the appearance of The Border Minstrelsy, in 1827, appeared Motherwell's Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern. Motherwell was in favour of scientific methods of editing. Given two copies of a ballad, he says, "perhaps they may not have a single stanza which is mutual property, except certain commonplaces which seem an integral portion of the original mechanism of all our ancient ballads . . . " By selecting the most beautiful and striking passages from each copy, and making those cohere, an editor, he says, may produce a more perfect and ornate version than any that exists in tradition. Of the originals "the individuality entirely disappears."

Motherwell disapproved of this method, which, as a rule, is Scott's, and, scientifically, the method is not defensible. Thus, having three ballads of rescues, in similar circumstances, with a river to ford, Scott confessedly places that incident where he thinks it most "poetically appropriate"; and in all probability, by a single touch, he gives poetry in place of rough humour. Of all this Motherwell disapproved. (See Kinmont Willie, infra.)

Aytoun, in The Ballads of Scotland, thought Motherwell hypercritical; and also, in his practice inconsistent with his preaching. Aytoun observed, "with much regret and not a little indignation" (1859), "that later editors insinuated a doubt as to the fidelity of Sir Walter's rendering. My firm belief, resting on documentary evidence, is that Scott was most scrupulous in adhering to the very letter of his transcripts, whenever copies of ballads, previously taken down, were submitted to him." As an example, Aytoun, using a now lost MS. copy of about 1689-1702, of The Outlaw Murray, says "Sir Walter has given it throughout just as he received it." Yet Scott's copy, mainly from a lost Cockburn MS., contains a humorous passage on Buccleuch which Child half suspects to be by Sir Walter himself. {15a} It is impossible for me to know whether Child's hesitating conjecture is right or wrong. Certainly we shall see, when Scott had but one MS. copy, as of Auld Maitland, his editing left little or nothing to be desired.

But now Scott is assailed, both where he deserves, and where, in my opinion, he does not deserve censure.

Scott did no more than his confessed following of Percy's method implies, to his original text of the Ballad of Otterburne. This I shall prove from his original text, published by Child from the Abbotsford MSS., and by a letter from the collector of the ballad, the Ettrick Shepherd.

The facts, in this instance, apparently are utterly unknown to Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Fitzwilliam Elliot, in his Further Essays on Border Ballads (1910), pp. 1-45.

Again, I am absolutely certain, and can demonstrate, that Scott did not (as Colonel Elliot believes) detect Hogg in forging Auld Maitland, join with him in this fraud, and palm the ballad off on the public. Nothing of the kind occurred. Scott did not lie in this matter, both to the world and to his intimate friends, in private letters.

Once more, without better evidence than we possess, I do not believe that, in Jamie Telfer, Scott transferred the glory from the Elliots to the Scotts, and the shame from Buccleuch to Elliot of Stobs. The discussion leads us into very curious matter. But here, with our present materials, neither absolute proof nor disproof is possible.

Finally, as to Kinmont Willie, I merely give such reasons as I can find for thinking that Scott HAD "mangled" fragments of an old ballad before him, and did not merely paraphrase the narrative of Walter Scott of Satchells, in his doggerel True History of the Name of Scott (1688).

The positions of Colonel Elliot are in each case the reverse of mine. In the instance of Auld Maitland (where Scott's conduct would be unpardonable if Colonel Elliot's view were correct), I have absolute proof that he is entirely mistaken. For Otterburne I am equally fortunate; that is, I can show that Scott's part went no further than "the making of a standard text" on his avowed principles. For Jamie Telfer, having no original manuscript, I admit DECORATIVE interpolations, and for the rest, argue on internal evidence, no other being accessible. For Kinmont Willie, I confess that the poem, as it stands, is Scott's, but give reasons for thinking that he had ballad fragments in his mind, if not on paper.

It will be understood that Colonel Elliot does not, I conceive, say that his charges are PROVED, but he thinks that the evidence points to these conclusions. He "hopes that I will give reasons for my disbelief" in his theories; and "hopes, though he cannot expect that they will completely dispose of" his views about Jamie Telfer. {17a}

I give my reasons, though I entertain but slight hope of convincing my courteous opponent. That is always a task rather desperate. But the task leads me, in defence of a great memory, into a countryside, and into old times on the Border, which are so alluring that, like Socrates, I must follow where the logos guides me. To one conclusion it guides me, which startles myself, but I must follow the logos, even against the verdict of Professor Child, notre maitre a tous. In some instances, I repeat, positive proof of the correctness of my views is impossible; all that I can do is to show that Colonel Elliot's contrary opinions also fall far short of demonstration, or are demonstrably erroneous.


{1a} Hogg to Scott, 30th June 1802, given later in full.

{2a} See De Origine, Moribus, et Rebus Gestis Scotorum, p. 60 (1578).

{4a} Lockhart, vol. ii. p. 60 (1839).

{8a} Lockhart, vol. ii. pp. 130-135 (1839).

{10a} Minstrelsy, iii. 186-198.

{15a} Child, part ix., 187.

{17a} Further Essays, p. 184.


Andrew Lang

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