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Ch. 3: The Ballad of Otterburne

Scott's version of the Ballad of Otterburne, as given first in The Minstrelsy of 1806, comes under Colonel Elliot's most severe censure. He concludes in favour of "the view that it consists partly of stanzas from Percy's Reliques, which have undergone emendations calculated to disguise the source from which they came, partly of stanzas of modern fabrication, and partly of a very few stanzas and lines from Herd's version" (1776). {53a}

As a matter of fact we know, though Colonel Elliot does not, the whole process of construction of the Otterburne in The Minstrelsy of 1806. Professor Child published all the texts with a letter. {53b} It is a pity that Colonel Elliot overlooks facts in favour of conjecture. Concerning historical facts he is not more thorough in research. The story, in Percy's Reliques, of the slaying of Douglas by Percy, "is, so far as I know, supported neither by history nor by tradition." {53c} If unfamiliar with the English chroniclers (in Latin) of the end of the fourteenth century, Colonel Elliot could find them cited by Professor Child. Knyghton, Walsingham, and the continuator of Higden (Malverne), all assert that Percy killed Douglas with his own hand. {54a} The English ballad of Otterburne (in MS. of about 1550) gives this version of Douglas's death. It is erroneous. Froissart, a contemporary, had accounts of the battle from combatants, both English and Scottish. Douglas, fighting in the front of the van, on a moonlight night, was slain by three lance-wounds received in the mellay. The English knew not whom they had slain.

The interesting point is that, while the Scottish ballads give either the English version of Percy's death (in Minstrelsy, 1806) or another account mentioned by Hume of Godscroft (circ. 1610), that he was slain by one of his own men, the Scottish versions are ALL deeply affected in an important point by Froissart's contemporary narrative, which has not affected the English versions. The point is that the death of Douglas was by his order concealed from both parties.

When both the English version in Percy's Reliques (from a MS. of about 1550), and Scott's version of 1806, mention a "challenge to battle" between Percy and Douglas, Colonel Elliot calls this incident "probably purely fanciful and imaginary," and suspects Scott's version of being made up and altered from the English text. But the challenge which resulted in the battle of Otterburn is not fanciful and imaginary!

It is mentioned by Froissart. Douglas, he says, took Percy's pennon in an encounter under Newcastle. Percy vowed that Douglas would never carry the pennon out of Northumberland; Douglas challenged him to come and take it from his tent door that night; but Percy was constrained not to accept the challenge. The Scots then marched homewards, but Douglas insisted on besieging Otterburn Castle; here he passed some days on purpose to give Percy a chance of a fight; Percy's force surprised the Scots; they were warned, as in the ballads, suddenly, by a man who galloped up; the fight began; and so on.

Now Herd's version says nothing of Douglas at Newcastle; the whole scene is at Otterburn. On the other hand, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe's MS. text DID bring Douglas to Newcastle. Of this Colonel Elliot says nothing. The English version says NOTHING OF PERCY'S LOSS OF HIS PENNON TO DOUGLAS (nor does Sharpe's), and gives the challenge and tryst. Scott's version says nothing of Percy's pennon, but Douglas takes Percy's SWORD and vows to carry it home. Percy's challenge, in the English version, is accompanied by a gross absurdity. He bids Douglas wait at Otterburn, where, pour tout potage to an army absurdly stated at 40,000 men, Percy suggests venison and pheasants! In the Scottish version Percy offers tryst at Otterburn. Douglas answers that, though Otterburn has no supplies--nothing but deer and wild birds--he will there tarry for Percy. This is chivalrous, and, in Scott's version, Douglas understands war. In the English version Percy does not. (To these facts I return, giving more details.) Colonel Elliot supposes some one (Scott, I daresay) to have taken Percy's,--the English version,--altered it to taste, concealed the alterations, as in this part of the challenge, by inverting the speeches and writing new stanzas of the fight at Otterburn, used a very little of Herd (which is true), and inserted modern stanzas.

Now, first, as regards pilfering from the English version, that version, and Herd's undisputed version, have undeniably a common source. Neither, as it stands, is "original"; of an ORIGINAL contemporary Otterburn ballad we have no trace. By 1550, when such ballads were certainly current both in England and Scotland, they were late, confused by tradition, and, of what we possess, say Herd's, and the English MS. of 1550, all were interblended.

The Scots ballad version, known to Hume of Godscroft (1610), may have been taken from the English, and altered, as Child thought, or the English, as Motherwell maintained, may have been borrowed from the Scots, and altered. One or the other process undeniably occurred; the second poet, who made the changes, introduced the events most favourable to his country, and left out the less favourable. By Scott's time, or Herd's, the versions were much degraded through decay of memory, bad penny broadsides (lost), and uneducated reciters. Herd's version has forgotten the historic affair of the capture of Percy's pennon (and of the whole movement on Newcastle, preserved in Sharpe's and Scott's); Scott's remembers the encounter at Newcastle, forgets the pennon, and substitutes the capture by Douglas of Percy's sword. The Englishman deliberately omits the capture of the pennon. The Scots version (here altered by Sir Walter) makes Percy wound Douglas at Otterburn--

Till backward he did flee.

Now Colonel Elliot has no right, I conceive, to argue that this Scots version, with the Newcastle incident, the captured sword, the challenge, the "backward flight" of Douglas, were introduced by a modern (Scott?) who was deliberately "faking" the English version. There is no reason why tradition should NOT have retained historical incidents in the Scottish form; it is a mere assumption that a modern borrowed and travestied these incidents from Percy's Reliques. We possess Hogg's UNEDITED original of Scott's version of 1806 (an original MS. never hinted at by Colonel Elliot), and it retains clear traces of being contaminated with a version of The Huntiss of Chevet, popular in 1459, as we read in The Complaynte of Scotland of that date. There is also an old English version of The Hunting of the Cheviot (1550 or later, Bodleian Library). The UNEDITED text of Scott's Otterburne then contained traces of The Huntiss of Chevet; the two were mixed in popular memory. In short, Scott's text, manipulated slightly by him in a way which I shall describe, was A THING SURVIVING IN POPULAR MEMORY: how confusedly will be explained.

The differences between the English version of 1550 and the Scots (collected for Scott by Hogg), are of old standing. I am not sure that there was not, before 1550, a Scottish ballad, which the English ballad-monger of that date annexed and altered. The English version of 1550 is not "popular"; it is the work of a humble literary man.

The English is a very long ballad, in seventy quatrains; it greatly exaggerates the number of the Scots engaged (40,000), and it is the work of a professional author who uses the stereotyped prosaic stopgaps of the cheap hack--

I tell you withouten dread,

is his favourite phrase, and he cites historical authority--

The cronykle wyll not layne (lie).

Scottish ballads do not appeal to chroniclers! A patriotic and imbecile effort is made by the Englishman to represent Percy as captured, indeed, but released without ransom--

There was then a Scottysh prisoner tayne,
Sir Hew Mongomery was his name;
For sooth as I yow saye,
He borrowed the Persey home agayne.

This is obscure, and in any case false. Percy WAS taken, and towards his ransom Richard II. paid 3000 pounds. {59a}

It may be well to quote the openings of each ballad, English and Scots.




It fell about the Lammas tyde, When husbands win their hay, The doughty Douglas bound him to ride, In England to take a prey.


The Earl of Fife, withouten strife, He bound him over Solway; The great would ever together ride That race they may rue for aye.


Over Hoppertop hill they came in, And so down by Rodcliff crag, Upon Green Linton they lighted down, Stirring many a stag.


And boldly brent Northumberland, And harried many a town, They did our Englishmen great wrong, To battle that were not boune.


Then spake a berne upon the bent--




It fell and about the Lammas time, When hushandmen do win their hay; Earl Douglas is to the English woods, And a' with him to fetch a prey.


He has chosen the Lindsays light, With them the gallant Gordons gay; And the Earl of Fyfe, withouten strife, And Hugh Montgomery upon a grey. (THE LAST LINE IS OBVIOUSLY A RECITER'S STOPGAP.)


They have taken Northumberland, And sae hae they THE NORTH SHIRE, And the Otterdale they hae burned hale, And set it a' into fire.


Out then spak a bonny boy;

Manifestly these copies, so far, are not independent. But now Herd's copy begins to vary much from the English.

In both ballads a boy or "berne" speaks up. In the English he recommends to the Scots an attack on Newcastle; in the Scots he announces the approach of an English host. Douglas promises to reward the boy if his tale be true, to hang him if it be false. THE SCENE IS OTTERBURN. The boy stabs Douglas, in a stanza which is a common ballad formula of frequent occurrence--

The boy's taen out his little pen knife,
   That hanget low down by his gare,
And he gaed Earl Douglas a deadly wound,
   Alack! a deep wound and a sare.

Douglas then says to Sir Hugh Montgomery--

   Take THOU the vanguard of the three,
And bury me at yon bracken bush,
   That stands upon yon lilly lea.  (Herd, 4-8.)

Hume of Godscroft (about 1610), author of the History of the Douglases, was fond of quoting ballads. He gives a form of the first verse in Otterburn which is common to Herd and the English copy. He says that, according to some, Douglas was treacherously slain by one of his own men whom he had offended. "But this narration is not so probable," and the fact is fairly meaningless in Herd's fragment (the boy has no motive for stabbing Douglas, for if his report is true, he will be rewarded). The deed is probably based on the tradition which Godscroft thought "less probable,"--the treacherous murder of the Earl.

In the English ballad, Douglas marches on Newcastle, where Percy, without fighting, makes a tryst to meet and combat him at Otterburn, on his way home from Newcastle to Scotland. Thither Douglas goes, and is warned by a Scottish knight of Percy's approach: as in Herd, he is sceptical, but is convinced by facts. (This warning of Douglas by a scout who gallops up is narrated by Froissart, from witnesses engaged in the battle.) After various incidents, Percy and Douglas encounter each other, and Douglas is slain. After a desperate fight, Sir Hugh Montgomery, a prisoner of the English,

Borrowed the Percy home again.

This is absurd. The Scots fought on, took Percy, and won the day. Walsingham, the contemporary English chronicler (in Latin), says that Percy slew Douglas, so do Knyghton and the continuator of Higden.

Meanwhile we observe that the English ballad says nothing of Douglas's chivalrous fortitude, and soldier-like desire to have his death concealed. Here every Scottish version follows Froissart. In Herd's fragment, Montgomery now attacks Percy, and bids him "yield thee to yon bracken bush," where the dead Douglas's body lies concealed. Percy does yield--to Sir Hugh Montgomery. The fragment has but fourteen stanzas.

In 1802, Scott, correcting by another MS., published Herd's copy. In 1806 he gave another version, for "fortunately two copies have since been obtained from the recitation of old persons residing at the head of Ettrick Forest." {62a}

Colonel Elliot devotes a long digression to the trivial value of recitations, so styled, {62b} and gives his suggestions about the copy being made up from the Reliques. When Scott's copy of 1806 agrees with the English version, Colonel Elliot surmises that a modern person, familiar with the English, has written the coincident verses in WITH DIFFERENCES. Percy and Douglas, for example, change speeches, each saying what, in the English, the other said in substance, not in the actual words. When Scott's version touches on an incident known in history, but not given in the English version, the encounter between Douglas and Percy at Newcastle (Scott, vii., viii.), Colonel Elliot suspects the interpolator (and well he may, for the verses are mawkish and modern, not earlier than the eighteenth century imitations or remaniements which occur in many ballads traditional in essence).

So Colonel Elliot says, "We are not told, either in The Minstrelsy or in any of Scott's works or writings, who the reciters were, and who the transcribers were." {63a} We very seldom are told by Scott who the reciters were and who the transcribers, but our critic's information is here mournfully limited--by his own lack of study. Colonel Elliot goes on to criticise a very curious feature in Scott's version of 1806, and finds certain lines "beautiful" but "without a note of antiquity," that he can detect, while the sentiment "is hardly of the kind met with in old ballads."

To understand the position we must remember that, IN THE ENGLISH, Percy and Douglas fight each other thus (1.)--

The Percy and the Douglas met,
   That either of other was fain,
They swapped together while that they sweat,
   With swords of fine Collayne.  (Cologne steel.)

Douglas bids Percy yield, but Percy slays Douglas (as in Walsingham's and other contemporary chronicles, stanzas li.-lvi.). The Scottish losses are then enumerated (only eighteen Scots were left alive!), and stanza lix. runs--

This fray began at Otterburn
   Between the night and the day.
There the Douglas lost his life,
   And the Percy was led away.

Herd ends--

This deed was done at Otterburn,
   About the breaking of the day,
Earl Douglas was buried at the bracken bush,
   And Percy led captive away.

Manifestly, either the maker of Herd's version knew the English, and altered at pleasure, or the Englishman knew a Scots version, and altered at pleasure. The perversion is of ancient standing, undeniably. But when Scott's original text exhibits the same phenomena of perversion, in a part of the ballad missing in Herd's brief lay, Colonel Elliot supposes that NOW the exchanges are by a modern ballad- forger, shall we say Sir Walter? By Sir Walter they certainly are NOT! One tiny hint of Scots originality is dubious. In the English, and in all Scots versions, men "win their hay" at Lammastide. In Scotland the hay harvest is often much later. But if the English ballad be NORTHUMBRIAN, little can be made out of that proof of Scottish origin. If the English version be a southern version (for the minstrel is a professional), then Lammastide for hay-making is borrowed from the Scots.

The Scots version (Herd's) insists on Douglas's burial "by the bracken bush," to which Montgomery bids Percy surrender. This is obviously done to hide his body and keep his death secret from both parties, AS IN FROISSART HE BIDS HIS FRIENDS DO. The verse of the English (l.) on the fight between Douglas and Percy, is borrowed by, or is borrowed from, the Scottish stanza (ix.) in Herd, where Sir Hugh Montgomery fights Percy.

Then Percy and Montgomery met,
   And weel a wot they warna fain;
They swaped swords, and they twa swat,
   And ay the blood ran down between.

The Persses and the Mongomry met,

as quoted, is already familiar in The Complaynte of Scotland (about 1549), and this line is not in the English ballad. So far it seems as if the English balladist borrowed the scene from a Scots version, and perverted it into a description of a fight, between Percy, who wins, and Douglas--in place of the Scots version, the victory over Percy of Sir Hugh Montgomery.

This transference of incidents in the English and Scottish ballads is a phenomenon which we are to meet again in the ballad of Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dodhead. One "maker" or the other has, in old times, pirated and perverted the ballad of another "maker."

Andrew Lang

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