Border Ballads

The standardization of flavor and agrifood production is just one aspect of a broader phenomenon that tends to normalize and eliminate sense of place by eradicating traditions, wisdom and ideas. On account of this and because the Terra Madre event is made up of local communities, we have decided to build a network of music and sounds from the agricultural and pastoral worlds. For the first time this year, groups of nonprofessional musicians from the Terra Madre communities will perform on stage at the Salone del Gusto. The music and the sounds of their daily lives and rituals —weddings, funerals, feasts, anniversaries, celebrations. Music, dance, storytelling, genuine expressions of peasant music and culture such as to ensure social cohesion and the handing down of knowledge in rural contexts. The article that follows is a testament of one form of music closely bound to a local heritage.

The British folk song has evolved greatly in the course of the centuries. During the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century, it recounted the stories and protests of miners, textile workers and a whole host of other urban fauna. A separate genre—sea shanties—speaks of the lives of sailors, fishermen, whalers and so on. But the story of the folk song began in the Middle Ages and has its roots in country life. Hence stories of love and labour, of blood, sweat and tears. Some songs are sad and doleful, others rollicking and joyful.
However, one tradition of British popular music—neither English or Scottish, but transversal and transnational—makes no concession to fun and merrymaking. It is an exclusively melancholic genre, tragic even: a movingly bleak corpus of songs of blood and death, of revenge and grief, of theft and murder, of betrayal and, above all, of family feuding. I refer to the so-called Border Ballads from the region of the boundary between England and Scotland.

The ballads are the fruit of an oral tradition. They were eventually catalogued in the nineteenth century, thanks to the research of, among others, Sir Walter Scott, who gathered the lyrics of travelling singers and published them in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and Francis James Child, who, with greater academic rigour, collected 395 of the songs in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Harvard 1882-98). The ballads combine to form a unique record—though, in some cases, distorted by time and circumstance– of the way of life of a border community that struggled to survive in a world of dire poverty and bloodshed.

To understand their origin, a smattering of medieval history is in order: more specifically, of the events that ultimately built the United Kingdom. One night in March 1286, a man fell off his horse and broke his neck. The man in question was no less than Alexander III of Scotland, and his death altered the course of history. The Scottish throne passed to Alexander’s niece Margaret, a mere child at the time. A phase of institutional chaos ensued and Edward I of England profited from the confusion to invade Scotland. The two nations had been in sporadic conflict for centuries, at least since Roman times; simplifying but not overmuch, since Emperor Hadrian’s building of the famous dividing wall that takes his name. Now Edward saw the chance of putting the traditional enemy under check once and for all. He soon realised, however, that it was one thing to conquer Scotland, another to subjugate it.

A series of revolts followed and the Border country between the two countries became a sort of no man’s land. It no longer delimited a real political and administrative boundary; at this point, it constituted a region in its own right. Geographically, it formed a sort of lozenge-shape, made up of rugged fells, barren moors and dense forests, its four corners marked by the cities of Newcastle and Carlisle in England and Dumfries and Edinburgh in Scotland; it stretched from the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea in the east. The area became a permanent battlefield in which raid was promptly followed by counter-raid. Carlisle, my home town, was occupied alternately by English and Scottish troops. It passed from hand to hand literally day by day, a phenomenon that continued for centuries.

Amid the anarchy, the principal local families, such as the Armstrongs, the Telfers, the Nobles, the Graemes, the Halls, the Rutherfords, the Elliotts, the Crosiers, the Fenwicks and … the Irvings, considered themselves neither Scots nor English, but simply Borderers. What counted was a sense of allegiance to one’s own surname, not to one’s crown. This was a world apart, a tribal society in which the feuding families were forever in the field. Their members were prevalently farmers, shepherds and drovers, cultivating cereals and breeding cattle and sheep. In the spring and summer, from April to August, they practiced transhumance, driving their animals over the fells of the region.

But how do farmers live in a state of perpetual war? Why till the land if all your hard work is going to be destroyed before the harvest? Why build a farmhouse when it could easily be reduced to rubble in the space of a week? Why raise livestock when, in all likelihood, it is going to be stolen sooner or later? In short, how can agriculture be carried forward in extreme conditions?
The answer is that the farmer has to adapt and make the best of things. To violence, he responds with violence. The Border families thus invented their own rules and made war with one another. The best form of defence is attack: from being farmers and small landowners, the Borderers gradually turned into reivers, cattle and sheep stealers. The English government sent up wardens for London to keep an eye on the situation but to little avail. Livestock stealing and blackmail were routine and arson, kidnapping, extortion and murder became systematic practices, part and parcel of the local social system.

The Border Ballads recount all this and more. By themselves, titles such as The Death Of Parcy Reed, The Raid Of The Reidswire, The Battle Of Otterburn, The Douglas Tragedy, The Lament Of The Border Widow, e The Cruel Mother eloquently reflect the violent spirit of those times and those places. Not that this was the first time—nor will it be the last—that violence has generated great poetry:

The Border people wrote the Border ballads. Like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as beasts of the forest, and yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman. It was not one ballad maker alone but the whole cut-throat population who felt this magnanimous sorrow, , and the consoling charm of the highest poetry. A large body of popular ballads commemorated real incidents of this wild life, or adapted folklore stories to the place and conditions of the Border. The songs so constructed on both sides of the Cheviot ridge were handed down by oral tradition among the shepherds and among the farm girls who, for centuries, sang them to each other at the milking. If the people had not loved the songs, many of the best would have perished. The Border Ballads, for good and for evil, express this society and its quality of mind’. (G. M. Trevelyan, The Middle Marches, p. 25)

Here is a brief taste of the ballad Jamie Telfer, which tells the story of the theft of a herd of cattle and the destruction of a farmstead.

It fell about the Martinmas tyde,
When our border steeds get corn and hay,
The captain of Bewcastle hath bound him to ryde,
And he’s ower to Tividale to drive a prey.

The first ae guide that they met wi’,
Itwas high up in Hardaughswire;
The second guide that we met wi’,
It was laigh down in Borthwick Water.

“What tidings, what tidings, my trusty guide?”
“Nae tidings, nae tidings i hae to thee;
But gin ye’ll gae to the fair Dodhead,
Mony a cow’s cauf i’ll let thee see.”

And when they came to the fair Dodhead,
Right hastily they clam the peel;
They loosed the kye out, ane and a’,
And ranshackled the house right weel’

Amidst all the robbery and plunder, food and sustenance became a problem for the Border folk. Witness the lament in The Death of Parcy Reed :

God send the land deliverance
Frae every reaving, riding Scot:
We’ll sune hae neither cow nor ewe,
We’ll sure hae neither staig nor stot
[young ox].

In the context of the family feuding, depriving the enemy of food to eat was adopted as a precise ‘military’ strategy. Again in The Death of Parcy Reed, a reiver by the name of Crosier explains how he intends to beat the rival Reed family:

And Crosier says he will do waur,
He will do waur if waur can be;
He’ll make the bairns a’ fatherless,
And then the land it may lie lee.

The ancient law of gravelkind, in force throughout the Borders, envisaged the division of any patrimony into equal parts among the sons of the deceased. The interminable subdivision and parcelling of land caused landholdings to become tiny, hence totally uneconomical. As the old local saying goes,

The father to the bough,
And the son to the plough

Meaning that to support his family the father had to became a reiver, and inevitably ended up hanging from a makeshift gibbet. The sons were thus forced to share out his land. The hunger-violence-death cycle was never-ending.

The harshness of life in the Borders is implicit in the language of the area. As Michael Jackson, well known to readers of Slow for his articles on beer and whisky, recently wrote to me: ‘I believe they have more words for “hit” than any other English-speakers …hit, strike, thump, punch, bray, smack … When I played Rugby League, I experienced all of them, in their semantic subtlety’. Jackson speaks of modern-day Borderers: who knows who they must have expressed themselves in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?

A certain crudeness also transpires in the nicknames the Border characters habitually gave one another: from ‘Fingerless’ Will Nixon, Archie ‘Fire-the-Braes’ and ‘Out-with-the-Sword’ Armstrong to ‘Dog Pyntle’ and ‘Buggerback’ Elliot. These latter two were brothers: best not delve any further!

Even the landscape of the Borders is dotted with rural architecture that conjures up a vision of war: castles (more often than not with legends of ghosts), bastles (fortified farmhouses consisting of two floors, where the family lived above and the animals sheltered below) and ‘pele towers’, or tower-houses. All such buildings were products of a society that struggled to strike a compromise between the need for self-defence and domestic comfort. Others have been lost for good. In just a few hours, in fact, the Borderers were capable of erecting ‘shealings’, huts made often only of clay, stone or turf, with straw roofs. If they were burned down in the raiding or riding season (from March to September, when the nights were longest), others could be built somewhere else the next day. Accustomed to droving, the Borderers were highly mobile, hence less vulnerable to attack.
In the long run, however, continuous mobility forced the locals to neglect agriculture. They turned into nomads and lived almost exclusively on the meat of the livestock they took with them. When they needed to replenish their food stocks, they simply stole someone else’s animals. In the celebrated ballad The Battle of Otterbourne, the Scottish warrior Douglas complains

The Otterbourne’s a bonnie burn;
‘Tis pleasant there to be;
But there is nocht at Otterbourne
To feed my men and me:
The deer rins wild on hill and dale,
Birds flee from tree to tree;
But there is neither bread nor kail
To fend my men and me …

Left untended, the land was no longer able to yield enough to sustain the people who lived on it. The situation deteriorated towards the end of the sixteenth century and food production suffered the consequences. In a letter to Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s principal political adviser, in May 1597, the Dean of Durham in north-east England, wrote:

The decay of tillage in this country and in Northumberland is very great and dangerous. In the bishopric within these 2é years there are said to be laid down above 500 ploughs, whereon dwelt and lived many an able man with wife, children, and servants … these are now converted to a few private men’s benefit, the poor are multiplied, and hospitality, which was much regarded, greatly decayed. If corn were not in this dearth supplied both here and elsewhere from foreign nations—many thousands who might have it growing at their iwn doors would perish for bread.

Then for a sequence of complex dynastic reasons, the crowns of Scotland and England were united and James VI of Scotland became James I of England almost overnight. The king prohibited the use of the denomination ‘Border’ and replaced it with the more neutral ‘Middle Shire’. He ordered the destruction of many fortified buildings and ordered all wrought iron gates to be melted down and transformed into ploughshares. The Borderers had to take up agriculture once more. Not without difficulty, James managed to pacify the region. The reivers of all the families were hunted down and arrested. Following a mass hanging presided over by the Earl of Dunbar in Dumfries in south west-Scotland in 1609, the Chancellor Dunfermline declared that the Earl

Has purgit the Borders of all the chiefest malefactors, robbers and brigands ,,, as Hercules sometimes is written to have purged Augeas the King of Elides his escuries …[The Middle Shires were] … as quiet as any part in any civil kingdom in Christeanity.

No more reviving and no more balladry, though, a few centuries later, war did break out again along the Anglo-Scottish Border.

John Irving works for the Slow food Editore publishing house.

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