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The Romantic Scottish Ballads: Their Epoch and Authorship   By: (1865-1933)

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Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry , 1765; David Herd's Scottish Songs , 1769; Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border , 1802; and Jamieson's Popular Ballads and Songs , 1806, have been chiefly the means of making us acquainted with what is believed to be the ancient traditionary ballad literature of Scotland; and this literature, from its intrinsic merits, has attained a very great fame. I advert particularly to what are usually called the Romantic Ballads, a class of compositions felt to contain striking beauties, almost peculiar to themselves, and consequently held as implying extraordinary poetical attributes in former generations of the people of this country. There have been many speculations about the history of these poems, all assigning them a considerable antiquity, and generally assuming that their recital was once the special business of a set of wandering conteurs or minstrels. So lately as 1858, my admired friend, Professor Aytoun, in introducing a collection of them, at once ample and elegant, to the world, expressed his belief that they date at least from before the Reformation, having only been modified by successive reciters, so as to modernise the language, and, in some instances, bring in the ideas of later ages.

There is, however, a sad want of clear evidence regarding the history of our romantic ballads. We have absolutely no certain knowledge of them before 1724, when Allan Ramsay printed one called Sweet William's Ghost , in his Tea table Miscellany . There is also this fact staring us in the face, that, while these poems refer to an ancient state of society, they bear not the slightest resemblance either to the minstrel poems of the middle ages, or to the well known productions of the Henrysons, the Dunbars, the Douglases, the Montgomeries, who flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Neither in the poems of Drummond, and such other specimens of verse generally wretched as existed in the seventeenth century, can we trace any feature of the composition of these ballads. Can it be that all editors hitherto have been too facile in accepting them as ancient, though modified compositions? that they are to a much greater extent modern than has hitherto been supposed? or wholly so? Though in early life an editor of them, not less trusting than any of my predecessors, I must own that a suspicion regarding their age and authorship has at length entered my mind. In stating it which I do in a spirit of great deference to Professor Aytoun and others I shall lead the reader through the steps by which I arrived at my present views upon the subject.

In 1719, there appeared, in a folio sheet, at Edinburgh, a heroic poem styled Hardyknute , written in affectedly old spelling, as if it had been a contemporary description of events connected with the invasion of Scotland by Haco, king of Norway, in 1263. A corrected copy was soon after presented in the Evergreen of Allan Ramsay, a collection professedly of poems written before 1600, but into which we know the editor admitted a piece written by himself. Hardyknute was afterwards reprinted in Percy's Reliques , still as an ancient composition; yet it was soon after declared to be the production of a Lady Wardlaw of Pitreavie, who died so lately as 1727. Although, to modern taste, a stiff and poor composition, there is a nationality of feeling about it, and a touch of chivalric spirit, that has maintained for it a certain degree of popularity. Sir Walter Scott tells us it was the first poem he ever learned by heart, and he believed it would be the last he should forget.

It is necessary to present a few brief extracts from this poem. In the opening, the Scottish king, Alexander III., is represented as receiving notice of the Norwegian invasion:

The king of Norse, in summer pride, Puffed up with power and micht, Landed in fair Scotland, the isle, With mony a hardy knicht... Continue reading book >>

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