Traditional Ballads in North East Scotland
by: Wheeler, Les
The habit of ballad singing in North East Scotland is still fairly common - anyone visiting the traditional music festivals at Keith and Strichen can testify to that fact - and it is a tradition that goes back many centuries. John Barbour, the 14th. century Archdeacon of Aberdeen, mentions this in his epic The Brus.
Many of the ballads have, of course, been lost but enough survive to provide present day singers with a cornucopia of delights. It is important to remember that the ballads were meant to be sung and that as they were largely transmitted they are sung to quite a number of differing tunes and the words tend to vary quite significantly also.
There can be little doubt that the North East is the real home of the ballad. The Border Ballad title is simply a wrong reading of all evidence - Sir Walter Scott got the best of his material from a North East lady, Mrs. Brown of Falkland. The late Prof. F.J. Child, in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which is the accepted standard collection of its kind, noted that of his a texts, the most important, 91 out of a grand total of 305 ballads came from the North East - in fact from Aberdeenshire. One in every three of his chief Scottish texts come from the same area.
The selection here presented is all too brief and by no means definitive, and what we have tried to do is give readings of ballads which are among the most popular still being sung and in their popular versions. The music is also important and can be found in three chief sources. Last Laeves of Traditional Ballad Airs gives the music and words for ballads collected in Aberdeenshire by the late Gavin Greig. This volume was edited by Alexander Keith and published by The Buchan Club in 1925. It is an important collection and available in local libraries. Much of the material in Last Leaves has been superceded by the publication of the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection. The work done by Gavin Greig and the Rev. James Duncan cannot be underestimated. There are eight volumes of words and music and it is a veritable treasure chest of traditional song. Finally there is Prof. Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads and the music for the Child Ballads can be found in the work edited by Bertrand H. Bronson Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. This lattervolume can be found in Aberdeen Public Library Reference Department as can a micro-film of the Carpenter Collection - a collection of folk songs and stories many of which were gathered in the North East.
The ballads deserve study and can be a fruitful source of language and provide an excellent means of extending one’s Doric vocabulary. For those without a singing voice there are many recordings available of traditional ballads. Jock Duncan, Stanley Robertson, Nicole Robertson, Arthur Watson, Sheena Wellington, Peter Hall, Tom Spiers and groups like The Gaugers have done much to preserve and enhance the tradition. but it is also possible to find ballads done by modern groups such as The Old Blind Dogs which are compelling listening and much appreciated by younger audiences.