Scotlands Songs

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Scottish Ballads and Robert Burns Songs


Binnorie O Binnorie (The Two Sisters)

Greenwood Side (The Cruel Mother)

The Gypsy Laddies

The Silkie Of Sule Skerry

[add more?]


Ae Fond Kiss

Scots Wha Hae

What Can A Young Lassie

[add Auld Lang Syne, Exciseman, etc] 


There are two ways the word ballad is used when talking about Scottish songs. One is as a general word for a song or poem that tells a story using short verses.

But ballad is also used as a specialised word for one of a group of songs that are hundreds of years old, and tell dramatic stories of war and love and betrayal, magic and trickery and strange events. No-one knows who made up these ballads, and some have had their words and tunes so changed by different singers in different places over the centuries that it can be hard to recognise that two songs are versions of the same old ballad. Perhaps only a few lines are shared, but the story is the same.

'The Gypsy Laddies' is a ballad that is said to be about Lady Jean Hamilton, the wife of the Earl of Cassilis, who lived in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire, in the 1620s. But there are many versions of this song known in other English-speaking countries. For example in England there is a version called 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsies', in the USA the ballad is sometimes called 'Blackjack Davie'. In Jeannie Robertson's version the gypsies cast a spell over the lady of the castle and she goes with them, but they are caught and hanged.

There are many other very well known traditional ballads. Some are about historical events and people in Scotland – 'The Baron Of Brackley', 'Johnnie Armstrong', 'The Battle Of Harlaw', 'The Bonny Earl Of Moray'. Sometimes the traditional ballads are thought of as poetry rather than as songs, and are taught in schools as part of English literary studies, because mostly they were first printed without any tune being given.

The ballads get right to the heart of the story quickly. In the very first verse the enemy of 'The Baron Of Brackley' is at his gates challenging him to a fight to the death.

Doon Deeside cam Inverey whistlin and playin,

And he was at Brackley’s yetts ere the day was dawin.

“And are ye there, Brackley, and are ye within?

There’s shairp swords are at your yetts, will gar your blood spin.”

From 'The Baron Of Brackley'

Ballads can have long or short versions, and a shocking part of the story in one version may be left out altogether from another.

Other ballads are Scottish versions of ballads also known in England, the USA and sometimes in Scandinavia too.

There is often an element of magic in the traditional ballads - e.g. 'The Two Sisters (Binnorie O Binnorie)', 'The Demon Lover', 'Tam Lin', 'Thomas The Rhymer', 'The Cruel Mother (Greenwood Side)'.

One of the 'Two Sisters' drowns the other because they both love the same young man. The drowned sister’s body floats away, and the miller who finds it uses her bones to make a fiddle or a harp, and her hair becomes the strings. When the instrument is played at the wedding of the other sister and the young man it tells of the murder.

The 'Demon Lover' comes back from the dead and takes his sweetheart away.

Both 'Tam Lin' and 'Thomas The Rhymer' are stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies.

The 'Cruel Mother' kills her babies, but their ghosts come back to tell her of her future.

Robert Burns and Traditional Song


Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, was born in Ayrshire in south west Scotland. As well as writing many famous poems such as ‘Tae a Mouse’ and ‘Tam o Shanter’ Burns also wrote the words for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ which is known all over the world. Other Burns songs which you may know include ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’ and ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’. 

Burns's own composed songs are not folk songs, but are often labelled National Songs, to be sung exactly as he made them rather than amended or added to by a performer.

However, very often, Burns did not write the words for his songs from scratch, though. He realised that there were so many good songs being sung by the people around him that he simply reworked them. In fact, Burns was as much a collector of songs as he was a song writer.

Like other talented people, such as painters and musicians, Burns did not make his living from his art. Indeed, one of the jobs he had was as an exciseman – someone who collects tax on certain goods such as alcohol and in the case of Scotland, whisky.

Whilst at work Burns wrote the words of ‘The Deil’s Awa With The Exciseman’ to a tune he already knew. This was typical of Burns, who often based his songs on older ones.

Sadly, Burns had a short life, dying at the age of 37.