Week 399: The Bonny Earl of Moray, by Anon

This popular ballad, Child 181, probably dates from the 17th century and is based on a historical incident. James Stewart, Earl of Moray (Lord Doune) was suspected by James VI of Scotland of having been involved with the Earl of Bothwell in an attempt on the king’s life. He issued a warrant for Moray’s arrest in 1592, charging George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly, with carrying it out. Huntly had a long-standing feud with Moray and took the opportunity, rather than arrest Moray, to kill him outside Moray’s castle in Fife. According to the ballad, James felt that Huntly had exceeded his brief, though he took no action against him.

The song is incidentally famous for having given rise to the term ‘mondegreen’ for a misheard song lyric. This was coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final two lines of the first verse as ‘they have slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.’ She said that she always imagined the Earl dying beside his faithful lover ‘Lady Mondegreen’, and refused to hear the real words, because they were less romantic than her misheard version.

I have often wished that there could be a comparable term based not a mishearing but on a possible misunderstanding or over-interpretation of a line that goes beyond anything intended by the poet. For example, when I first read A.E.Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’ and came to the lines ‘They tolled the one bell only/Groom was there none to see’ I read it with an emphasis on the ‘see’, which gave me a shiver as I imagined an invisible figure of Death stalking beside the coffin like a bridegroom. But it seems quite possible that this conceit never entered Housman’s mind. Ah well, another one for the Elysian fields. ‘Hey, Alfred, you know that poem of yours…’

Like all ballads it is best heard with its tune: there is a good version by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.

The Bonny Earl of Moray

Ye Hielands an ye Lowlands
O, whaur hae ye been
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And lain him on the green.

Now wae betide thee, Huntly
And whaurfor did ye sae?
I hae bade ye bring him wi ye
But forbade ye him tae slay.

He was a braw gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he might hae been a king!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the ba’;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray
Was the flower amang them a’!

He was a braw gallant,
And he play’d at the gluve;
And the bonny Earl o’ Moray,
O he was the Queen’s luve!

O lang will his Lady
Look owre the Castle Downe,
Ere she see the Earl o’ Moray
Come sounding through the town!


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