As is frustratingly so often the case with ballads, it is not possible to know either who wrote this grim but powerful poem nor how old it is. The first mention of it occurs in a letter of 1802 from Charles Kirkpatrick to Sir Walter Scott, who said it had been collected from an old woman at Alva, and it first appeared in print in Walter Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy’ in 1812.
To me it feels much older, perhaps even having roots in mediaeval times, and indeed an English ballad with a very similar theme, ‘The Three Ravens’, is first recorded in 1611. But ‘The Three Ravens’ is much more upbeat, in that the knight’s hawk, hounds and lady stay with the knight to protect his remains rather than deserting him, and the relish with which, by contrast, the knight’s fate is related in this poem hints perhaps at a speaker for the common people, not averse to indulging in a bit of class revenge: I like to think of it being composed by some Ewan MacColl figure with a gift for the trenchant lyric and a big political chip on his shoulder. And yet the last stanza seems to rise above any rancour, recognising that there will be those who will mourn without closure for the knight in his unknown grave, and acknowledging the pathos inherent in all mortality with that haunting image of the wind blowing over bare bones forever.
The Twa Corbies
As I was walking all alane
I heard twa corbies making a mane:
The tane unto the tither did say,
‘Whar sall we gang and dine the day?’
‘—In behint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there
But his hawk, his hound, and his lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en anither mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue e’en:
Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him maks mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane:
O’er his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.’
corbies=crows (or ravens)
the tane=one of them
fail dyke=wall of turf