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The Northumbrian historian George M Trevelyan said this of the border reivers: “Like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; and yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, the infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less inflicted upon one another. It was not one ballad-maker alone but the whole cut throat population who felt this magnanimous sorrow, and the consoling charms of the highest poetry.”
Today the border lands are dotted with the ruined stumps of fortified houses and farms, which symbolise hundreds of years of violent struggle for ownership of the land, from the Wars of Independence begun in 1286 until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, struggles so ill-managed by government that they often resembled nothing more than murderous family feuds.
The Border Ballads chosen for this talk are set in the landscape of the Yarrow and Ettrick Valleys and to my mind they are among the cream of the crop in terms of story and melody. Willie Drooned in Yarrow, Dowie Dens of Yarrow, the Lament of the Border Widow, the Douglas Tragedy, Tam Lin. This talk is illustrated with Poppy Holden’s own photographs of the settings in which the stories took place, and with recordings of fine performances of the ballads. The research was done as background for a PhD at Newcastle University, Border Ballads: a Living Tradition?
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