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Saturday, 13 April 2019

Saturday Rave: The Bonny Earl of Murray, collected by Thomas Percy.

Thomas Percy was a bishop. In later life he seems to have considered himself one of the aristocratic Percys who were Dukes of Northumberland, though he probably wasn't.

In 1765 he published a collection of old ballads, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Some of them were 'improved' but this one is much older than Thomas Percy, and so why it is usually attributed to him I do not know.

The work is remarkable for two things: first, because Percy's book gave rise to a fashion for ballads, and this may have had an influence on poets including Robert Burns and William Wordsworth; and, second, it has given us a literary term, mondegreen, for the misheard lyric of a song. This term was coined by Sylvia Wright in her essay The Death of the Lady Mondegreen. 

Look at the last line of the first verse, and you'll see how it came about.

Ye highlands and ye lawlands,
Oh! whair hae ye been?
They hae slaine the earl of Murray,
And hae layd him on the green.
Now wae be to thee, Huntley!
And whairfore did you sae!
I bade you bring him wi' you,
But forbade you him to slay.

He was a brave gallant,
And he rid at the ring;
And the bonny earl of Murray,
Oh! he might hae been a king.
He was a braw gallant,
And he playd at the ba';
And the bonny earl of Murray
Was the flower among them a'.
He was a braw gallant,
And he playd at the gluve;
And the bonny earl of Murray, 
Oh! he was the queens luve.

Oh! lang will his lady
Luke owre the castle downe,
Ere she see the earl of Murray
Cum sounding throw the towne.

The background of the story is that after a rebellion by the Earl of Bothwell, the Scottish king James VI had ordered the Earl of Huntley to pursue Bothwell and his followers. But Huntley used this as an excuse to avenge a private quarrel he had with James Stuart, Earl of Murray 'a young nobleman of the most promising virtues, and the very darling of the people' as Thomas Percy says.

Castle Downe is a real place.

Here's the ballad sung by Ewan MacColl (child 181):




Word To Use Today: gallant. This word means a brave man, and comes from the Old French gale enjoyment or pleasure.

More about mondegreens can be found HERE. 


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