Painting of noblemen carrying the bodies of a young couple in medieval Scotland

The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow (Child 214)

Submitted by Margaret Bennett

I've chosen a ballad I’ve loved for years: ‘The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow’ (Child 214).

As a student in the mid-sixties, I joined the Glasgow Folksong and Ballad Club, and among the unforgettable singers was an Aberdeenshire traveller, Davie Stewart. He played the accordion and sang with such conviction that I was transfixed.

Apart from a stint in the army during WW1, Davie spent his life as an itinerant worker, finally settling in Glasgow, where he was a street singer. Alan Lomax recorded him in London in 1957 capturing the passion that stopped folk in the street: Davie knew how to tell the story.

Listen to Davie Stewart, recorded by Alan Lomax in 1957:

Listen to Margaret Bennett, recorded at the Storytelling Festival, Edinburgh, 2018:

"The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow" sheet musicClick here to download a PDF of the sheet music.

Lyrics

There was a lady in the north,
You’d scarcely find her marrow
She was courted by nine noblemen,
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.

Her faither had a young ploughboy
And him she loved most dearly,
She dressed him up as a nobleman,
And sent him off to Yarrow.

These nine noblemen sat drinking wine,
Drinking tae their sorrow,
That the fairest maid you ever saw
Was in the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.

“Well, did you come here tae play cards or dice?
Did you come here for sorrow?
Or did you come here to slay us a’
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow?”

“Well, I neither cam tae play cards or dice,
Nor did I come for sorrow,
But one by one as lang as ye stand
I will fight ye a’ in Yarrow.”

Well it’s three he drew, and three he slew,
And three he deadly wounded;
But her false brother John came running in
And pierced him through the middle.

“Oh go home, go home, you false young man,
Go tell your sister’s sorrow,
That her true lover John lies dead and gone
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”

“Oh mother dear, I have dreamed a dream,
I fear it may prove sorrow,
That my true lover John lies dead and gone
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”

“Oh, daughter dear, I have read your dream,
And yes, the blood proves sorrow,
For your true lover John lies dead and gone,
In the Dowie Dens o' Yarrow.”

Her hair being of three-quarters lang,
The colour bein yellow,
She wrapped it round his middle sae sma’
And she carried him hame tae Yarrow.

“Oh, mother dear, come and mak my bed,
Oh make it long and narrow,
For my true lover John died for me today,
I will die for him tomorrow.”

Originally from the Isle of Skye, Margaret Bennett is a singer, storyteller and writer. She studied Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and from 1984–96 was on the staff of the School of Scottish Studies. She now lives in Perthshire, sings at festivals both sides of the Atlantic, and teaches part-time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

     
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