Painting of twin boys"Portrait of Two Boys, called the Artist's Twin Brothers," by John Syme, from the National Galleries of Scotland

The Cruel Mother

Submitted by Moira Craig

In Scotland, the law concerning the general crime of infanticide took two forms during the period 1660-1800. If a married woman (or less commonly man) was prosecuted for the killing of a newborn child, the charge would remain the common law offence of murder, unless it could be proved that the child was born healthy and that the accused had wilfully killed it.

The only chance a lower-class woman had, if she didn’t want to go into service, was to marry and to try to marry well. Unfortunately, if a girl became pregnant before marriage and the father refused to acknowledge the pregnancy, she was likely to be ostracised and banished from the family or village and her chance of marriage in the future was unlikely. It was probable that she would live a life of penury and destitution. It is not surprising, then, that women would try to hide their pregnancy and kill their babies in an attempt to continue a “normal” life.

"The Cruel Mother" exists in a number of variants, in some of which there are verses where the dead children tell the mother she will suffer a number of penances each lasting seven years, e.g. "Seven years to ring a bell / And seven years porter in hell." Those verses properly belong in "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child ballad 21). Variants of "The Cruel Mother" include "Carlisle Hall," "The Rose o Malinde," "Fine Flowers in the Valley," "The Minister's Daughter of New York," and "The Lady From Lee," among others. "Fine Flowers of the Valley" is a Scottish variant. "Weela Weela Walya" is an Irish schoolyard version.

A closely related German ballad exists in many variants: a child comes to a woman's wedding to announce himself her child and that she had murdered three children. The woman says the Devil can carry her off if it is true, and the Devil appears to do so.

Infanticide and illegitimacy have been recurrent themes in many European ballads. This version is from the Greig Duncan collection. The woman kills the babies to conceal the fact that she is no longer a virgin and of marriageable material. However, her conscience plays tricks on her and she awaits her fate.

Listen to Moira Craig singing "The Cruel Mother:"

"Cruel Mother" sheet musicClick here to download a PDF of the sheet music.

Lyrics

There was a king’s daughter in the north,
Hey the rose and the linsie O;

And she has courted her father’s clerk,
And awa’ by the greenwood sidie O.

She courted him a year and a day,
Till her appearance did her betray.

She leaned her back against a tree,
Thinking that she would lighter be.

She leaned her back against a thorn,
And bonny are the boys she has born.

She took out her wee penknife,
And she’s ta’en awa’ their twa sweet lifes.

She took the kerchief fra her neck,
And she’s wrapped them in a winding sheet.

She buried them beneath a marble stone,
Thinking to win a maiden home.

She looked owre her father’s castle wa’,
And she saw twa bonny boys playing at the ba’.

O bonny boys, gin thou were mine,
I’d dress ye in the silk sae fine,

The sovilne* and the green-grass silk
Ye’d never drink nane but the farrow cow’s milk

O mother, mother, when we were thine,
We never saw nane o’ your silk sae fine.

The sovilne and the green-grass silk;
We never drank nane o’ your farrow cow’s milk.

O bonny boys, come tell to me,
The kind of death that I’m tae dee?

Seven years a bird in the bush,
And seven years a fish in the flood,

Seven years a warning bell,
And seven years in the deeps o’ hell.

Welcome, welcome, bird in the bush,
And welcome welcome, fish in the flood.

Welcome, welcome, warning bell,
But God keep me from the deeps o’ hell.

* Sovilne: sable fur

Moira Craig writes: 
I was born and brought up outside of Glasgow and my home was always full of singing and music. I never thought much about it; it was normal to me. While Scottish traditional songs are my main love, I’ll sing anything at the drop of a hat and hopefully will continue to do so till the day I die.

     
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