Welcome Back 2007! Sorry for the delay!

Yes! I’m back….after a longer Christmas break than I could possibly have envisaged: a break necessitated, first and foremost, by the excellent responses to the screening of my ‘Legendary London: London’s Living Da Vinci Code’ at the tail end of 2006. 

This has resulted in my having to spend considerably more time than I had originally envisaged updating my various websites, sending out additional copies of my dvd to various interested parties and preparing an additional title for this August’s Portobello Film Festival.

And, as if this wasn’t enough, I’ve been involved in a series of somewhat lengthy discussions with various individuals on the Traditional Folk Scene, they know who they are so there’s no need to mention any names, with respect to the continuing controversy surrounding Seth Lakeman:

More about that in a future blog. In the meantime, without further ado, here’s the latest installment from my ongoing manuscript for my bvook on ‘Legendary London’; which is at last nearing completion.  

 

 

 

As I have shown in my "Lay of the Last Minstrel: Sir Walter Scott and the Border Minstrel Tradition" Sir Adam Ferguson’s reputation as a singer of popular Scottish ballads was considerable amongst his contemporaries and is attested to in the writings of Lockhart, Crabbe, John Buchan and others. Appropriately enough then, amongst the many ballads in his personal repertoire was a Scottish version of "The Three Ravens", this time about two such creatures instead of three, and entitled "The Twa’ Corbies". The lyrics of another version of the same ballad, which, although not familiar to Sir Adam, appears to have been preserved in the area around Covington and Biggar in the Scottish Borders, not so very far from Sir Adam’s Father’s former residence at Hallyards just outside of Peebles, are given in full below:

 

"As I came by yon Altar Stane,

I saw twa’ corbies a sittin’ thereon;

The tane unto the t’other did say,

"Where shall we gang an’ dine the day,

Where shall we gang an’ dine the day.

 

"Wherefore by yon new fauld dyke,

There there lies a new slain knight;

No mortal kens that he lies there,

But his hawks an’ hounds an’ lady fair,

But his hawks an’ hounds an’ lady fair.

 

"We’ll sit on his bonny breast bane,

An we’ll pike out his bonny grey e’en,

We’ll set our claws and tear his yellow hair,

An’ bigge our bower it’s all blonde hair,

An’ bigge our bower it’s all blonde hair.

 

"My Mither cleggit me an aik,

An’ breek me up in feathers grey;

An’ bad me flee when’er I wad,

For winter would be my dying day,

For winter would be my dying day.

 

"Now winter it is come and past,

An’ all the birds are biggen their nests;

But I’ll be higher than them a’,

An’ sing a song for sinners’ sake,

An’ sing a song for sinners’ sake."

 

The Dumfrieshire version of this ballad has a proven connection with Border storytelling. And, in view of this it is highly relevant that all of the storytelling cycles connected with it are of North British or Cymric origin, and in no ways Anglian or Scotto-Irish at all. The reason for this is primarily owing to the fact that the population of the particular part of southern Scotland, around Hoddom and Stobo, where the two principal variants of the ballad were originally collected, are provably descended from the ancient Cymru of "Y Goggledd"; and are therefore more Cumbrian in terms of their original ancestry than they are Scottish. This fact is evidenced more than anything else in the proliferation of Welsh place names in the neighbourhood of where it was found. Names such as Caerlaverock– the Castle of the Larks, Lochmaben- which has connections with the Pre-Christian British God Maponos, Arfderydd– scene of the fateful battle of the Britons of the North, where Merlin was driven mad by the futility of the slaughter, and the Clochmabenstane: a mighty megalithic boulder and ancient place of execution, where Border Justice was formerly meeted out. One of the forms of execution previously dispensed here being a method of drowning in which the victim’s head was pressed down into a water filled depression called a "Murder Hole"; a custom which may have its origins in the pre-Christian sacrifices to Teutates previously mentioned in connection with Celtic cauldrons in the opening paragraphs of this chapter.    

 

This form of killing has a direct bearing on the storyline of the Dumfrieshire ballad of "The Twa Corbies"; on account of the fact that the ballad was collected from tradition in the vicinity of Hoddom; which is located just south of Lochmaben, north of the Clochmabenstane and sandwiched directly between the two. Just over the River Annan and south east of Hoddom is an ancient churchyard with a ruined chapel, surrounded by a wall. This is the wall or dyke behind which the ballad knight is lying in these verses, which are here transcribed below. We know this because the place was originally founded by St. Mungo, whose life and legends are well preserved in the district, both orally and in Mediaeval manuscript sources. Sources that will be examined in some depth in the paragraphs which now follow the more famous version of the two ballads; recorded in an electric folk version by ‘sixties and ‘seventies super group "Steeleye Span".

 

"As I was a walkin’ all alane,

I heard twa’ corbies a makin’ mane;

The tane unto the t’other did say o’,

"Where shall we gang an’ dine the day o’,

Where shall we gang an’ dine the day.

 

"In behind yon auld fail dyke,

I wot there lies a fresh slain knight;

And naebody kens that he lies there o’,

But his hawk, an’  his hound an’ his lady fair o’,

His hawk, an’ his hound an’ his lady fair.

 

"His hound is tae the huntin’ gane,

His hawk tae fetch the wild foul hame,

His lady’s ta’en another mate o’,

Sae we may mak our dinner sweet o’,

We may mak our dinner sweet.

 

"Ye’ll sit on his white hase-bane,

An’ I’ll pike out his bonny blue e’en;

Wi’ ae lock o’ his gowden hair o’,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare O’

Theek our nest when it grows bare.

 

"Many an ane for him makes mane,

But nane may ken where he is gane;

O’er his white banes, when they are bare o’,

The wind s’all blaw for evermair o’,

The wind s’all blaw for evermair."

 

 

One of the principal characters who features in the Dumfrieshire versions of the legends with which this version of the ballad is itself ultimately connected is a half mad wildman called Lailoken, who has provable links with the three major archetypes which feature in the ballad. Lailoken’s details are themselves preserved in the Cotton Ms. Titus A XIX manuscript in the British Museum. In this manuscript his story is identical in certain definite respects to that relating to Lleu Llaw Gyfes in the "Mabinogion". This fact provides definite proof of the antiquity of these traditions; and their ultimate connection with the Cymru of the North.

 

In the "Life of St. Kentigern" and "The Mabinogion" the Wild Man and Lleu predict their own Three Fold Death involving a stone, piercing with a wooden stake and drowning. In the latter tale Lleu is speared by a huntsman whose symbol is the hound. The huntsman is told how to kill him by his own lover- the lady of the ballad who has found another mate in the closing stanzas, and the victim himself changes into a hawk and soars into the heavens. Again, the hawk of the ballad is in evidence here. As we have already seen, the megalithic "Clochmabenstane" was a place of execution at which the mode of killing frequently involved an act of ritual drowning; so here we have the water and stone of the Three Fold Death. On the other hand, the Three Ravens of what may well have been the original ballad likewise feature in "The Mabinogion"; where they are none other than the previously mentioned magical birds associated with the Goddess Rhiannon; to whom the magical power of singing the living into the sleep of death is attributed.     

 

In Welsh legend they are the ancestors of the ravens that live on Tower Hill, where the head of our previously encountered god-king, "Vendigaid Vron", Bran the Blessed, was ritually buried, after his death in battle during his great war with Mallolwch, or Matholwch, the King of Ireland, in order to protect Britain from attack. Doubtless, the knight of the ballad was a hero whose body was exposed to the ravens prior to his own head either being buried, or else set up on a stake, another equally common practise, in a similar kind of ritual; before later elaborations corrupted the story. So here we have the third aspect of the Three Fold Death of the legend. In local tradition, the burial ground at Hoddom was the family cemetary of the Jardines who feature in a number of other important ballads; most notably "The Battle of Otterbourne". And, in our own times the Maxwells of Ardwell and the Maxwells of Monreith are themselves direct descendants of the Hereditary Keepers of Caerlaverock Castle; who originally dispensed justice from the Clochmabenstane on behalf of the Kings of Scots. 

 

As for the first of the two versions of the ballad that we have already seen, this may well have a strange and subliminal link with Kingston-upon-Thames, in that the town derives its name from the town’s ancient King’s Stone. The Stone, which, as will be seen at a later juncture, is of prehistoric origin and was formerly used in the anointing rituals of King Alfred the Great’s own dynasty, bears a curious resemblance to another stone which may well be the original "Altar Stand" of the Covington and Biggar version of "The Twa’ Corbies". Referred to locally as "The Altar Stane", this undoubtedly prehistoric boulder lies close to another of St. Kentigern’s former churches at nearby Stobo; from whence the saint set out on his evangelization of Tweedale; and is supposed to have been the one time pagan sacrificial stone upon which the saint is claimed to have baptized the magician Merlin. As we saw above, Bleise or Blaise, who appears in a Mediaeval painting on a pillar in Kingston’s ancient church, built directly adjacent to the now vanished chapel in which the King’s Stone was itself formerly housed, is accredited with being Merlin’s mentor in the writings of Sir Thomas Malory. In Scottish legend he is connected with Kentigern, whose own church can still be seen just a short distance from "The Altar Stane", on which the magician was baptized: an event which is commemorated in the stained glass of a window still to be seen in the wall of Stobo Kirk. Unfortunately, there is no surviving version of the ballad’s London counterpart, "The Three Ravens", for us to examine which is purely exclusive to Kingston: the canonical version of which is likewise transcribed below.     

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,

They were as blacke as they might be

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

The one of them said to his mate,

Where shall we our breakfast take?

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

"Downe in yonder greene field,

There lies a knight slain under his shield."

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

"His hounds they lie downe at his feete,

 So well they can their master keepe,"

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

"His haukes they fly so eagerly,

There’s no fowle dare him come nie,"

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

Downe there comes a fallow doe,

As great with young as she might goe,

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

She lift up his bloudy hed,

And kist his wounds that were so red,

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

She got him up upon her backe,

And carried him to earthen lacke

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

She buried him before the prime,

She was dead herselfe ere even song time,

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

"There were three ravens sat on a tree,

     Downe a downe, hey downe, hay downe

There were three ravens sat on a tree,  

      With a downe

God send every gentleman,

Such haukes, such hounds, such a leman.

      With a downe derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

 

 

An interesting anecdote connected with what may well be a surviving reference to Pre-Christian Sacral Kingship, of a type almost certainly practised in and around the locality of Kingston itself, something which we shall examine in depth in Chapter Eight, revolves around a possible connection with the events recounted in this ballad and that of the old Welsh folk song "Hela’r Dryw". The lyrics of the song refer to the ancient Welsh rural custom of "Hunting the Wren", known colloquially amongst those who seek him out as "The King of Birds". Traditionally, the hunt itself would take place on St. Stephen’s Day, 26th December. And, after the unfortunate bird had been killed, it would be decked out with ribbons and other Yuletide decorations before being paraded through the streets of the town; to the refrain of the previously referred to folk song: parts of which refer to it being ritually eaten.

 

Strange as it may seem, just as "Raven’s Ait" marks the southern boundary of Kingston’s Zodiacal Libran bird, another island, near enough equidistant from the "Hogsmill Brook" as its southern counterpart, and this time called "Stevens Ait", marks the northern boundary of the same zodiacal effigy. Is this coincidence, or were such ritual practises formerly enacted here too? Whilst the direction South corresponds to the Summer Solstice, when the Sun is at its zenith over the horizon, that of North corresponds to the Winter Solstice: the traditional period for "Hunting the Wren". As we saw in the Stobo version of the ballad of "The Twa’ Corbies", verse four of the ballad seems to hint at a ritual sacrifice of some kind; linked to the Winter Solstice. Interestingly enough, Mary Caine links the Druidic Wren of primitive folklore not only with the planet Uranus, modern ruler of the zodiacal air sign of Aquarius, but also with the Dark Age warrior hero Urien of Rheged: model for Malory’s Sir Uriens; and like Bran the Blessed, himself the deceased and decapitated hero of the sixth century Welsh poem "The Head of Urien".

 

This poem, written by Llywarch Hen, himself universally acknowledged as one of the greatest of Welsh Bards, and the apparent ancestor of the later Tudor Dynasty, refers to the head of the then recently assassinated King Urien; as it is taken home to Rheged: a Dark Age kingdom encompassing much of the modern counties of Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire and Dumfries and Galloway:

 

"A Head I bear at my side,

    King Urien’s Head, he ruled a host;

And on his white breast, a black crow….."

 

Like Bran the Blessed, Urien’s newly slain corpse has been decapitated and his head carried off by his Sovereign Bard for burial elsewhere; whilst a corbie feeds on his fresh slain cadaver. The parallels between the unfortunate fates of these two great Celtic warrior heros are staggering. And, just as the reference to Urien’s corpse providing fleshly food for the birds mirrors the ballad of "The Twa’ Corbies" in certain definite respects, the extant references to his assassination in the writings of Nennius may well hint at some kind of ritual sacrifice as well. Whilst Urien is referred to in ancient sources as being unquestionably Christian, as are the various other members of his dynasty and their retainers whose names have come down to us, Nicolai Tolstoy in his "Quest for Merlin" hints at a pagan origin for some of his cousins; most notably a prince named Gwenddolau; who may well have been in league with his assassin.

 

In the Welsh Triads Gwenddolau is referred to as having possessed a pair of magical birds; which were adorned with a golden yoke and which are said to have consumed two corpses for their dinner; and a further two for their supper. Elsewhere, in "The Black book of Camarthen", Gwenddolau’s cousin, Gwallawg ap Lleenawg, who is listed by Nennius as being amongst the chieftains on campaign with Urien shortly before the latter’s assassination, is attacked by a supernatural bird which subsequently disfigures him. Although the bird is neither a raven nor a corbie, the parallels between these verses and the abovegiven ballads are themselves immediately apparent:

 

"Cursed be the white goose

    which tore the eye from the head

Of Gwallawg ab Lleenawg, the chieftain." (7)

 

Another curious, and equally relevant, legend also connected with birds, and this time linked with a ritual of boundary walking preserved and formerly played out at Osterley, preserves the identity of the "hen" of our first, Kingstonian, ballad. According to legend, the Manor of Osterley was originally acquired from King Edward III by a member of the Fawkener family, whose possession of title is supposed to have been confirmed by an annual perambulation of a tract now known as  "Fawkener’s Fields" with a falcon on his right arm. Close by, at Heston and Cranford, is this Zodiac’s Piscean effigy, doubtless remembered by the two halves of a "mussel shell" in these mysterious nonsensical verses. The "hare" which hatches out of it in the same verse corresponds, as in the case of the wool and the feathers previously attributed to Aries and Libra, to a link with its opposite sign of Virgo. As has already been noted, we shall be referring to the totemic siginificance of this particular animal with particular reference to another of London’s legends in Chapter Five. In the meantime, it is sufficient to add that the British Queen Boadicea is supposed to have conducted a ritual involving a hare directly before her last great battle, if the testimony of Cassius Dio is to be believed, in which the animal was let loose from beneath her skirt. Again, we shall return to the significance of this overtly totemic pagan ritual practise at a later juncture.

 

Pisces is a water sign, and, just as the River Crane, another tributary of the Thames, flows out of one of the Kingstonian fishes’ tails, so the River Wandle draws the Virgoan skirt of the effigy that corresponds to the last of our nonsensical ballad animals. But what of Capricorn, the astutest of readers may ask? Saturn, the ruler of Capricorn is Cronos in Greek legend and Bran in his Celtic aspect. Perhaps then it is he who is the real singer of this ballad, composed by the later Blaise and in which the voice of the bard exclaims how he "jumped over Kingston’s Hill and never touched the ground". On old maps and new alike, the Kingston Zodiac’s Capricorn effigy gives the impression of flying directly over Kingston hill with his legs in the air as if he is doing a somersault. Is this how we are to interpret the seemingly nonsensical reference to how his feet "never touched the ground"? 

     

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About tartantombraider

A lineal descendant of Captain Robert Ferguson (1719-1799) the older brother of the great Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816); the friend of Hume, Gibbon and Adam Smith. Also related to the great feminist author and playwright Rachel Ferguson. Have written extensively on a vast range of subjects, published in print as book author and in various journals and magazines into the bargain. Early work as an underground film maker on the early Goa Trance and radical anti-CJB political scene in the 1990s has since become more refined and ambitious and I am now a regular contributor to such high profile events as the Portobello Film Festival Annual Film Maker's Convention.....:
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