The nocturnal jingle of reivers’ bridles, the frantic crying of the “hot trod”, a still figure swinging at the peel tower gate… such is the stuff of the Border ballads.
These centuries-old songs of cattle raids, bloodfeuds and rough justice have a timeless, elemental quality; performed on their native turf, by those who inhabit that same landscape, they take on a heightened potency.
Thus later this month, Innerleithen Music Festival, as well as featuring such high-profile folk names as the Battlefield Band, Dougie Maclean and Gaelic band Mànran, will touch base with Border culture in an event titled Reiving and Bereaving.
The concert, on 19 August, will present ballads collected in Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, which first brought these songs – albeit as texts, stripped of their music – to a wider audience at the start of the 19th century.
The suitably resonant venue is the pavilion of St Ronan’s Wells, the mineral spring where, according to legend, the eponymous saint is supposed to have “cleiked” or hooked, Auld Nick with his crozier. Such renowned ballads as Johnnie Armstrong and The Border Widow’s Lament will be performed by traditional singers from the Border country, Kathy Hobkirk, Elsa LeMaitre, Henry Douglas and Naomi Harvey, while Dr Kaye McAlpine and Lucy Macrae of Edinburgh University’s Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies will put the songs into cultural and historical context.
The event is a spin-off from an international academic collaboration, the Walter Scott Minstrelsy Project, to produce a major critical edition of the Minstrelsy.
The three-year project is being undertaken jointly by Edinburgh University and the University of Mainz in Germany – where, as elsewhere in Europe, Scott’s writings were a major element in the 19th-century Romantic movement.
One of the Reiving and Bereaving presenters, Lucy Macramé – like McAlpine a member of the Minstrelsy project’s Edinburgh team – is a singer herself, but, she says: “Kaye and I just wanted to facilitate the singing and use some of what we know about Scott and Borders history.”
So the songs will come from those who really know the ground: Elsa LeMaitre, for instance who sings The Douglas Tragedy, lives in Yarrow, where the song’s events are set, while Henry Douglas grew up near the traditionally attributed location of another sanguinary ballad, the Dowie Dens o Yarrow.
This material evokes debatable land in more senses than one. Since he first brought the ballads to a broader audience in the Minstrelsy in 1802, Scott has come in for criticism for “improving” or otherwise altering the material he edited. That isn’t entirely fair, reckons Macrae, who is delving into this complex issue in her researches.
“It’s not all black and white,” she explains. “Scott’s method of editing a ballad was collation, from lots of different copies. But so far as we can tell, he certainly didn’t try to pass off a lot of his own work as traditional.”
Scott, she says, would have been well aware of the controversy surrounding James MacPherson’s “Ossianic” collection, “and he certainly didn’t want to be branded a forger”.
One of the wildest of these epic songs is The Fray of Suport, which Scott collected with Robert Shortreed on one of their “ballad raids” into Liddesdale. It was sung to them by “auld Jonathan Graham, the lang quaker”, a formidable-looking man whose performance, according to Scott, was “a sort of wild recitative” which worked itself into “a long and varied howl…”
This dramatic rendition wasn’t entirely due to the sentiments of the ballad: Scott had apparently plied the old man with so much brandy that he keeled over in mid-flow. When Henry Douglas gives vent to this wild Border lay at St Ronan’s Well, he’ll doubtless stay upright for the duration.
• Innerleithen Music Festival runs from 17-19 August. For further information, see www.walterscott.de and www.innerleithenmusicfestival.org