- Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. I (Sir Patrick Spens.) by Sir Walter Scott
HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Periods Alphabetically Nationality Topics Themes Genres Glossary

Selected Works
According To...
Suggested Reading
Other Resources
Related Materials


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics

Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. I
Sir Patrick Spens.

by Sir Walter Scott

One edition of the present ballad is well known; having appeared in the Reliques of Ancient Poetry, and having been inserted in almost every subsequent collection of Scottish songs. But it seems to have occurred to no editor, that a more complete copy of the song might be procured. That, with which the public is now presented, is taken from two MS. copies, [76] collated with several verses recited by the editor's friend, Robert Hamilton, Esq. advocate, being the 16th, and the four which follow. But, even with the assistance of the common copy, the ballad seems still to be a fragment. The cause of Sir Patrick Spens' voyage is, however, pointed out distinctly; and it shews, that the song has claim to high antiquity, as referring to a very remote period in Scottish history.

Alexander III. of Scotland died in 1285; and, for the misfortune of his country, as well as his own, he had been bereaved of all his children before his decease. The crown of Scotland descended upon his grand-daughter, Margaret, termed, by our historians, the Maid of Norway. She was the only offspring of a marriage betwixt Eric, king of Norway, and Margaret, daughter of Alexander III. The kingdom had been secured to her by the parliament of Scotland, held at Scone, the year preceding her grandfather's death. The regency of Scotland entered into a congress with the ministers of the king of Norway and with those of England, for the establishment of good order in the kingdom of the infant princess. Shortly afterwards, Edward I. conceived the idea of matching his eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, with the young queen of Scotland. The plan was eagerly embraced by the Scottish nobles; for, at that time, there was little of the national animosity, which afterwards blazed betwixt the countries, and they patriotically looked forward to the important advantage, of uniting the island of Britain into one kingdom. But Eric of Norway seems to have been unwilling to deliver up his daughter; and, while the negociations were thus protracted, the death of the Maid of Norway effectually crushed a scheme, the consequences of which might have been, that the distinction betwixt England and Scotland would, in our day, have been as obscure and uninteresting as that of the realms of the heptarchy.—Hailes' Annals. Fordun, &c.

The unfortunate voyage of Sir Patrick Spens may really have taken place, for the purpose of bringing back the Maid of Norway to her own kingdom; a purpose, which was probably defeated by the jealousy of the Norwegians, and the reluctance of King Eric. I find no traces of the disaster in Scottish history; but, when we consider the meagre materials, whence Scottish history is drawn, this is no conclusive argument against the truth of the tradition. That a Scottish vessel, sent upon such an embassy, must, as represented in the ballad, have been freighted with the noblest youth in the kingdom, is sufficiently probable; and, having been delayed in Norway, till the tempestuous season was come on, its fate can be no matter of surprise. The ambassadors, finally sent by the Scottish nation to receive their queen, were Sir David Wemyss, of Wemyss, and Sir Michael Scot of Balwearie; the same, whose knowledge, surpassing that of his age, procured him the reputation of a wizard. But, perhaps, the expedition of Sir Patrick Spens was previous to their embassy. The introduction of the king into the ballad seems a deviation from history; unless we suppose, that Alexander was, before his death, desirous to see his grand-child and heir.

The Scottish monarchs were much addicted to "sit in Dumfermline town," previous to the accession of the Bruce dynasty. It was a favourite abode of Alexander himself, who was killed by a fall from his horse, in the vicinity, and was buried in the abbey of Dumfermline.

There is a beautiful German translation of this ballad, as it appeared in the Reliques, in the Volk-Lieder of Professor Herder; an elegant work, in which it is only to be regretted, that the actual popular songs of the Germans form so trifling a proportion.

The tune of Mr. Hamilton's copy of Sir Patrick Spens is different from that, to which the words are commonly sung; being less plaintive, and having a bold nautical turn in the close.


The king sits in Dumfermline town,
Drinking the blude-red wine;
"O [77] whare will I get a skeely skippe [78],
"To sail this new ship of mine?"

O up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the king's right knee,—
"Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor,
"That ever sail'd the sea."

Our king has written a braid letter.
And seal'd it with his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the strand.

"To Noroway, to Noroway,
"To Noroway o'er the faem;
"The king's daughter of Noroway,
"'Tis thou maun bring her hame."

The first word that Sir Patrick read,
Sae loud loud laughed he;
The neist word that Sir Patrick read,
The tear blinded his e'e.

"O wha is this has done this deed,
"And tauld the king o' me,
"To send us out, at this time of the year,
"To sail upon the sea?

"Be it wind, be it weet, be it hail, be it sleet,
"Our ship must sail the faem;
"The king's daughter of Noroway,
"'Tis we must fetch her hame,"

They hoysed their sails on Monenday morn,
Wi' a' the speed they may;
They hae landed in Noroway,
Upon a Wodensday.

They hadna been a week, a week,
In Noroway, but twae,
When that the lords o' Noroway
Began aloud to say,—

"Ye Scottishmen spend a' our king's goud,
"And a' our queenis fee."
"Ye lie, ye lie, ye liars loud!
"Fu' loud I hear ye lie."

"For I brought as much white monie,
"As gane [79] my men and me,
"And I brought a half-fou [80] o' gude red goud,
"Out o'er the sea wi' me."

"Make ready, make ready, my merrymen a'!
"Our gude ship sails the morn."
"Now, ever alake, my master dear,
"I fear a deadly storm!

"I saw the new moon, late yestreen,
"Wi' the auld moon in her arm;
"And if we gang to sea, master,
"I fear we'll come to harm."

They hadna sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.

The ankers brak, and the topmasts lap, [81]
It was sik a deadly storm;
And the waves came o'er the broken ship,
Till a' her sides were torn.

"O where will I get a gude sailor,
"To take my helm in hand,
"Till I get up to the tall top-mast,
"To see if I can spy land?"

"O here am I, a sailor gude,
"To take the helm in hand,
"Till you go up to the tall top-mast;
"But I fear you'll ne'er spy land."

He hadna' gane a step, a step,
A step, but barely ane,
When a bout flew out of our goodly ship,
And the salt sea it came in.

"Gae, fetch a web o' the silken claith,
"Another o' the twine,
"And wap them into our ship's side,
"And let na the sea come in."

They fetched a web o' the silken claith,
Another of the twine,
And they wapped them round that gude ship's side,
But still the sea came in.

O laith, laith, were our gude Scots lords
To weet their cork-heel'd shoon!
But lang or a' the play was play'd,
They wat their hats aboon.

And mony was the feather-bed,
That flattered [82] on the faem;
And mony was the gude lord's son,
That never mair cam hame.

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,
The maidens tore their hair,
A' for the sake of their true loves;
For them they'll see na mair.

O lang, lang, may the ladyes sit,
Wi' their fans into their hand,
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing to the strand!

And lang, lang, may the maidens sit,
Wi' their goud kaims in their hair,
A' waiting for their ain dear loves!
For them they'll see na mair.

O forty miles off Aberdeen,
'Tis fifty fathom deep,
And there lies gude Sir Patrick Spens,
Wi' the Scots lords at his feet.


To send us out at this time of the year,
To sail upon the sea?—P. 8, v. 3.
By a Scottish act of parliament, it was enacted, that no ship should be fraughted out of the kingdom, with any staple goods, betwixt the feast of St. Simon's day and Jude and Candelmas.—James III. Parliament 2d, chap. 15. Such was the terror entertained for navigating the north seas in winter.
When a bout flew out of our goodly ship.—P. 10. v. 5.
I believe a modern seaman would say, a plank had started, which must have been a frequent incident during the infancy of ship-building. The remedy applied seems to be that mentioned in Cook's Voyages, when, upon some occasion, to stop a leak, which could not be got at in the inside, a quilted sail was brought under the vessel, which, being drawn into the leak by the suction, prevented the entry of more water. Chaucer says,

"There n'is no new guise that it na'as old."
O forty miles off Aberdeen,—P. 11. v. 3.
This concluding verse differs in the three copies of the ballad, which I have collated. The printed edition bears,
"Have owre, have owre to Aberdour;"
And one of the MSS. reads,
"At the back of auld St. Johnstowne Dykes."
But, in a voyage from Norway, a shipwreck on the north coast seems as probable as either in the Firth of Forth, or Tay; and the ballad states the disaster to have taken place out of sight of land.


[76] That the public might possess this carious fragment as entire as possible, the editor gave one of these copies, which seems the most perfect, to Mr. Robert Jamieson, to be inserted in his Collection.

[77] In singing, the interjection, O, is added to the second and fourth lines.

[78] Skeely skipper—Skilful mariner.

[79] Gane—Suffice.

[80] Half-fou—the eighth part of a peck.

[81] Lap—Sprang.

[82] Flattered—Fluttered, or rather floated, on the foam.

[83] This old woman is still alive, and at present resides at Craig of Douglas, in Selkirkshire.
Previous Next

Terms Defined

Referenced Works