Author Topic: Flowers of the Forrest  (Read 3756 times)

Stirling Thompson

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Flowers of the Forrest
« on: May 08, 2014, 06:43:26 AM »
for Ray and Peg...

The Flowers of the Forest
- by Steve McGrail Issue 50 January/February 2003

EVERY NATION HAS ITS 'GREAT' SONGS. In a British Isles' context, a 'great' song of England could be something like The Grand Conversation On Napoleon, say. Looking westward next, one of Ireland's contenders (amongst many) would undoubtedly be either of the two versions of the mighty Róisín Dubh, or 'Dark Rosaleen'. And as for Scotland - whether or not 'A Man's A Man For A' That' already occupies any imaginary top slot - one of the most splendid songs of all is surely 'The Flowers Of The Forest'. This is a lament for the defeat at Flodden in 1513 when Scotland lost thousands of her men, many of her nobles, and her king James IV, to an invading English army. Rather like the Battle of Culloden over two centuries later, Flodden remains a painful and unresolved issue in the national psyche. That's why 'The Flowers Of The Forest' is rarely sung or played as a performance piece, being generally reserved for special occasions only. Armistice Day commemorations would be such.

The song itself, though, is a slight mystery. Its origins are a little hazy, at least when compared with other Scottish songs. A Man's A Man, obviously, is by Burns. Fair enough. And Annie Laurie (as fine a love song as any) is by Lady Scott, even if many people think it's also Burns. But The Flowers Of The Forest? Where's that from?

Before the question can be answered, one thing has to be cleared up first: there are actually three songs of the same name, all dating from a similar period, all from the Borders, and all written by women. But only one of the three, that by Jean Elliot of Teviotdale, is about Flodden Field. The other two seem to be about something more prosaic.

The first of the trio is by a distant relative of Sir Walter Scott, Alison Cockburn (née Alison Rutherford) of Fernylee in Selkirkshire. Her 'Flowers' is probably about a financial disaster that overwhelmed several lairds in the Ettrick Valley, and was written in 1764. The 'Forest' was a former royal hunting area comprising Selkirkshire and parts of Clydesdale and Peebleshire. Once very popular, and still to be seen in ballad collections (like Scottish Songs, Lomond Books), her song now sounds rather sugary; that said, it contains some excellent lines like

I've seen the smiling of Fortune beguiling, I've tasted her favours and felt her decay: Sweet was her blessing, kind her caressing, But now they are fled, fled far away.

The second 'Flowers' was written by Anne Home, also to bewail the lairds' distress. It was published in 'The Scots Musical Museum' but sadly for her, hasn't stood the test of time. Only Jean Elliot's version has achieved that.

Jean (or sometimes 'Jane') was born in 1727, the third daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto. Her song has a theme that still engages people today (a theme that's universal and yet expresses the private grief of one small nation) in a way that the ruination of some minor gentry never could. And it's hauntingly beautiful into the bargain.

It's something of a miracle that we have it at all, however. No other lyrics of hers survive, and indeed, she almost didn't write the song in the first place. The story goes that she only did it for a bet with her oldest brother Gilbert, himself a songwriter. He challenged her that she couldn't compose a song about Flodden. The prize was to be a set of gloves (or possibly, some brightly coloured ribbons). Fortunately for posterity, Gilbert lost his bet.

The song was first published by David Herd in 1776. Apparently, the shy and retiring Jean tried to disown it. She almost succeeded, actually, because many people at the time seriously took it to be a genuinely ancient work. Burns wasn't fooled, though. He admired it a lot - 'this fine ballad' he called it - whilst explaining that 'the manners are indeed old, but the language is of yesterday'. He said he hoped the writer's name would soon be known. It was, which didn't please Jean at all.

It's still nevertheless possible that not all the words are hers: Burns may not have been right. It may be that she wove in lines or phrases from a much earlier work, perhaps one that went right back to the battle itself. The song uses a tune that appears in the Skene Manuscript of 1630 as The Flowres Of The Forrest.* This could make it very venerable indeed, since John Skene of Halyards is known to have recorded some of Scotland's oldest melodies.

There's little chance now of the song's true origins ever being fully revealed. Probably the questions will never be resolved. And maybe it doesn't matter, anyway. All that does, is that Scotland (and the world) possesses this truly magnificent work. Jean Elliot went to her grave on March 29th 1805, not knowing what she had bequeathed - but she could hardly have had a better epitaph than that she had penned that that single superlative song:

'I've heard them lilting at the yowe-milking, Lasses a-lilting before the dawn o' day; But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning; The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede awae.

At buchts in the morning, nae blythe lads are scorning The lassies are lonely and dowie and wae; Nae daffin', nae gabbin, but sighing and sabbing Ilk ane lifts her leglin and hies her awae.

In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering; The bandsters are lyart and runkled and grey; At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching: The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede awae.

At e'en in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming 'Bout stacks wi' the lasses at bogle to play But ilk ane sits drearie lamenting her dearie - The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede awae.

Dule and wae for the order, sent our lads tae the Border! The English, for aince, by guile wan the day; The Flowers of the Forest that focht aye the foremost The pride o' our land, are cauld in the clay.

We'll hear nae mair lilting at the yowe-milking; Women and bairns are heartless and wae; Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning: The Flowers of the Forest are a' wede away'.

yowe - ewe; ilka - each, every; loaning - road to a grazing; wede - withered; buchts - cattle pens; dowie - sad; daffin' - having fun/being licentious; leglin - milking pail; hairst - harvest; bandsters - harvesters; lyart - grizzled; fleeching - cajoling/flattering; swankies - young bloods; bogle - hide-and-seek; dule - grief.

Isla St. Claire

Scots Guards
Semper Fidelis! Semper Familia!


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Re: Flowers of the Forrest
« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2014, 04:46:17 PM »
Thank you Stu.......To Ray & Peg


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Re: Flowers of the Forrest
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2014, 01:55:02 PM »
I finally had a chance to read this............I had no idea -----thank.

Stirling Thompson

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Re: Flowers of the Forrest
« Reply #3 on: June 09, 2014, 09:05:46 AM »
Mary, did you see my other post in the private section under the same topic?
Semper Fidelis! Semper Familia!