Ballads, Blood & Betrayal
1987, Commemorating the Death of Mary Queen of Scots
Hands up everyone who thought that flash fiction was a modern invention? And yet it’s as ancient as the hills, or at least as ancient as the ballads that used to be sung up and down those hills. Think of Lord Maxwell’s Last Goodbye, The Border Widow’s Lament, Jock o’Hazeldean, Dick o’ the Cow.
And I’m not making that last one up. It features a spot of castle rustling, a bit of a fight, and a fool outwitting his master. Ballads incorporate the whole gamut of human experience, many of them in just a few succinct verses. Common themes are thwarted love, jealousy, betrayal, rape, murder, war, cross-dressing women going to sea…
The practice of telling story through song is the backbone of oral tradition the world over, and is particularly strong here in Scotland. Many ballads preserve actual historical events, as in The Battle of Otterbourne or The Sang of the Outlaw Murray, or contain enough material for a gory crime thriller, like the brother who murders his sister’s lover by thrusting his rusty blade right through the floorboards and into the bed they are lying in. It almost breaks your heart when she wakes up next morning and declares him the sleepiest man she’s ever seen (Clerk Sanders.)
And the reason I mention ballads at all is that 400 years ago, on the 8th of February 1587, Mary Queen of Scots had her head chopped off in the Great Hall of Fotheringay Castle in full view of 300 spectators, and there are a great many songs about Mary’s life and death, which is not surprising, given the circumstances.
She was betrothed at the age of five, married by fifteen, spent a decade in the glitterati of the court of France before being widowed; next step, back to Scotland, the land of her birth, where she was nominally Queen, though had to battle an illegal Protestant-led parliament that strove to ban Catholicism from Scottish shores. Catholic herself, she was always in conflict with her English sister, Elizabeth I, but could have patched up their differences by a strategic marriage.
Instead she took her own path and husband, and to everyone’s shock married Lord Darnley for love, throwing political allegiances to the wind.
Passion, betrayal and conspiracy followed, ending in the murder of Darnley, and Mary marrying the Earl of Bothwell, the suspected murderer.
Big mistake; her support melted away like summer snow, and she was forced by the combined nobility to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI, who was crowned five days later in Stirling Castle. She managed to escape, and even raised an army of six thousand men, only to be roundly defeated on the fields of Langside. No choice for her now but to flee across the Solway and beg protection from her estranged sister, Elizabeth I, who threw her in prison, where she remained in custody at various strongholds until her execution.
Even her death was dramatic: imagine the horrified silence and hysterical giggles that must have followed when the axe-man, having severed her head, lifted it up to show to the multitude but was left clutching an empty auburn wig, whilst Bloody Mary’s Throne of Beauty bounced and rolled away at his feet.
Every last thread of her clothes and possessions were burned and every spot of blood scoured from the scaffold. There were to be no trinkets or curios available to make her more of a martyr than she already appeared, particularly in Catholic eyes.
What is probably less well known about Mary, Queen of Scots, is that she spoke or read in six language, including classical Greek, although French remained her preferred language throughout her life; she also had a library containing over 300 books that included the largest collection of Italian and French poetry in the whole of Scotland. And not only did she read poetry but she wrote it too, and she played a variety of musical instruments, including the lute.
Perfectly placed, therefore, to become a balladeer, a woman who could write, play and sing. It is a shame we know of no songs she herself created, but here are a few of the more famous ones about herself:
The Four Marys
Mary’s Lament, by Robert Burns
Mary, Queen O’ Scots
Ballad of Mary