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Many of the ballads published in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border represent a form of entertainment which greatly precedes the eras of a mass print media and moving images, but many of the plots may still seem familiar: there are action tales, love stories, desperate last stands, as well as supernatural abductions and ghost tales.

These ballads share many themes with traditional tales and storytelling, but they are also part of the singing culture of Europe, which subsequently spread to

  • Canada,
  • the United States,
  •  Australia and New Zealand

as the European diaspora spread.

Scotland shares many ballad tales with countries such as

  • Denmark,
  • Germany,
  • Sweden,
  • Italy
  • and Spain

among others, but  there are others which are unique to Scotland.

What Makes a Ballad a Ballad?

A ballad is a song which tells a story, but not all story-songs are ballads. A series of formulas, verse formats, imagery and character types have been developed over the centuries to create exciting, engaging songs which have strong emotional content and often extremely dramatic scenes. You can encounter lords and ladies, treacherous servants and relentless mothers, outlaws and reivers, the fairy queen, and the walking dead among others. They inhabit a land of  high hills, wan waters and the greenwood, and where the fastest form of transport is a swift horse.

The reiver ballads are a notable exception to this, as the intent there is to present an approximation of  the 16th century Anglo-Scottish Border, but many still use the same formulas, and the local landscape lends itself to suggesting a parallel between the real worlds and that of the ballad.

In general, ballads use the third person to present the narrative, and very often, the ballad tale does not begin at the start of the tale – there is very often concealed information. It can be contained in formulaic language or can be presented at a dramatic point in the singing of the ballad.

Ballads are commonly presented on the page in four-line stanzas, rhyming abcb, which is known as ballad metre. However, there are couplet  eight-line stanza forms, and it is impossible to know how singers in the past viewed the ballad in their mind. While the b and d lines rhyme, the narrative of the tale is often carried on the non-rhyming a and c lines. Refrains and chorus can also be included – which invite participation when the ballad is being sung.

Remember, there is no one set version of any traditional ballad. They are part of a recreative process, so while some versions may be more effective than others, there are no 'wrong' versions. While this site concentrates on those ballad versions collected by Sir Walter Scott, these should not be viewed as definitive versions.


Telling a tale, which may actually be quite complicated, within four-line stanzas could be very restrictive. However, a series of structures and formulas have been developed to provide a series of 'short-codes'. They can inform a knowledgeable listener about the emotional or physical state of a particular character or suggest how the plot is likely to advance. 'Lingering' is common structure pattern, which occurs when a specific situation or scene is elaborated upon.

The converse of this is 'leaping', which occurs when the action is advanced swiftly, often with a scene change, and often within one verse. Simple binary 'balancing' patterns are common –  a rider will ride up a 'high, high hill', then 'down yon dowie den'; one sister will be 'fair', the other will be 'dark', and so on. Triadic patterns are also common, whether in line or word repetition within a verse.

There are numerous formulas within the tradition. Very often, these formulas provide the emotional indicators and many contain information which far exceeds the the face value of the action. For example, a character may look over his or her left shoulder: if they are in some way subservient to another, this indicates despair and points to a tragic outcome to the scene. If a female character combs her hair, this is an indication of erotic longing – either the desire for a lover, or she may be thinking of her lover who is distant from her.

The music the ballads are sung to is as important as the words: it forms half the tradition. We would encourage everyone using this site to listen to the versions of the ballads we have included. The emotional impact a ballad singer can create through his or her singing can be very powerful, thanks to the mell of the music, the narrative and the imagery created through the use of the formulas and structures. In short, always listen to ballads if you can.




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