A Lyke-Wake Dirge

  1. Beliefs

The Supernatural Ballads title image

Sir Walter Scott included “A Lyke-Wake Dirge”  in all versions of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border from the first edition of 1802, where it appears in the first of the two volumes. Scott describes this song as “a sort of charm, sung … while watching a dead body previous to interment”. The song, Scott says, is from the North of England and notes the importance of considering the words and the music together.  We have included it here as it is one of the stranger inclusions in the Minstrelsy. It reflects the care needed in watching the dead, as the spirit of someone recently dead was believed to be in a precarious state.  There were certain customs and procedures undertaken in Scotland and England, to help speed it on its way and provide the best possible start on the journey to what lies beyond death.

For Scottish perspectives, Margaret Bennett’s Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave offers many useful insights.

One of the earliest versions of this song was collected by the antiquarian John Aubrey in his miscellany of belief and customs, which he entitled Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. In 1881, the  text was published for the Folk-lore Society.

The song is both a protective incantation for the dead, describing the journey of the spirit to what waits after death, and a warning to the living to live a good life. The journey is presented in three stages: travelling through a thorny moorland, crossing a bridge (all but missing in the Minstrelsy version), and enduring Purgatory. Scott notes that the image of the Bridge to the other world, presented in the song, has been shared through many traditions and religions.


While the song is presented in a series of four-line stanzas, and rhymes abcb, it is not a traditional ballad: it is not impartial in its telling, it does not have a defined narrative, rather it offers a glimpse into the future after the subject of the song is dead, and the language has a different timbre from that of traditional ballads.

The concept of three roads appears in versions of “Thomas Rhymer”: the road to heaven, the road to hell, and the third road which leads to the land of fairy. In this ballad, however, there are only two possible options presented.



The recently dead inhabit an important niche within traditional belief. Both the dead and the mourners have rituals of protection, some of which are mentioned in this song.

A Lyke-Wake Dirge

The word “lyke” means a corpse or body, specifically, in this case, an unburied one. A “lyke-wake” is the ceremony of keeping watch over a dead body until it is buried. There are  several explanations for this.

In terms of belief, the body was watched over, to keep evil spirits at bay, and to ensure, therefore, that the spirit of the dead person could have a clear passage to its chosen path.

A more practical interpretation of watching over the body of the recently departed was to ensure that the body was not stolen. This was a consideration, which became more prevalent in the 19th century, brought on by the fear of the resurrectionists, or body snatchers. While such men often dug up recently interred bodies, snatching a corpse before burial would ensure a fresher cadaver. The body snatchers provided corpses for the anatomists.

This fear was pervasive throughout Scott’s own life. He made notes in his diary regarding the hanging of William Burke – of the infamous murderers Burke and Hare – on the High Street of Edinburgh.



Scott presumes that sleet is a corruption of salt.   Placing the salt on the body was believed to keep evil sprits from it. Salt is viewed as a protective substance against evil and it used in different rituals, but often with the sense of providing protection to an individual before an important transition, such as baptism or, in this case, burial.

Salt was also considered to prevent swelling of the dead body. This dates from the time when it was considered decent to have a period of at least a week between death and burial.

However “fire and sleet” also appears as a phrase in another ballad in the Minstrelsy, “Kinmont Willie”, over which Scott had a strong editorial influence. There, the phrase is used to indicate a storm, fire being used to indicate lightning.

Aubrey’s version has “fleet” for “sleet”, which Aubrey takes to mean water. However, it may also be related to “flet” for floor an dexpanded to mean the floor of a room, so here it would indicate the comforts of a home – fire (warmth), flet (shelter or room) and candlelight (light). The confusion may have come from misreadings of the long s used of older forms of writing, which looks very like an f.



Candles were kept burning beside the Corpse: evil spirits shun light.

The song then presents the options available to the spirit of the dead. These vary, dependent on how they have lived their life, with a positive outcome for someone who has been charitable and kind, and harsh treatment for anyone who has not.

The dead person is presented as undertaking a journey on the “Whinny-muir”. Whin can refer to both hard stones such as basalt or flint and gorse. However, in this case, the image described is most probably a moorland covered with gorse bushes. If the dead individual has proved charitable, the road will be an easy one. This is represented by the verses:

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle;
Sit thee down, and put them on;
And Christe receive thye saule.


If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gavest nane,
Every night and alle;
The whinnes shall pricke thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.

The second part of the journey – over the “Brigg o’ Dread” –  is missing in the Minstrelsy version. The next part of the journey is into Purgatory. Again, if the individual has been a kind and charitable in life, the journey towards salvation will be easier. The song presents the concept of the fires of purgatory. Before the Reformation, when Catholicism was the dominant Christian religion, Purgatory would have been a common concept to most people: it was the place where the souls of those who had lived good lives had to undergo a limited amount of suffering in order to be purified of all sins. It was often represented as a place of fire.If the individual has been good in life, then the flames of Purgatory will not harm them, but if they have not been charitable and kind, then the flames will burn them “to the bare bane”.

The comfort in this “dirge” is limited, and it stands as a warning against a selfish or dissolute life, and at the same time, it is cold, grim prayer for the dead.



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