The Cruel Sister


Audio Link

Listen to Brian Miller sing this ballad, with the alternative "Bows of London" refrain.

Listen to Lucy Stewart sing this ballad.

Text Too Small?


The Supernatural Ballads title image

Scott included “The Cruel Sister” in the 1802 edition of the  Minstrelsy, where is was published in the second volume. Scott states that his version was compiled from a version transmitted by Mrs Brown and a fragment given to Scott by J.C. Walker. The piece Walker gave Scott had been taken down “from the memory of an old woman”, which had come into Walker’s possession via a friend of his, called Miss Brookes. One of the main editorial changes Scott made to Mrs Brown’s version was changing the burden of the verses. Scott presented the ballad with the “Binnorie” burden, while Mrs Brown’s versison originally had the “Edinburgh, Edinburgh” burden, as presented below.This ballad is also known as “The Twa Sisters”


This is one of the most well-known ballad tales. It exists in the singing traditions of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroës, as well as Scotland and England. Tales with a similar narrative were also recorded throughout Europe, and the ballad itself survived the transatlantic crossing to Canada and North America.

In almost all the versions, one sister kills the other out of envy. In the Scandinavian versions, it is often because the older sister is dark as soot, or the night, or the earth, while the younger is bright as the sun, white as milk or as ermine. This indicates that the older is ugly and the younger beautiful.  In other versions, the elder sister kills the younger because a man they both love favours the younger sister.

The crime is eventually discovered by means of an enchanted musical instrument, which plays a tune by itself and declaims the guilt of the elder sister – often at the moment of her wedding to the man both sisters loved. The instrument may be something a harp, a fiddle or a pipe, but in all cases, it has been created from the bones and body parts of the dead girl.


Due to the numerous versions of this ballad which have been collected over the years, there are various distinct variants. One of the most obvious, however, is the burden used in the singing of the ballad.

Scott favours the “Binnorie” burden:

There were two sisters sat in a bour;
                         Binnorie, O Binnorie ;
There came a knight to be their wooer ;
                         By the bonny milldams of Binnorie.


The other common burdens are the “Edinburgh, Edinburgh”  and the “Lay the bent to the bonny broom” variants. This first of these involves more repetition of the first line of the ballad, and is reminiscent to Mrs Brown’s original version:

There were two sisters sat in a bour;
                           Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
There were two sisters sat in a bour;
                           Stirling for aye!
There were two sisters sat in a bour;
There came a knight to be their wooer;
                           And bonny Sanct Johnstone stands upon Tay.


The second favours a narrative format, which differs from that which Scott included, and initially focuses on the difference in appearance between the sisters.

There was a lady by the North Sea Shore
  Lay the bent to the bonny broom
Two daughter were the babes she bore
  Fa la la la la la la la la la 

As one grew bright as is the sun
  Lay the bent to the bonny broom
So coal black grew the elder one
  Fa la la la la la la la la la

These are some of the main strands associated with this ballad. While they have different associated melodies, the tale remains the same.

The supernatural aspect of this ballad is in the magical musical instrument. This is not enchanted by the musician, but is a vehicle within the ballad narrative to provide justice, where justice otherwise would be impossible. In this aspect, at least, the character of the dead girl may be likened to those of condemned reivers. Revenge and retribution are more common in the ballad tradition than forgiveness.

The Characters

The characters in this ballad are standardised. They are not meant to represent any particular individual. To that end, the superior social standing is not unusual, although the high-born position of the two sisters is not established within the narrative until the closing verses, when their father and mother are referred to as the king and queen. High-born characters inhabit the ballad tradition, with lords and ladies outnumbering low-born characters and servants, and although the reiver ballads seem to be at variance to this, many of the historical individuals who are represented were members of the dominant families had titles.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to these versions of ballads which were published in the editions of The MInstrelsy of the Scottish Border .
Remember to log into your Spotify account

If there is a School of Scottish Studies Archive Audio Track related to a specific ballad, we have included this in the left sidebar.

Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border playlist