The Wife of Usher’s Well

  1. History

The Supernatural Ballads title image


Scott included this ballad in the first edition of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, presenting it in the second volume, under the “Romantic Ballads”.  Scott was the first to publish a version of this ballad, and his version came from an old woman who lived in Kirkhill, in West Lothian. The area is now part of Broxburn.

There is no physical geography connected to Usher’s Well. Instead, it is a ballad location, such as Garland Town and Strawberry Castle, which cannot be mapped, and the ballad is perhaps all the better for it.

“The Wife of Usher’s Well” is, in effect, a ghost story, with three sons returning to their mother, but not being quite as they appear.



Although there is no event or individual connected with this ballad, the presentation of the three dead sons is worthy of some comment. The dead of the ballads are presented as revenants, rather than ghosts. They have a physical presence, can only walk abroad during the hours of night, and return to their graves. Remarks regarding the taste of clay on lips, paleness, and coldness of skin indicates that these are the walking dead, affected by their dead state, rather than ghosts. They should not be associated with the draugr or haugbui of Scandinavian sagas and tradition,such as the infamous Thorolf of the Ergybbyga Saga nor the revenants discussed in Mediaeval chronicles, such as those included in the Historia rerum Anglicarum, composed by William of Newburgh.

For a translation of the example of the walking dead discussed in the Historia rerum Anglicarum follow this link.

Ballad revenants  are not usually violent against their family. They generally return to converse with the living because they need the living to do something for them, whether this is to stop excessive grieving, or to return a love troth. The three revenant sons in this ballad, however, appear to return through the power, rather than simply the grief of their mother

There are exceptions, as in the case of the infanticide in “The Cruel Mother” where the revenant children provide the voice of conscience and in some versions provide a warning for their murderous mother.

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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