DAY ONE: Scottish folk tradition of ballads about violence against women

Award-winning folk singer, songwriter and storyteller, Karine Polwart, reflects on a Scottish folk tradition of ballads about violence against women.

Karine Polwart

Featured image above: “St. Enoch nursing her son, St. Mungo” by Beth M527 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In the late 90s, I worked for domestic abuse charity, Scottish Women’s Aid. I was, simultaneously, also a fledgling folksinger, devouring field recordings from Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies and learning gritty ballads knee-to-knee from older singers in the city’s pub music sessions.   

I was amazed to find a Scots song tradition brimming with stories of violence against women. 

I heard ‘The Laird o the Dainty Dounby‘ from the great Gordeanna McCulloch. In it, the Laird asks a farmworker’s daughter: 

“O lassie, o lassie, whit would ye gie  (Oh girl, oh girl, what would you give)

if I was tae lie ae nicht wi ye?” (if I was to lie a night with you?)

She replies: 

“Tae lie ae nicht that will never, never be, (To lie a night, that will never, never be)

though you’re Laird o’ the Dainty Dounby” (even though you are the Laird of the Dainty Dounby)

The Laird “laid her doun” anyway. Indeed “it was a lang, lang time e’er he raised her up again”.

The daughter gets pregnant. The Laird weds her. Her family rejoices. It’s a jaunty song, often sung with a raised eyebrow.  

I find its jauntiness awful. 

In 2005, I recorded ‘The Ballad of Eppie Morrie’, arranged by my friend Corrina Hewat. It includes a visceral depiction of an attempted forced marriage, and Eppie’s tooth and nail fight against her abductor and would-be rapist, Willie. 

The Ballad of Eppie Morrie by Karan Casey

“Willie takes her to bed and attempts to sleep with her”, reads a 1970 field note entry, thus dodging a catalogue search under ‘rape’ on the sound archives portal Tobar an Dualchais/Kist O Riches. 

“In the morning, Eppie Morrie is still a virgin and is rescued by John Forsyth of Breadalbane”, the record continues. Eppie’s epic, night-long resistance, the reason so many women singers connect with this song, doesn’t merit a mention. 

As yet, there are no search options for ‘sexual violence’ or ‘domestic abuse’ on the Tobar an Dualchais website, though examples abound.  

In ‘The Bonnie Banks of Fordie/Airdrie’, a robber demands that each of three sisters marry him, stabbing two for their refusal. The third warns that her estranged brother will avenge them. When she reveals his name – Babylon – the robber realises he’s killed his own sisters. 

His crime against kin, and his subsequent suicide, are the dramatic denouement to this song. For the two young women he murders, his sisters, it’s not their story. It’s his.  

The Bonnie Banks o Fordie/Pennknivsmordaren by Malinky

Too often, it is. Australian writer Jane Gilmore addresses the contemporary centring of abusive men’s experiences via her Twitter tag #FixedIt. She edits news headlines which excuse men’s violence against women, underplay their criminal agency, and render abused women invisible[1].

Lassie Gaitherin Nuts’ is sung by legendary Traveller singers Jeannie Robertson and her daughter, Lizzie Higgins. It’s described in 1961 and 1970 field notes as a ‘bawdy song’ about a woman ‘taken advantage of by three men passing by’.  

It’s a song about the gang rape of a sleeping woman. #fixedit 

I’ve never heard this sung live. Would, could, anyone sing it now? On the 1970 tape, Lizzie Higgins describes the raped woman as a “silly lass”, which catches my breath. But in 2021, there’s plenty talk still of silly lassies and their responsibility for preventing crimes against their own bodies.  

In 2003, as a member of the band Malinky, I wrote a ballad in Scots called ’Thaney.  It’s a telling of the myth of St Enoch (aka. Thenew and Thaney), one of Glasgow’s two patron saints, known locally for the shopping centre and underground station named after her. Prior to reading Elspeth King’s ‘A History of Glasgow Women’, I assumed Enoch was a man. I suspect many assume so still. 

In medieval legend though, she was a 6th century princess, from the area now called Lothian. Thaney was banished from her father’s court for refusing to submit to a forced marriage. Whilst living in exile, the Welsh prince Owain mab Urien raped her, and she became pregnant by him.  

When he discovered her pregnancy, out of wedlock, Thaney’s father, Loth, ordered her execution. She was stoned and thrown from Traprain Law, East Lothian. But she survived, and was cast out in a coracle at Aberlady. She washed up safely across the Forth at Culross, where monks took her in, and her son, Mungo, was born.  

Elspeth King regards Thaney/Enoch as Scotland’s first recorded survivor of rape and domestic abuse. 

Thaney by Malinky

Mungo would become well known as Glasgow’s founding saint.  But Enoch is only in recent years more widely recognised in her own right. Here she is, nursing a baby Mungo, as represented by street artist, Smug: 

“St. Enoch nursing her son, St. Mungo” by Beth M527 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Glasgow’s founding story is bound up with rape, flight and refuge. Potentially, this speaks powerfully to the experiences of Glasgow women today, and to all those seeking asylum in the city in flight from gender-based violence, and other forms of persecution.  

The stories we remember, and keep alive, matter now.

Scotland’s vast intangible cultural heritage of myth, song and story has been passed orally from generation to generation across many centuries via the immense skills and knowledge of traditional singers and storytellers who went before us. Collectively, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to them, and to the fieldwork ethnologists, on which the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies Archives and other sound repositories have been built over the past seventy years. 

But we live in this time, not theirs.  As contemporary singers, storytellers, historians, and cultural institutions we need to reappraise the inequalities, injustices, cruelties and prejudices, which have been written and sung into our living traditions. And that requires careful, critical intervention in our archives and catalogues so that we can navigate and cherish these traditional sources with a contemporary understanding of violence against women, and gender-based violence.  

There’s work to do. 



[2] Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches  is a portal to a selection of sound archives from The School of Scottish Studies Archives, The Canna Collection (National Trust for Scotland) and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.

Author’s bio:

BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer Of The Year 2018, Karine Polwart is a multi-award winning Scottish songwriter and musician, as well as theatre-maker, storyteller, spoken-word performer and author. Her songs combine folk influences and myth with themes as diverse as Donald Trump’s corporate megalomania, Charles Darwin’s family life and the complexities of modern parenthood. She sings traditional songs too and writes to commission for film, theatre, animation and thematic collaborative projects. Karine is seven-times winner at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including three times for Best Original Song.

Further Resources

Spotify playlist provided by Karine Polwart for 16Days of Activism  is a portal to a selection of sound archives from The School of Scottish Studies Archives, The Canna Collection (National Trust for Scotland) and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.

School of Scottish Studies Archives

Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches 

Scottish Women’s Aid 

Rape Crisis Scotland 

Scottish Women’s Rights Centre 

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