Stories behind the Songs

Robert Burns
The Stories
Behind the Songs

Ye Banks and Braes

Man was made to Mourn

To Mary in Heaven

The Lass of Ballochmyle

Kirkconnel Lee

Ye Banks and Braes or The Banks O' Doon
Midi sequence by Barry Taylor.

Burns first wrote the song "Ye Flowery Banks" but extensively revised this, for inclusion in Johnson's Scots Museum, into Ye Banks and Braes.

The subject of the song, Peggy Kennedy, ( see also Young Peggy Blooms ) was a niece of Mrs Gavin Hamilton, a born heiress to a considerable estate in Carrick, to which she ultimately succeeded. At the age of seventeen she was the betrothed bride of Captain Maxwell, the M.P. for Wigtownshire. However she had an affair with McDouall of Logan - see last verse

An my fause lover staw my rose ( My false lover took my virginity )
But, ah! he left the thorn wi' me ( and left me holding the baby! )

I have many CDs and attend many functions where a male sings this song and changes the last line to - But, ah! she left the thorn wi' me. This is impossible. This song can not, should not, must not be sung by a male.

Ten years after the birth, the lady was advised to raise an action against the father of the child. An action to prove marriage and legitimacy. She died shortly after the process was instituted, probably the victim of anguished feelings. The case continued on her daughter's behalf. In 1798 the Judges pronounced in favour of the marriage, but the Court of Session, on revue, reversed the decision and ordered a payment of £3000 to the daughter.

Man was made to Mourn
The indignation with which Burns through his life contemplated the inequality of human condition, and particularly the contrast between his own intellectual strength and his worldly circumstances, were never more bitterly expressed than in some stanzas of this poem. The hint for this production was derived from an old Scots dirge called "The Life and Age of Man" which his mother had committed to memory while yet a little girl.

Burns tells Mrs Dunlop in one of his letters that an old grand-uncle of his, with whom his mother was brought up experienced great joy in sitting in front of the fire and crying while she sang the metrical history of man.

To Mary in Heaven
Still o'er these scenes my mem'ry wakes
And fondly broods with miser care
Time but th'impression stronger makes
As streams their channels deeper wear

This poem can be found under different titles, which can sometimes make it difficult to find in an index. It is more commonly titled "Thou Lingering Star" but can also be found as "My Mary, Dear Departed Shade"

The first line is "Thou Lingering Star"
This poem was composed around the 3rd anniversary of the death of Mary Campbell. Burns sent the manuscript on 8th Nov 1789 to Mrs Dunlop for her opinion as he was too interested in the subject of it to be a critic.

The poet was beginning to despair of the success of Ellisland Farm and sinking into an unwholesome despondency. In another letter to Mrs Dunlop dated 13th December there is a long rhapsody about meeting his pre-deceased friends in the better world, particularly his venerated father, and his Kilmarnock friend Robert Muir before he concludes

"There should I again recognise my lost, my ever dear Mary, whose besom was fraught with truth, honour, constancy, and love. My Mary, dear departed shade, where is thy place of heavenly rest. Jesus Christ thou amiablest of all characters. I trust thou art no imposter etc. he signed the letter - le pauvre miserable"

The Lass of Ballochmyle

Wilhemina Alexander, the Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle and the daughter of the owner of Ballochmyle Estate was walking along the banks of the river Ayr, when Burns saw her and wrote the song. He did not know her personally but knew who she was. He sent the song to her, with a letter explaining how it had come to be written, but she did not even have the goodness to acknowledge receipt of it. Burns was hurt, because he knew he had written a masterpiece.
Later on, after his death and when he was being hailed as Scotland's National Bard, she not only erected a memorial grotto on the spot where the poet had espied her but had the song framed and hung on the wall of her dining room. She then exhibited the song with pride on any occasions she could. She died at 87.

Kirkconnel Lee

Midi sequence by Barry Taylor.

This old ballad tells the story of Helen Irvine of Kirkconnel. Kirkconnel lee was a small hamlet close to the village of Eaglesfield in Dumfriesshire. The bower in which Helen lived was within the grounds of Springkell Estate. She had two suitors one of whom shot at his rival, but Helen, thrusting herself in front of her lover, Adam Fleming, received the fatal wound instead. Fleming killed the assailant on the spot, but fled the country to avoid the legal process and enlisted in the Spanish Army. Years later, he returned to Kirkconnel and died by Helen's grave. He was interred alongside her. This tragic event took place in the 16th Century. Burns extensively reworked the ballad for both Johnson and Thomson, writing to the latter in 1798 that the original is "silly, to contemptibility"

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