top of page

Dowie Dens of Yarrow - Shelagh McDonald

Shortly after my sister's divorce she sold their large country village house and downsized to a small but pretty semidetached house in the city of Buckingham some 7 miles away. She moved with her youngest twenty-something daughter and their two brother and sister cats, Bonnie and Clyde. The cats were close, from the same litter, and had always got on pretty well. After a month or so it seemed that the cats had settled into their new abode, coming and going as they pleased as cats do, when one night Bonnie didn't come home. As it is not uncommon for adult cats to spend a night on the tiles every now and then, they waited another night and when there was still no sign of her they then declared a state of emergency. They put up little laminated "Lost Cat" signs in the vicinity of their new home but as they also had heard the cats often returned to their old homes, they put the signs up and looked for her in the village where they used to live. After an exhausting week of painstaking searching along the fairly busy A road there, about four miles out, they found the very flat remnants of a black cat my niece was able, tearfully, to identify as Bonnie, which they took home and buried with all familial honours in their back garden. Imagine their surprise when a further week later on a warm summer's afternoon, Bonnie strolled in to their house through the open French windows as though she'd never been away. As they exclaimed with joy and hugged and petted the returning prodigal feline, my sister noticed Clyde get off the sofa where he'd been sleeping, and saunter out into the garden and off round the side of the building. He never came back.

"Dowie Dens of Yarrow" is a traditional song of the notorious border reiver country. The area on either side of the Anglo/Scottish border was plagued by generation after generation of cross border raiding and banditry from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century until the harsh living conditions prompted large scale emigration from the area.

"At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land (ie the Borders) the threads came together again: the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes .....were standing side by side , and it took very little imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts.................The British and their kinsmen in America and the Commonwealth, count themselves civilised, and conceive of their savage ancestors as being buried in the remote past. The past is sometimes quite close; these ancestors of Presidents Nixon and Johnson, of Billy Graham and T S Eliot, of Sir Alec Douglas Home and the first man on the moon, are not many generations away. - George MacDonald Fraser, Introduction to "The Steel Bonnets".

Perhaps the Watergate affair shouldn't have been such a surprise after all.

So we shouldn't be surprised at the violence and tragedy of the story sung so beautifully by Shelagh McDonald. From the aforementioned "Stargazer" album (see previous post), it tells the story of a fair maid who was "courted by nine gentlemen and a ploughboy fra Yarrow" who determine to all fight each other for her hand. The ploughboy kills or sees off all nine of them "one by one" but while dispatching the last one, the heroine's brother "came in from behind, and murdered him most foully". When she finds out what happened to her preferred suitor she is distraught.

Her hair it was three quarters long, the colour it was yellow. She's wrapped it round his middle so small and bore him off frae Yarrow.

Oh, father dear, you've seven sons, you may wed them all tomorrow, but the fairest floo'er among them all was the lad that they slew on Yarrow.

There is deep tragedy in this song, in the words, in the inevitability of the doomridden melody that resonates the relentless years of killing and plunder. It is based on a real incident that took place in the seventeenth century, though the details of what actually happened have become unclear over time. McDonald sings it as a t, hard, tough tale, softened yet intensified by the delicate detail of the lady's hair "wrapped .... round" the ploughboy's "middle" and her reference to him as a "floo'er".

bottom of page