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Origins: The Bonny Bairns

GUEST 11 Mar 15 - 09:46 PM
Jim Brown 13 Mar 15 - 07:37 AM
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Subject: Origins: The Bonny Bairns
Date: 11 Mar 15 - 09:46 PM

On her album Ghost (2014), Kate Rusby sings a song "The Bonny Bairns" which I found here:

It was collected by Allan Cunningham in 1825, Scottish of course. The words are as follows:
The lady she walk'd in yon wild wood
Aneath the hollin tree,
And she was aware of two bonnie bairns
Were running at her knee.

The tane it pull'd a red, red rose,
With a hand as soft as silk;
The other, it pull'd the lily pale,
With a hand mair white than milk.

Now, why pull ye the rose, fair bairns?
And why the white lilie?
O we sue wi' them at the seat of grace,
For the soul of thee, ladie!

O bide wi' me, my twa bonnie bairns!
I'll cleed ye rich and fine;
And all for the blaeberries of the wood,
Yese hae white bread and wine.

She heard a voice, a sweet low voice,
Say, weans, ye tarry lang—
She stretch'd her hand to the youngest bairn,
Kiss me before ye gang.

She sought to take a lily hand,
And kiss a rosie chin—
O, nought sae pure can bide the touch
Of a hand red-wet wi' sin!

The stars were shooting to and fro,
And wild fire fill'd the air,
As that lady follow'd thae bonnie bairns
For three lang hours and mair.

O! where dwell ye, my ain sweet bairns?
I'm woe and weary grown!
O! lady, we live where woe never is,
In a land to flesh unknown.

There came a shape which seemed to her
As a rainbow mang the rain,
And sair these sweet babes pled for her,
And they pled and pled in vain.

And O! and O! said the youngest babe,
My mother maun come in:
And O! and O! said the eldest babe,
Wash her twa hands frae sin.

And O! and O! said the youngest babe,
She nursed me on her knee:
And O! and O! said the eldest babe,
She's a mither yet to me.

And O! and O! said thae babes baith,
Take her where waters rin,
And white as the milk of her white breast,
Wash her twa hands from sin.
I'm trying to understand what's going on. The "woman alone in the woods with twa bairns" recalls "Cruel Mother," but in this case it seems like the babes adopt the woman to protect her from some creature. Is anyone familiar with this one?

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Bonny Bairns
From: Jim Brown
Date: 13 Mar 15 - 07:37 AM

Definitely echoes of "The Cruel Mother". It looks to me as if there "The Wife of Usher's Well" has influenced it too (the idea that the bairns are being called back to where they now belong). Rather than being a creature, it seems to me that the "shape which seemed to her as a rainbow mang the rain" is to be understood as a sign of the Divine Presence before which the bairns intercede for their mother. The rainbow in the rain can surely only represent something good, even if it is frightening for the mother because of her sinfulness. Presumably the "sweet low voice" comes from the same source. I'm not sure what to make of the ending. The bairns' intense pleading seems to invite us to imagine that the mother will be allowed "in" (presumably to Heaven) and washed clean of her sin, but we have previously been told that "they pled and pled in vain", so perhaps not.   

The book where the poem first appeared, Allan Cunningham's "The Songs of Scotland Ancient and Modern", vol. 2 is online at . The song is on pages 70-71, followed by Cunningham's note:

"I have ventured to arrange and eke out these old and remarkable verses, but I have no right to claim any more merit from their appearance than what arises from inducing the stream of the story to glide more smoothly away. It is seldom, indeed, that song has chosen so singular a theme, but the superstition it involves is current in Scotland."

Unfortunately, laying aside the rather unconvincing disclaimer of authorship, that doesn't add much information. What precisely is the "superstition" that he is referring to? That dead children intercede for their sinful parents? That the rainbow can be a sign of the presence of God?... ("Current in Scotland" also looks suspiciously vague compared with the notes to some of the others songs in the book, where he identifies particular localities or even says who he first heard the song from.)

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