The Cruel Mither

(The Greenwoodside, Fair Flowers In The Forest)

She's leaned her back against an oak
All alone and alone-ey-o
She's pushed and she's pushed till her back's near broke
Doon by the bonny greenwoodside-ee-o

She's leaned her head below a thorn
The two bonniest babes that ever were born

She's looked ower her faither's castle wa
She spied two bonny babes playing with their ba

O, babes, o babes, gin ye were mine
I'd dress ye in the ribbons sae fine

O cruel mither, when we were thine
Around our necks you pulled the twine

Seven years a bird in the wood
Seven years a fish in the flood

Seven years the ringing of the bell
Seven years tae bide in hell

Welcome, welcome the ringing of the bell
But Guid keep me from the fires o hell

Gin: if
Guid keep me: God save me

Christine Kydd brought this ballad to Sangschule. She included it on her CD Dark Pearls and her note there says:
“This song is the ballad “The Cruel Mither (Child 20) set to the pipe tune “Greenwoodside”. I got the words and the tune from Elspeth Cowie and later added verses from the Greig- Duncan Collection. Elspeth, I believe, got the version she sings from Lizzie Higgins.”

Lizzie Higgins can be heard singing “The Cruel Mither” on

Her version is very similar to ours except that it ends with the children telling her she is bound for Hell, with no detail of the bird, the fish and the bell:
But we are in the Heaven sae high / And in the Hell’s fires you will die.

This is one of the most frequently recorded of all the ballads, the same story recurring under different names and with differing tunes. Several versions appear in The Greig-Duncan Collection vol.2, no.193. Duncan comments that those which end with the detailed verses about the mother’s fate tend to be Scottish, while those with a single verse about Hell, such as Lizzie’s, are more widespread. So according to Duncan’s theory, the ending chosen by Christine is more typically Scottish.

The same story with a different tune, “Fine Flowers in the Valley”, is included in The Scots Musical Museum Vol.3, p331, of 1792, with the refrain lines : Fine flowers in the valley / And the green leaves they grow rarely. Its last verse is O mother dear, when I was thine, you did na prove to me sae kind – a dramatic ending, at the point when we realise that the speaker is her dead child. Ewan MacColl quotes the Scots Musical Museum as the source for his version, one of the “muckle sangs” included in Scotland Sings.

In Traveller’s Joy: Songs of English and Scottish Travellers and Gypsies 1965-2005, editor Mike Yates includes two versions and comments that “this ballad of infanticide is surprisingly often sung to the most beautiful of tunes.”

Lizzie Higgins, born in 1929 in Aberdeen, was the famous daughter of a famous singer, Jeannie Robertson, a traveller who had moved into settled accommodation in Aberdeen. Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh first recorded Jeannie in 1953,collected her songs and brought her to prominence as a singer and tradition bearer, an important force in the Scottish Folk Revival.

Jeannie had married piper Donald Higgins and their daughter Lizzie was later recognized also as a great singer of the songs and ballads preserved by travellers, although she grew up as part of the settled community. Lizzie too was on that first 1953 recording and sang children’s street songs with her mother on an early record, according to Peter Hall in his notes on Lizzie’s album, Up and Awa Wi the Laverock. Peter Hall says that at first Lizzie “shied away from public singing, allowing her mother all the limelight.” Lizzie said “the folk scene claimed Jeannie, I didnae want it tae claim me.” He persuaded her to appear at a concert of traditional performers in 1967, when her impact was immediate.

Lizzie saw her mother’s voice as being suited to “big classical ballads” while viewing herself more as “a lyrical singer, in a lighter vein,” and influenced by her father’s piping style in her ornamentations of a tune, according to the biography Jeannie Robertson.

Lizzie told Ailie Munro in The Folk Music Revival in Scotland, p.216 : “To me, the Scottish balladry, the Scottish folk pipe singin’, is the word : magic. …I hope there’s millions will understand and find, in it, what is there. It’s about human beings, their loves, their liberty or their broken hearts…An’ if a person sings it with feeling, inside the inner them…they can feel this…they dinna need tae tak LSD to get the feeling, they can get it through singin’…And it’s a very very good thing for a man or a woman’s soul, to sing…”.