The Flowers Of The Forest

by Jane Elliot, (1727 – 1805)

I’ve heard them liltin at the yowe-milkin
Lassies a-liltin before dawn o day
But noo there’s a moanin on ilka green loanin
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede away

At buchts in the morning, nae blithe lads are scornin
Lasses are lanely, dowie and wae
Nae daffin, nae gabbin, but sighin and sabbin
Ilk ane lifts her leglin an hies her away

At e’en in the gloamin, nae swankies are roamin
‘Bout stacks wi the lasses at bogle to play
But ilk ane sits drearie, lamentin her dearie
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede away

In hairst at the shearin, nae youths noo are jeerin
Bandsters are rankled, an lyart, an grey
At fair or at preachin, nae wooin nae fleechin
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede away

Dool for the order sent oor lads tae the border
The English, for ance, by guile won the day
The Flooers o the Forest that foucht aye the foremost
The prime o oor land lies cauld in the clay

We’ll hae nae mair liltin at the yowe-milkin
Women and bairns are heartless and wae
Sighin an moanin on ilka green loanin
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede away

Bandsters: sheaf-binders, usually men
Bogle: ghost
'Bout stacks : hide and seek round about the stacks
Buchts: sheep-folds
Daffin; joking
Dowie: sad
E'en: evening
Fleechin: flattering, coaxing
Gabbin: chattering
Gloamin: twilight
Hairst: harvest
Hies her away: hurries off
Ilka: every
Leglin: milk-pail
Liltin: singin; ewe-milking
Loanin: grassy milking-place
Lyart: grizzled
Rankled: wrinkled
Scorning: teasing
Shearin: cutting the corn
Swankies: smart young men
Wede away: weeded out, dead

Eileen Penman brought this lament for the Battle of Flodden to Sangschule.

Sangschule’s home town, Linlithgow, has a particular connection with James IV and the Battle of Flodden. The king had turned Linlithgow Palace into a modern royal residence. As he prayed in the nearby church, before setting out to war with England, he was accosted by a strange looking figure dressed in blue with long red-yellow hair who said to him “ Sir King, my Mother hath sent me to you, desiring you not to pass, at this Time, where thou art purposed; for, if thou does, thou wilt not fare well in thy Journey, nor none that passeth with thee.” After further advice to beware of women, this person “vanished away betwixt them, and was no more seen.” The apparition did not deter James from his purpose, and he journeyed south to his death.

His queen was said to have looked in vain from the upper room known as Queen Margaret’s bower, for his return.

George Waldie’s 19th C book Linlithgow , republished in facsimile by West Lothian Council in 1982, quotes this story as told by Lindsay of Pitscottie, (P.46)and describes it as a ludicrous attempt to awe the King into giving up the disastrous expedition. (The attempt may have been made on behalf of the Queen - he was after all going to war against his in-laws.)

In Chambers Scottish Songs and Ballads, editor Nancy Marshall says:
“Jane Elliot, born in 1727, was the third daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot, second baronet of Minto and Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland. It is said that while driving home late one evening to Minto house, she and her brother Gilbert reflected on the damage done to the countryside and the people of Ettrick by the Battle of Flodden, where 10,000 Scots perished with their leader James IV. At Gilbert’s suggestion Jane, there and then, began to compose new lyrics to fit this ancient air. She has created an elegiac tribute to the men of Ettrick Forest who fell at Flodden.”

Sir Walter Scott includes the song in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and claims to have excellent authority for stating “that the tune of the ballad is ancient, as well as the two following lines of the first stanzas:-
“I’ve heard them lilting at the ewes milking, / The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.”

John Loesberg who includes the song in his Traditional Folksongs and Ballads of Scotland also refers to an old harp tune appearing in the Skene MS (c.1630) and “fragments of the older song”.
This tune “The Flowres of the Forrest” can be heard on

Loesberg’s note says that the song “speaks of the battle of Flodden (Sept. 9th, 1513.) On that day King James IV, and the cream of Scottish nobility were slain by the troops of Henry VIII. The King, nine earls, fourteen lords, the chiefs of many Highland clans, as well as thousands of nameless rank and file were massacred.”

“The forest alluded to is the district containing the whole of Selkirkshire, parts of Peebleshire, and some of Clydesdale, which at one stage was a favourite hunting resort of the Scottish Kings and nobles.” Loesberg speculates that the ‘flowers’ of the song may refer to the quality of the archers and footsoldiers that came from this forest area.

A third song with this title is also quoted by Scott, written by a lady well-known to him, a Mrs Cockburn, who died in 1803. The last verse shows her very different style: “O fickle Fortune! why this cruel sporting?/Why thus perplex us poor sons of a day?/ Thy frowns cannot fear me, thy smiles cannot cheer me,/ Since the flowers of the forest are a’ wede awae”