The Twa Corbies

Tune: Breton Al Alarc’h arranged by M. Blythman

As I was walkin all alane
I heard twa corbies makin mane
The tane untae the tither did say-o
Whaur shall we gang an dine the day-o,
whaur shall we gang an dine the day?

It's in ahint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight
Naebody kens that he lies there-o
But his hawk an his hound an his lady fair-o,
His hawk an his hound an his lady fair

His hound is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild fowl hame
His lady's taen anither mate-o
Sae we may mak oor dinner swate-o,
sae we may mak oor dinner swate

It's ye 'll sit on his white hause bane
An I'll pike oot his bonny blue een
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair-o
We'll theek oor nest when it grows bare-o,
We'll theek oor nest when it grows bare

There's mony an ane for him maks mane
But nane shall ken whaur he is gane
Ower his white banes when they grow bare-o
The wind shall blaw for evermair-o,
The wind shall blaw for evermair

Ahint: behind
Corbies: carrion crows
Fail dyke: a field wall built or covered with sods
Gouden: golden
Hause-bane: collarbone
Mane: moan
The tane: the one
The tither: the other
Sall: shall
Swate: sweet
Theek: cover, thatch
Whaur: where
Wot: know as a fact

This ballad, brought to us by Christine Kydd, is included in 101 Scottish Songs, the “wee red book” of the Folksong Revival of the 50s and 60s and acquired its tune at that time from Morris Blythman who had been on holiday in Brittany and noticed that when this Breton war-song was sung the old men in the bar who had dozed off would wake up to join in the chorus.

Morris’s friend, and the editor of the “wee red book”, Norman Buchan says:

“This is one of the greatest of all our ballads. But a ballad is only a ballad when it is sung. It lacked a tune, and I had never heard any successful attempt at providing a setting for it. This tune, an ancient Breton war song, was taught to Morris Blythman by the Breton folk-singer Zaig Montjarret, and he set the Scottish ballad to it. The result is astonishingly right. There is a curious submerged lilt in the tune which exactly sets the mood of the poem, with the jaunty chatter of the crows as against the macabre theme of their talk.”

Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border includes this ballad saying that it was “communicated to him by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Esq., of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady.” He quotes an English version, “The Three Ravens”, noting the coincidence that they should be so similar and yet so distinct from one another. Later commentators have wondered whether Scott’s hand has been upon the Scottish version.

The earliest printed source of “The Three Ravens” is 1611, when it was adapted to 4 voices. It was reprinted in Ritson’s Ancient Songs. In the English version, the knight’s “leman” or lover comes and finds him, carries him on her back, gives him burial and dies herself. “God send every gentleman / Such haukes, such houndes, and such a leman.”