The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, by Walter Scott

Fair Helen of Kirconnell.

The following very popular ballad has been handed down by tradition in its present imperfect state. The affecting incident, on which it is founded, is well known. A lady, of the name of Helen Irving, or Bell,299 (for this is disputed by the two clans) daughter of the laird of Kirconnell, in Dumfries-shire, and celebrated for her beauty, was beloved by two gentlemen in the neighbourhood. The name of the favoured suitor was Adam Fleming, of Kirkpatrick; that of the other has escaped tradition; though it has been alleged, that he was a Bell, of Blacket House. The addresses of the latter were, however, favoured by the friends of the lady, and the lovers were therefore obliged to meet in secret, and by night, in the church-yard of Kirconnell, a romantic spot, surrounded by the river Kirtle. During one of those private interviews, the jealous and despised lover suddenly appeared on the opposite bank of the stream, and levelled his carabine at the breast of his rival. Helen threw herself before her lover, received in her bosom the bullet, and died in his arms. A desperate and mortal combat ensued between Fleming and the murderer, in which the latter was cut to pieces. Other accounts say, that Fleming pursued his enemy to Spain, and slew him in the streets of Madrid.

299 This dispute is owing to the uncertain date of the ballad; for, although the last proprietors if Kirconnell were Irvings, when deprived of their possession by Robert Maxwell in 1600, yet Kirconnell is termed in old chronicles The Bell’s Tower; and a stone, with the arms of that family, has been found among its ruins. Fair Helen’s sirname, therefore, depends upon the period at which she lived, which it is now impossible to ascertain.]

The ballad, as now published, consists of two parts. The first seems to be an address, either by Fleming or his rival, to the lady; if, indeed, it constituted any portion of the original poem. For the editor cannot help suspecting, that these verses have been the production of a different and inferior bard, and only adapted to the original measure and tune. But this suspicion, being unwarranted by any copy he has been able to procure, he does not venture to do more than intimate his own opinion. The second part, by far the most beautiful, and which is unquestionably original, forms the lament of Fleming over the grave of fair Helen.

The ballad is here given, without alteration or improvement, from the most accurate copy which could be recovered. The fate of Helen has not, however, remained unsung by modern bards. A lament, of great poetical merit, by the learned historian Mr Pinkerton, with several other poems on this subject, have been printed in various forms.

The grave of the lovers is yet shewn in the church-yard of Kirconnell, near Springkell. Upon the tomb-stone can still be read —Hie jacet Adamus Fleming; a cross and sword are sculptured on the stone. The former is called, by the country people, the gun with which Helen was murdered; and the latter, the avenging sword of her lover. Sit illis terra levis! A heap of stones is raised on the spot where the murder was committed; a token of abhorrence common to most nations.300

300 This practice has only very lately become obsolete in Scotland. The editor remembers, that, a few years ago, a cairn was pointed out to him in the King’s Park of Edinburgh, which had been raised in detestation of a cruel murder, perpetrated by one Nicol Muschet, on the body of his wife, in that place, in the year 1720.]

Fair Helen.

Part First.

O! sweetest sweet, and fairest fair,

Of birth and worth beyond compare,

Thou art the causer of my care,

Since first I loved thee.

Yet God hath given to me a mind,

The which to thee shall prove as kind

As any one that thou shalt find,

Of high or low degree.

The shallowest water makes maist din,

The deadest pool the deepest linn.

The richest man least truth within,

Though he preferred be.

Yet, nevertheless, I am content,

And never a whit my love repent,

But think the time was a’ weel spent,

Though I disdained be.

O! Helen sweet, and maist complete,

My captive spirit’s at thy feet!

Thinks thou still fit thus for to treat

Thy captive cruelly?

O! Helen brave! but this I crave,

Of thy poor slave some pity have,

And do him save that’s near his grave,

And dies for love of thee.

Fair Helen.

Part Second.

I wish I were where Helen lies!

Night and day on me she cries;

O that I were where Helen lies,

On fair Kirconnell Lee!

Curst be the heart, that thought the thought,

And curst the hand, that fired the shot,

When in my arms burd301 Helen dropt,

And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair,

When my love dropt down and spak nae mair!

There did she swoon wi’ meikle care,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

As I went down the water side,

None but my foe to be my guide.

None but my foe to be my guide,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

I lighted down, my sword did draw,

I hacked him in pieces sma,

I hacked him in pieces sma,

For her sake that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!

I’ll make a garland of thy hair,

Shall bind my heart for evermair,

Untill the day I die.

O that I were where Helen lies!

Night and day on me she cries;

Out of my bed she bids me rise,

Says, “haste, and come to me!”

O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!

If I were with thee I were blest,

Where thou lies low, and takes thy rest,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

I wish my grave were growing green,

A winding sheet drawn ower my een,

And I in Helen’s arms lying,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

I wish I were where Helen lies!

Night and day on me she cries;

And I am weary of the skies,

For her sake that died for me.

301 Burd Helen— Maid Helen.]

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29