In this ballad the reader will find traces of a singular superstition, not yet altogether discredited in the wilder parts of Scotland. The lykewake, or watching a dead body, in itself a melancholy office, is rendered, in the idea of the assistants, more dismally awful, by the mysterious horrors of superstition. In the interval betwixt death and interment, the disembodied spirit is supposed to hover around its mortal habitation, and, if invoked by certain rites, retains the power of communicating, through its organs, the cause of its dissolution. Such enquiries, however are always dangerous, and never to be resorted to unless the deceased is suspected to have suffered foul play, as it is called. It is the more unsafe to tamper with this charm, in an unauthorized manner; because the inhabitants of the infernal regions are, at such periods, peculiarly active. One of the most potent ceremonies in the charm, for causing the dead body to speak, is, setting the door ajar, or half open. On this account, the peasants of Scotland sedulously avoid leaving the door ajar, while a corpse lies in the house. The door must either be left wide open, or quite shut; but the first is always preferred, on account of the exercise of hospitality usual on such occasions. The attendants must be likewise careful never to leave the corpse for a moment alone, or, if it is left alone, to avoid, with a degree of superstitious horror, the first sight of it. The following story, which is frequently related by the peasants of Scotland, will illustrate the imaginary danger of leaving the door ajar. In former times, a man and his wife lived in a solitary cottage, on one of the extensive border fells. One day, the husband died suddenly; and his wife, who was equally afraid of staying alone by the corpse, or leaving the dead body by itself, repeatedly went to the door, and looked anxiously over the lonely moor, for the sight of some person approaching. In her confusion and alarm, she accidentally left the door ajar, when the corpse suddenly started up, and sat in the bed, frowning and grinning at her frightfully. She sat alone, crying bitterly, unable to avoid the fascination of the dead man’s eye, and too much terrified to break the sullen silence, till a catholic priest, passing over the wild, entered the cottage. He first set the door quite open, then put his little finger in his mouth, and said the paternoster backwards; when the horrid look of the corpse relaxed, it fell back on the bed, and behaved itself as a dead man ought to do.
The ballad is given from tradition.
Of a’ the maids o’ fair Scotland,
The fairest was Marjorie;
And young Benjie was her ae true love,
And a dear true love was he.
And wow! but they were lovers dear,
And loved fu’ constantlie;
But ay the mair when they fell out,
The sairer was their plea.274
And they hae quarrelled on a day,
Till Marjorie’s heart grew wae;
And she said she’d chuse another luve,
And let young Benjie gae.
And he was stout,275 and proud-hearted,
And thought o’t bitterlie;
And he’s ga’en by the wan moon-light,
To meet his Marjorie.
“O open, open, my true love,
“O open, and let me in!”
“I dare na open, young Benjie,
“My three brothers are within.”
“Ye lied, ye lied, ye bonny burd,
“Sae loud’s I hear ye lie;
“As I came by the Lowden banks,
“They bade gude e’en to me.
“But fare ye weel, my ae fause love,
“That I hae loved sae lang!
“It sets276 ye chuse another love,
“And let young Benjie gang.”
Then Marjorie turned her round about,
The tear blinding her ee —
“I darena, darena, let thee in,
“But I’ll come down to thee.”
Then saft she smiled, and said to him,
“O what ill hae I done?”
He took her in his armis twa,
And threw her o’er the linn.
The stream was strang, the maid was stout,
And laith laith to be dang,277
But, ere she wan the Lowden banks,
Her fair colour was wan.
Then up bespak her eldest brother,
“O see na ye what I see?”
And out then spak her second brother,
“Its our sister Marjorie!”
Out then spak her eldest brother,
“O how shall we her ken?”
And out then spak her youngest brother,
“There’s a honey mark on her chin.”
Then they’ve ta’en up the comely corpse,
And laid it on the ground —
“O wha has killed our ae sister,
“And how can he be found?
“The night it is her low lykewake,
“The morn her burial day,
“And we maun watch at mirk midnight,
“And hear what she will say.”
Wi’ doors ajar, and candle light,
And torches burning clear;
The streikit corpse, till still midnight,
They waked, but naething hear.
About the middle o’ the night.
The cocks began to craw;
And at the dead hour o’ the night,
The corpse began to thraw.
“O wha has done the wrang, sister,
“Or dared the deadly sin?
“Wha was sae stout, and feared nae dout,
“As thraw ye o’er the linn?”
“Young Benjie was the first ae man
“I laid my love upon;
“He was sae stout and proud-hearted,
“He threw me o’er the linn.”
“Sall we young Benjie head, sister,
“Sall we young Benjie hang,
“Or sall we pike out his twa gray een,
“And punish him ere he gang?”
“Ye mauna Benjie head, brothers,
“Ye mauna Benjie hang,
“But ye maun pike out his twa gray een,
“And punish him ere he gang.
“Tie a green gravat round his neck,
“And lead him out and in,
“And the best ae servant about your house
“To wait young Benjie on.
“And ay, at every seven year’s end,
“Ye’ll tak him to the linn;
“For that’s the penance he maun drie,
“To scug278 his deadly sin.”
274 Plea— Used obliquely for dispute.]
275 Stout— Through this whole ballad, signifies haughty.]
276 Sets ye— Becomes you — ironical.]
277 Dang— defeated.]
278 Scug— shelter or expiate.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00