FolkWorld #68 03/2019
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Binnorie, by John D. Batten: English Fairy Tales, 1898

The Child Ballads

Songs That Made History: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads collected by Francis J. Childs in the 19th century still prove popular. Recent recordings include Iona Fyfe and Steeleye Span (The Twa Sisters), The Outside Track (The Wife of Usher's Well), and Helen Flaherty (The Outlandish Knight).

The Twa Sisters

"The Two Sisters" is a Northumbrian murder ballad that recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her sister. It is first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656 as "The Miller and the King's Daughter." At least 21 English variants exist under several names, including "Minnorie" or "Binnorie", "The Cruel Sister", "The Wind and Rain", "Dreadful Wind and Rain", "Two Sisters", "The Bonny Swans" and the "Bonnie Bows of London". The ballad was collected by Francis J. Child (Child 10) and is also listed in the Roud Folk Song Index.


Iona Fyfe

Iona Fyfe: Away From My Window
»I met Pete Coe at The Star Folk Club in Glasgow in 2016 and was taken aback by the similarities, differences and links between English and Scottish folksong. I discovered his project with Alice Jones, The Search for Five Finger Frank, and was drawn to their version of The Swan Swims So Bonny. The melody was collected by Frank Kidson from Alfred Mooney of Liverpool. This version is relatively close to the version which was taught to me by Fiona Hunter at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. One of the most popular ballads, The Twa Sisters is found in several song traditions the world over. Child was given twenty-seven versions of this ballad from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland,—the largest number he obtained of any ballad. The ballad has several different titles, The Twa Sisters, Binnorie, The Swan Swims Sae Bonnie, The Wind and Rain, Bows of London. A muckle ballad, many source singers of Aberdeenshire such as Betsy Whyte, Elisabeth Stewart, Lucy Stewart and John Strachan have recorded a variant of the ballad. The earliest record of the ballad in Britain is a broadside from the 17th century. Paul Bewster is of the opinion that the ballad originated in Norway prior to the 17th century and travelled to other Scandinavian countries before reaching Scotland and England.«

Artist Video Iona Fyfe @ FROG

Two sisters go down by a body of water, sometimes a river and sometimes the sea. The older one pushes the younger in and refuses to pull her out again; generally the lyrics explicitly state her intent to drown her younger sister. Her motive, when included in the lyrics, is sexual jealousy – in some variants, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor; in others, the elder sister's affections are not encouraged by the young man. In a few versions, a third sister is mentioned, but plays no significant role in events. In most versions, the older sister is described as dark, while the younger sister is fair.

When the murdered girl's body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of it, generally a harp or a fiddle, with a frame of bone and the girl's "long yellow hair" (or "golden hair") for strings. The instrument then plays itself and sings about the murder. In some versions, this occurs after the musician has taken it to the family's household, so that the elder sister is publicly revealed (sometimes at her wedding to the murdered girl's suitor) as the murderess.

It should be noted that the variant titled The Two Sisters typically omits the haunted instrument entirely, ending instead with an unrelated person (often a miller) executed for robbing the murdered girl's corpse and the elder sister sometimes going unpunished, or sometimes boiled in lead.

Parallels in other languages

Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span)

Steeleye Span: Dodgy Bastards
»There are many versions of this tale. In this one the elder sister, witnessing a suitor’s preference for her younger sister, pushes her into the water and the younger drowns. On finding her body, the King’s harpist, who happens to be passing decides (in true ballad style!) to make her corpse into a harp. He takes this instrument to court to play for the assembled royalty but the harp starts to play on its own. We realise that the two sisters are the daughters of the King and Queen and the younger’s dead, but now the harp incarnation proceeds to reveal the elder’s foul deed.«

Artist Video Steeleye Span @ FROG

The theme of this ballad was common in many northern European languages. There are 125 different variants known in Swedish alone. Its general Scandinavian classification is TSB A 38; and it is (among others) known as Den talende strængelek or De to søstre (DgF 95) in Danish, Hørpu ríma (CCF 136) in Faroese, Hörpu kvæði (IFkv 13) in Icelandic, Dei tvo systar in Norwegian, and De två systrarna (SMB 13) in Swedish. It has also spread further south; for example, as Gosli iz človeškega telesa izdajo umor (A Fiddle Made from a Human Body Reveals a Murder) in Slovenian.

In the Norse variants, the older sister is depicted as dark and the younger as fair, often with great contrast, comparing the one to soot or the other to the sun or milk. This can inspire taunts from the younger about the older's looks.

In most of the Norwegian and some of the Swedish variants, the story ends by the instrument being broken and the younger sister coming alive again. In a few, she was not actually drowned, but saved and nursed back to health; she tells the story herself.

This tale is also found in prose form, in fairy tales such as The Singing Bone, where the siblings are brothers instead of sisters. This is widespread throughout Europe; often the motive is not jealousy because of a lover, but the younger child's success in winning the object that will cure the king, or that will win the father's inheritance.

In Polish literature from the romanticism period, a similar theme is found in Balladyna (1838) by Juliusz Słowacki. Two sisters engage in a raspberry-gathering contest to decide which of them gets to marry Prince Kirkor. When the younger Alina wins, the older Balladyna kills her. Finally, she is killed by a bolt of lightning in an act of divine retribution.

A Hungarian version exists, where a king has three daughters. The older two are bad and ugly and envy the younger child sister because of her beauty. One day, they murder her in the forest and place her corpse inside a fiddle. The fiddle plays music on its own and eventually is given to the royal family. The fiddle does not play for the evil sisters, but the princess is restored to life once her father tries to play it. The sisters are imprisoned, but the good princess pardons them once she becomes queen.

The ballad also appears in a number of guises in Scottish Gaelic, under the name 'A' Bhean Eudach' or 'The Jealous Woman'. In many of the Scottish Gaelic variants the cruel sister murders her sibling while she is sleeping by knotting her hair into the seaweed on a rock at low tide. When she wakes the tide is coming in fast and as she is drowning she sings the song 'A' Bhean Eudach' detailing her tragic end.

Connections to other ballads

As is frequently found with traditional folksongs, versions of The Twa Sisters are associated with tunes that are used in common with several other ballads. For example, at least one variant of this ballad ("Cruel Sister") uses the tune and refrain from "Lay the bent to the bonny broom", a widely used song (whose original lyrics are lost) which is also used, for example, by some versions of "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child 1).

Canadian singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt's song "The Bonny Swans" is a pastiche of several traditional variants of the ballad. The first stanza mentions the third sister, but she subsequently disappears from the narrative. The song recounts a tale in which a young woman is drowned by her jealous older sister in an effort to gain the younger sister's beloved. The girl's body washes up near a mill, where the miller's daughter mistakes her corpse for that of a swan. Later, after she is pulled from the water, a passing harper fashions a harp from the bones and hair of the dead girl; the harp plays alone, powered by the girl's soul. The harp is brought to her father's hall and plays before the entire court, telling of her sister's crime. The song also mentions her brother named Hugh, and her beloved William, and gives a name to the older sister, Anne.

An early Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, "The Sisters", also bears a resemblance to the ballad: a sister scorned in love who murders the lover of her sister, and possibly the sister too, out of jealousy.

Versions and settings

Classic English and Scottish Ballads
The Two Sisters (Child No. 10)
Ellen Stekert, vocal and guitar

Roud 8; also known as "The Twa Sisters," "Binnorie," "The Miller and King's Daughter," "The Cruel Sister," "Dreadful Wind and Rain"; recorded 1958)

»Child noted, "This [was] one of the very few old ballads which are not extinct in tradition in the British Isles". Thanks to the folk song scholarship of individuals like Child and the folk song revivals of the 20th century, many more are now back in circulation. Child found two versions of the song published in the 1650s. It is found throughout the British Isles but was also quite popular in Scandinavia.
In the song, a sister drowns her younger sister (or this case, the elder) in jealousy over a man. Like many of the old ballads, it takes on supernatural features. The body is recovered from the river by a miller (harpist) and made into a harp. The newly made singing harp sings the song of the murder.
Folklorist and singer Ellen Stekert (b. 1935) learned this ballad from an old lumberjack, Ezra Fuzzy Barhight of Cohocton, New York, in the course of collecting folk songs in New York State. In her notes she stated that Paul Brewster believes the song was Scandinavian and spread to the British Isles.«

Artist Video "Classic English and Scottish Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways (from The Francis James Child Collection)", Smithsonian Folkways, 2017

Ellen Stekert

Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson: True Stories
»Among the many ballads of the supernatural is The Wind and the Rain, aka The Two Sisters or The Cruel Sister. Constructing a musical instrument from a newly drowned girl is an odd way to demonstrate compassion. The itinerant musician who performs the lutherie is variously a harper, a fiddle player and a banjo player. The completed instrument in some versions points out the guilty party, or as here, refuses to play anything cheerful. This is an English version of an American version of a Scots ballad.«

Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh (Altan) Gráinne Holland

»[Altan] have already recorded a Gaelic version of this, entitled A Bhean Udaí Thall on their second album, "Horse with a Heart". It is a murder ballad that tells a tale of jealousy and deceit between the older and the younger sister and how a travelling fiddler recreates an instrument from the bones and hair of the murdered sister's corpse. Gory stuff indeed!« (Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh)

»Versions of this song are to be found in Gaeltacht regions in both Ireland and Scotland, though this song appears to have a particular connection to Rann na Feirste, Co. Donegal.« (Gráinne Holland)


Malinky: Far Better Days
»This is a Swedish version of the weel-kent ballad which Steve translated into Scots. We first heard this during a tour of Sweden in 2003 when we were introduced to the music of the band Folk och Rackare, as Malinky had been advertised as “The Scottish Folk och Rackare”—namely a band which took old traditional ballads and made them anew. We were delighted to perform a dual Swedish/Scots version with the band Ranarim at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in 2007. The harp metaphor is often found as a fiddle in Scottish versions.«

Peggy Seeger

»Sister drowning sister, brother stabbing brother, fathers burning their daughters at the stake, mothers strangling their babies ... ah, family life! Blood runs thicker than water, they say, and in the old ballads it's a red tide of resentment, mayhem and murder.«

The Wife of Usher's Well

"The Wife of Usher's Well" is a traditional ballad, catalogued as Child Ballad 79; it is originally from Britain but is also popular in North America. No complete original version has survived, but the song has been 'remade' in America in a cohesive form.

The Outside Track

The Outside Track: Rise Up
»The Wife of Usher's Well is a song that has travelled from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and back again. It's a tragic tale of a mother who sends her three children away to school, only for them to sadly pass away. She then imagines them coming home for one last supper, wishing in her heart they could stay.«

The Outside Track @ FROG

The ballad concerns a woman from Usher's Well, who sends her three sons away, to school in some versions, and a few weeks after learns that they had died. The woman grieves bitterly for the loss of her children, cursing the winds and sea.

"I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come home to me,
In earthly flesh and blood."

Askew Sisters

Askew Sisters: In the Air or the Earth
»Many of the songs on this album deal with that most human fascination with life, death and the boundaries in between. The Wife of Usher's Well is the tragic story of a woman who loses her three sons. Most versions of this song were collected in America, where it often gained a Christian context. Our version is based on an older text collected from an old woman in Kirkill, West Lothian, and published by Sir Walter Scott in 1833, which hints that the wife has more mystical powers. These old ballads don't dwell on emotion and are often told in the plainest terms, yet somehow every line of this song aches with the wife's agonising grief and desperation to bring her sons back.«

Artist Video Askew Sisters @ FROG

The song implicitly draws on an old belief that one should mourn a death for a year and a day, for any longer may cause the dead to return; it has this in common with the ballad "The Unquiet Grave". When, around Martinmas, the children return to their mother they do so as revenants, not, as she hoped, "in earthly flesh and blood", and it is a bleak affair. They wear hats made of birch, which is said to protect the dead from the influences of the living, from a tree that grows at the gates of Paradise. The mother expects a joyous reunion, in some versions preparing a celebratory feast for them, which, as subjects of Death, they are unable to eat. They consistently remind her that they are no longer living; they are unable to sleep as well and must depart at the break of day.

"The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin worm doth chide;
Gin we be mist out o our place,
A sair pain we maun bide."

The most popular versions in America have a different tone and an overtly religious nature. They return at Christmas rather than Martinmas, and happily return to their Savior at the end. Indeed, Jesus may speak to the Wife at the end, telling her she had nine days to repent; she dies at that time and is taken to heaven.

The ballad has much in common with some variants of "The Clerk's Twa Sons O Owsenford". The Christmas appearance has been cited to explain why, in that ballad, the two sons are executed, but their father tells their mother they will return at Christmas; the father may mean they will return as ghosts.

A version of the ballad by folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span can be heard on their 1975 album All Around My Hat. Andreas Scholl performs the song on the album Wayfaring Stranger: Folksongs (2001), and Karine Polwart on her album Fairest Floo'er (2007). Versions appear on the Bellowhead album Broadside and on the Runa album Current Affairs.

2010 Quondam play

In autumn 2010, Quondam toured an Arts Council England-supported "new play with songs" called The Wife of Usher's Well to 27 venues. Inspired by the border ballad, this reprised the historic text in a new setting of a mother's losing her son in the war in Afghanistan. The writer was Jules Horne and the cast was Helen Longworth, Danny Kennedy, Ruth Tapp and Andrew Whitehead.

The Wife of Usher's Well

 Listen to The Wife of Usher's Well from:
       The Askew Sisters, Bellowhead, Bellowhead (live),
       The Outside Track, Runa, Martin Simpson, Hedy West

 Watch The Wife of Usher's Well from:
       Martin & Eliza Carthy, False Lights,  Gillespie & Wolfe, 
       Alistair Hulett, Georgia Lewis, Peggy Seeger

Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight (The Outlandish Knight)

"Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (Child #4; Roud #21) is the English common name representative of a very large class of European ballads. The subject matter is frequently associated with the genre of the Halewyn legends circulating in Europe. There are a number of variants with different names (see Textual Variants, below).

Helen Flaherty

Helen Flaherty: Gazing at the Moon

Artist Video Helen Flaherty @ FROG

The most frequently collected variant, The Outlandish Knight or May Colvin tells the tale of a young woman who elopes with a knight who has promised to marry her (and who in some instances uses magic to charm her) but who then tries to murder her to get money, cloths and horses. By a quick-witted ruse she manages to kill him instead, and in many versions she is helped to keep this experience from her parents by a resourceful parrot. The main variant has been collected frequently from traditional singers in England, Scotland, Ireland and North America.


Three main English language variants of this group of ballads, with rather different plots, have been published:

The Gowans Sae Gae

Lady Isabel hears the horn of an elf-knight and wishes she had the horn and the knight "to sleep in my bosom". He immediately appears and asks her to go to the greenwood. They ride there, and he tells her that he has killed seven kings daughters there and she is to be the eighth. She suggests that he put his head on her knee "that we may hae some rest before that I die". She puts him to sleep with a "small charm" and after tying him up with his own belt she kills him with his own dagger.

This version is written in couplets, with a refrain as second and fourth line:

Fair lady Isabel sits in her bower sewing,
Aye as the gowans grow gay
There she heard an elf-knight blawing his horn.
The first morning in May

"Gowan" is a name used for a number of plants with yellow flowers, but unless modified by another word, it usually means the Common Daisy, Bellis perennis, also called the "may gowan".

May Day, the morning of May 1, and May Eve, the evening of April 30, were important holidays with pagan connotations.

This variant is Child's A.

The Water o Wearie's Well

Classic English and Scottish Ballads
Pretty Polly and False William (Child No. 4)
Paul Clayton, vocal and guitar

Roud 21; also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," "The King's Daughter," "Pretty Polly," "The Outlandish Knight," "May Colvin"; recorded 1957)

»Kenneth Goldstein cites the work of Finnish scholar Iivar Kemppinen, who analyzed the song and believes it to date from between 1100 and 1200. Child believed that of the ballads he collected, this may have had the widest distribution; it can found in every part of Europe. As with many of these songs, in the European versions the suitor is a supernatural character, in this case an elf. In Clayton's Americanized version, the suitor is an untrustworthy mortal man.
In Child's earliest version, Isabel is drawn to a field by the magic of the elf's horn. She is able to put him to sleep with a charm and stabs him to death, saying "You have killed seven maidens here, go keep them company." In almost all the later renditions, she instead pushes him off a cliff into the sea. In many of the versions she asks him to turn his back as he has asked her to disrobe so as not to ruin her gown in the salt water; it is then that she pushes him. Clayton's rendition is cleaned up.
Paul Clayton Paul Clayton (1933-1967) was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Trained as a folklorist at the University of Virginia, he traveled extensively collecting songs. Clayton was also one of the major early figures in the 1950s Greenwich Village folk revival and an influence on Bob Dylan, who modified the tune to Clayton's "Who'll Buy Your Ribbons When I'm Gone" into his classic "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Although his career was short, Clayton left behind a strong recorded legacy of the songs he had collected all over North America.«

Artist Video "Classic English and Scottish Ballads from Smithsonian Folkways (from The Francis James Child Collection)", Smithsonian Folkways, 2017

A king's daughter is full of woe. A harpist plays and everyone else falls asleep. He takes her on the back of his horse to Wearie's Well. He tells her to wade in, and when she expresses her doubts - when she is up to her knee and then her waist - says that no harm will befall her and that he has often watered his horse there. When she is up to her chin he tells her:

Seven king's-daughters I've drownd there,
In the water o Wearie's Well,
And I'll make you the eight o them,
And ring the common bell

She asks him for a kiss to "comfort me" and when he leans down to kiss her she pulls him from the saddle and drowns him. She swims to the shore and thanks God that "The dangers she o'ercame".

This version was Child's B.

The Outlandish Knight

The Roud Folk Song Index lists about 60 names for this group of songs, most of which refer to this variant, including Fause (or False) Sir John, May Colvin (or variants), Go Bring Me Some of Your Mother's Gold, and Pretty Polly). This variant includes Child's C to F, and the vast majority of versions listed by Roud, including many named Lady Isabel and the Elf-knight or variants thereon.

A knight offers to take a young woman to his home in the north and marry her, and suggests she takes "some of your father's gold and some of your mother's fee"(Child F), as well as two horses (often white for her, dapple-grey for him) from her father's stables (where there are almost always "thirty and three"). They ride, sometimes to the side of a river, or more often to the banks of the sea, where he tells her to dismount:

'Mount off, mount off, thy lily-white steed,
And deliver it unto me
For six pretty maidens I have drowned here
And the seventh thou shalt be.'

He tells her to take off her clothing, sometimes item by item (Child E), as it is too costly to be allowed to rot in the sea. She asks him either to turn his back:

For it is not fitting that such a ruffian
A naked woman should see. (Child E)

or to cut down the local vegetation:

'Go fetch the sickle to cut the nettle
That grows so near the brim,
For fear it should tangle my golden locks
Or freckle my lily white skin' (Child F)

and then either she pushes him into the sea or "seizes him by the middle so sma" and throws him in.

He asks her to help him out, but she refuses:

'Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,
Lie there instead of me,
For if six pretty maidens thou hast drowned here,
The seventh has drowned thee.'

AL Lloyd & Ewan MacColl

Lloyd: England & Her Traditional Songs
»Cecil Sharp believed this to be the widest circulated of all our folk ballads, “outlandish” here means coming from beyond the northern border—that is, Scotland. The story told is an ancient one of a beguiling lover who entices a whole sequence of girls to their deaths. Ballads on the same theme are known in Poland, Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, France; and perhaps the Bluebeard story is a first cousin to our song. Probably the lover was originally a malevolent water spirit who drowned the girls of his choice. If so, this supernatural element has become so vague as to be almost unnoticeable, as the ballad has passed from mouth to mouth. The rather humorous pay-off concerning the sly talking bird was detached from the ballad in Victorian times, and was made into a separate comic song, Tell-tale Polly, published in Charley Fox's Minstrel Companion (c. 1861), and is an example of the downward path taken by some of our grander specimens of folklore. Vaughan Williams obtained the tune of his version in South Walsham, Norfolk.«
Artist Video
A.L. Lloyd @ FROG

She rides home, leading the spare horse. Sometimes the story ends here, but often when she arrives home a parrot comments on how late she has returned, saying he is afraid "Some ruffian hath led you astray". She promises him a luxurious cage if he keeps her secret, and when her father asks the parrot what makes him "speak before it is day" he replies that a cat was going to eat him. His mistress promises him that:

"Thy cage shall be made of the glittering gold,
And the door of the best ivory"

In performance the last syllable of the fourth line is sometimes repeated twice, and then the line is repeated:

The seventh has drowned thee. thee, thee, The seventh has drowned thee.

In Scotland this variant is sometimes called May Colvin (various alternative spellings occur). Child gives two versions of this. Child's D version is very similar to other texts except that the young woman is named as May Colven and the knight as False Sir John. In the second the knight uses a charm to make an initially reluctant May Collin go with him, and the story ends when, after the parrot episode, she goes to her parents, tells them what has happened, and they go to the scene of the crime to find and bury the body "for fear it should be seen".

Publication History

The earliest known version of any of these variants is either a broadside entitled The False Knight Outwitted sometime in the second half of the eighteenth century (also the earliest "Outlandish Knight" text and Child's version F), or May Colvin, published in Herd's "Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs" in 1776 (Child's version C). The earliest printed version of "The Gowans sae Gae" was in "Ancient Ballads and Songs Volume 1" by Peter Buchan while "The Water o Wearie's Well" was first published in Volume 2 of the same book. Both volumes were published in 1828.

The Outlandish Knight variant was repeatedly printed by broadside publishers both in London and the provinces. Most broadside texts are fairly similar to one another, and often start:

An outlandish knight came from the north lands
And He came a'wooing of me
He told me he'd take me to the north lands
And there he would marry me.

Collection History

The Roud Folk Song Index lists about 367 instances of this group of ballads collected from traditional singers, with the great majority being of the Outlandish Knight story. 198 were collected in the USA, 120 in England, 31 in Canada, 9 in Ireland, 8 in Scotland, and 1 in Australia. This is probably an underestimate as it is based on named performers, and collectors haven't always named the sources of the songs they publish.

Steve Roud and Julia Bishop point out that this is one of about half a dozen Child ballads that have been most consistently popular, having been collected "time and again all over the English-speaking world"

Field Recordings

Many of these are available to listen online.

Informant Location Collector Year Title Recording held by:
Jumbo Brightwell Suffolk E. J. Moeran 1951 The False-Hearted Knight Association for Cultural Equity
Luke Stanley Lincolnshire Alan Lomax 1954 The Outlandish Knight Association for Cultural Equity
William "Bill" Williams Gloucestershire Peter Kennedy 1957 The False Hearted Knight British Library Sound Archive.
Otis Bird Arkansas Max Hunter 1958 Little Billy Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University.
Mrs. Allie Long Parker Arkansas Max Hunter 1958 Loving Polly Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University.
Mr. Fred High Arkansas Max Hunter 1959 Willie Came Over the Main Wide Ocean Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University.
Donia Cooper Arkansas Max Hunter 1959 Pretty Polly' Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University.
Ollie Gilbert Arkansas Max Hunter 1959 Pretty Polly' Max Hunter Collection, Missouri State University.
Fred Jordan Shropshire Steve Gardham 1971 The Outlandish Knight Steve Gardham Collection, British Library Sound Archive.
Willie Mathieson Kinross, Scotland Ailie Edmunds Munro 1973 May Colvin Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o'Riches website.
Fred Jordan Shropshire Bob Patten 1992 The Outlandish Knight Bob and Jacqueline Patten Collection, British Library Sound Archive


Relationships and Origins

Steeleye Span

Steeleye Span: The Journey
»A simple but vivid story, this ballad evokes many powerful images—a hazy afternoon in late June when the roses are full blown—Lady Isabel sitting alone in a castle room, with a shaft of sunlight playing on the tapestry that she is weaving—somewhere out there, beyond this world and the “fields we know,” the elf-knight sits, arrogant, dark and brooding. He blows his horn and enchants her—she breathes a wish for him—in an instant he has broken through the barrier—two worlds collide, reality and fantasy, good and evil …«

Artist Video Steeleye Span @ FROG

These ballads have received a lot of attention from folklorists and other scholars. There is some consensus that they derive from a family of ballads related to the Dutch ballads about Heer Halewijn. Discussion is sometimes confusing as both an individual variant and the group as a whole can be referred to as a ballad by scholars.

The ballad family is known throughout Europe and is described by Child as the ballad which "has perhaps obtained the widest circulation". He notes that the Scandavian and German versions (both Low and High German) are the fullest versions, while the southern European ones are rather shorter, and the English versions somewhat brief.

The Dutch song Heer Halewijn is one of the earlier (13th century) versions of this tale, fuller and preserving older elements, including such things as the murderer's head speaking after the heroine has beheaded him, attempting to get her to do tasks for him.

At least 60 French, or French-Canadian versions have been collected and these almost all end in the same location as the English version, on a riverbank or by the sea, a motif only found elsewhere in the extensive and widespread Polish variants.

Numerous German variants are known. Child says 26 German variants but Lloyd, writing more than a century later, claims over 250. In some, the heroine rescues herself; in others her brother rescues her; and in still others, the murderer succeeds but her brother kills him after the fact. In some of them, the dead women reappear as doves and attempt to warn the latest victim.

Eleven Danish variants are known, often including the heroine's meeting with the sister or the men of the murderer and dealing with them as well. An Icelandic version has a very short account of the tale. Other variants are northern Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Magyar.

In his introduction to this group of ballads Child discusses their place in European culture. He places them in the group of ballads and stories often named after what is considered to be the most complete example, the Dutch ballad Heer Halewijn, he describes ballads from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Transylvania, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France and he reviews theories put forward to explain the origin of this ballad family and the nature of the "Outlandish Knight". He mentions theories that the ballad draws on stories about elves, or about the nix or neck, malevolent water spirits in German folklore, and that it is derived from the Judith and Holofernes story in the Old Testament.

Holger Olof Nygard, in an article in "The Journal of American Folklore" discusses the various theories put forward about the origin of the ballads in this group and what he calls its "continental analogues. These include:

Two sentences in Nygard's conclusion are worth quoting:

"We are left with a handful of improbable impossibilities as to the source of the ballad. And for these we may well be thankful, for their authors have trod the sands of surmise and have taught us how to avoid them, if we will but learn by example.


Child takes it for granted that the Scottish and English ballads he publishes are old, and that they are the remnants of more elaborate originals:

"although the best English forms are not without ancient and distinctive marks, most of these have been eliminated, and the better ballads are very brief"

In this he follows Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe who writes of the version of May Collin in his "Ballad Book" (Child's version D):

"This ballad appears modern from a great many expressions, yet I am certain that it is old".

But Steve Roud points out that as the two earliest British versions are late 18th century and

"Despite its archaic feel and close foreign relatives, the ballad does not seem to be very old, at least in Britain"


There have been various other rationalisations, attaching the story to specific locations and historical events: for example to Gilles de Laval in the early fifteenth century. The variant May Collean has been attached, as a legend, to the coast of Ayrshire, where the heroine was said to come from the family Kennedy of Colzean. A rocky promontory called Gamesloup, on the Ayrshire coast, is pointed to by local people as the spot where the knight drowned his victims. This local association is noted by A. L. Lloyd who quotes it as an example of a ballad which "so strikes the common imagination that people want to make the piece their own by giving it a local setting".

Authenticity of The Gowans sae Gae

Rachael McShane

Rachael McShane: 'When All Is Still
»A version of The Outlandish Knight (which I always loved playing in Bellowhead), Lady Isabel is a song about a serial killer who gets all he deserves in the end. I found this version in Alan Lomax's The Folk Songs of North America. There was much discussion when we arranged this song about whether to keep the parrot verses. Matthew [Ord] was initially anti-parrot but in the end the parrot prevailed, after all how often do you find a song that ends in the bribery of a sentient parrot?«
Artist Video

There have been doubts raised about the authenticity of Child's A version, The Gowans sae Gae, the suggestion being that it was composed by Peter Buchan (editor of "Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland" (1828), the source of Child's A and B versions) or one of his informants,. This is referred to by D K Wilgus:

In addition to the now-discredited notion that the "Lady Isabel" form is the Scottish original of the non-supernatural English texts, two explanations of the "Elf-Knight" text are possible. One, based on the comparative evidence, is that the "Lady Isabel" text is a palpable fraud perpetuated by Peter Buchan with the probable help of a "supplier". This is the option chosen by Nygard. The other possibility, argued by David Buchan, is that "Lady Isabel" is a "stray" from Scandinavia which turned up in Aberdeenshire. In terms of the Anglo-American tradition of the "Outlandish Knight" the "Lady Isabel" text is of little importance, seems it seems to have had no influence except in the scholarly titling of variants.

Wilgus goes on to say:

Nygard depended to some extent on extratextual information in being influenced by the suspicion of texts from Peter Buchan's collection, voiced by Child and other scholars. Ironically, Child's suspicions were largely based on the subliterary character of other texts, while "Lady Isabel" is literarily superior.

Neither of Buchan's variants is found at all widely in the tradition, if they are found at all. Versions titled Isabelle and the Elf-Knight are mainly versions of the "Outlandish Knight variant.

Cultural relationships

Standard references

Textual variants

Several variations of the ballad were classified by Francis James Child that feature a "Lord" instead of an elf knight.

Some variations have a parrot at the end, who promises not to tell what happened. In some of these, the parrot is eaten by the cat.

The variations of the ballad vary on some of the key characters and details:

Lady Isabel variants per Child Heroine Villain # Dead Women Setting Parrot Notes & Source(s)
The Gowans sae gay or Aye as the Gowans grow gay Lady Isabel Elf-Knight 7 Greenwood Buchan's Ballads I:22 of N. Scotland; Motherwell's MS p. 563
The Water o Wearie's Well King's daughter Luppen 7 Wearie's Well Buchan's Ballads of the N. of Scotland II:80; Motherwell's MS, Harris MS 19
May Colvin or May Colvin, or False Sir John May Colvin False Sir John 7 Sea-side Yes year 1776. Herd's MSS I:166; Herd's Ancient & Modern Scottish Songs 1776:193, Motherwell's Minstrelsy p67
May Collin , May Collean or Fause Sir John and May Colvin May Collin Sir John, bloody knight 8 Bunion Bay Yes year 1823. Sharpe's Ballad Book 1823, 17:45; Buchan's Ballads of N. Scotland II:45
The Outlandish Knight Lady Outlandish knight 6 Sea-side Yes Note: This version is "a modernized version" - from "Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England" by Dixon:74. The story is performed by UK folk group Bellowhead on their album Burlesque.
The False Knight Outwitted Lady Knight 6 River-side Yes Roxburghe Ballads, III:449
Comparable song
"Heer Halewijn" (Dutch) Princess Halewijn many Forest & gallowfield 13th century. (compared to Outlandish Knight and May Colvin or False Sir John)

Other titles:

The Roud Folk Song Index lists 68 different titles. "The Outlandish Knight" is the most frequent.

Songs that refer to Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight


Cara: In Colour

»The lyrics are in the original from B.H. Bronson's "Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads" and is called "False Sir John". Sandra [Steinort] wrote a new melody to the verses, Jürgen [Treyz] wrote a chorus and the instrumental part, and then we changed the text a bit...«

Cara @ FROG

The dialogue between the Lady and the parrot, which appears in some versions, was made into a comic song: "Tell Tale Polly", published in Charley Fox's Minstrel Companion (ca. 1860).


Another related ballad, "Hind Etin" (Child Ballad #41), also begins with abduction and rape by an elf, but ends with the pair falling in love and living happily together.

Many of the same motifs are found in Child Ballad 48, "Young Andrew".


Various forms of these ballads show great similarity to the fairy tales Fitcher's Bird and Bluebeard.


Arthur Rackham's "May Colvin and the Parrot" illustrates this ballad.

Kentucky artist and ballad singer Daniel Dutton has a painting of this ballad, titled "False Sir John", on his Ballads of the Barefoot Mind website.


Variants of the song are commonly sung to several different tunes. The following tune was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1908 from Mr Hilton in South Walsham, Norfolk. It was published in the Folk Song Journal of English Folk Dance and Song Society (IV 123), and included in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight The Outlandish Knight

Lindsay Straw: The Fairest Flower of Womankind
 Listen to Outlandish Knight from:
       Annalivia, Bellowhead, Cara, Pete Coe,
       Danú, Helen Flaherty, Pressgang, James Raynard,
       Runa, Runa (live), Pete Seeger (live), Martin Simpson, 
       Emily Smith, Spinning Wheel, Lindsay Straw

 Watch Outlandish Knight from:
       Annalivia, Jesse Ferguson, Helen Flaherty, Kadia,
       Low Lily, Kate Rusby, Emily Smith, Emily Smith (live), 
       Steeleye Span (1), Steeleye Span (2)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [,,]. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

Date: February 2019.

Photo Credits: (1) John D. Batten: Binnoire (English Fairy Tales, 1898), (2) Iona Fyfe, (3),(17) Maddy Prior/Steeleye Span, (4) Ellen Stekert, (7) Gráinne Holland, (10) Peggy Seeger, (11) The Outside Track, (12) The Askew Sisters, (14) Helen Flaherty, (15) Paul Clayton, (16) A.L. Lloyd & Ewan McColl, (18) Jon Boden, (19) Rachael McShane (unknown/website); (5) Martin Simpson, (8) Malinky, (19) Cara (by Walkin' Tom); (6) Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh (Altan) (by The Mollis); (9) 'The Twa Sisters', (13) 'The Wife of Usher's Well', (20) 'Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight', (21) 'The Outlandish Knight' (by ABC Notations).

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