Sir Patrick Spens

Oh the King he sits in Dunfermline Town
A-drinking the blood-red wine
Oh where will I find a good mariner
To sail seven ships of mine
Then up and spoke a fine young man
Sat at the King’s right knee
Sir Patrick Spens is the best mariner
Who ever sailed on the sea

And the King has written a broad letter
And signed it with his own hand
And he’s sent it off to Sir Patrick Spens
A-walking along the strand
And the very first line that Patrick he read
A little loud laugh gave he
And the very last line that Patrick he read
The salt tear spilled his eye

Oh who is he that has done this deed
And told the King on me
For never was I a good mariner
And never do intend to be
And it’s late yest’re’en I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arms
And I fear, I fear a deadly storm
Our little ship will come to harm

But rise up, rise up my merry men all
Our little ship she sails in the morn
Whether it’s windy or whether it’s wet
Or whether there’s a deadly storm
And they hadn’t been sailing a league or more
A league but barely nine
When the wind and wet and sleet and snow
Came blowing up behind

Oh where will I find a good cabin boy
To take the helm in hand
That I might go to the topmast high
To see if I can’t spy land
Come down come down Sir Patrick Spens
I fear that we all must die
For it’s in and out of the good ship’s hull
The wind and the ocean fly

And the very first step that Patrick he took
The water it came to his knee
And the very next step that Patrick he took
All drowned they were in the sea
And it’s many was the fine feather bed
That floated on the foam
And it’s many was the little lords’ son
That never, never more came home

And it’s long, long may their ladies sit
With their fans all in their hands
Before they see Sir Patrick Spens
Come a-walking along the strand
For it’s fifteen miles to Aberdeen shore
It’s fifty fathoms deep
And there does lie Sir Patrick Spens
With the little lords at his feet

This is one of the best known and most widespread of all Scottish ballads. Francis James Child in Volume II of his monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads (first published in 1886) has a dozen versions, plus fragments. Bearing in mind that the good Professor only included published versions of songs, there must have been at least another dozen still alive in the tradition.

It seems the ballad (which Child described as “admired and most admirable”) is based, at least loosely, on a real historical event. William Motherwell (Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, first published in 1827) believed it told the story of Margaret, daughter of Alexander III of Scotland’s voyage home after marrying the Norwegian king, Eric in 1281. Many knights and nobles drowned in the shipwreck, although it seems Margaret survived. Death, though, was never far away in the Middle Ages, and Margaret died in 1283, and Eric in 1286.

In earlier versions, Patrick seems to have been a sailor of some renown, and it was only in later times did he claim not to be a sailor at all (a thread Child calls ‘silly’). Child quotes Sir William Aytoun, formerly Sheriff and Lord Admiral of Orkney and Shetland, that on the Orcadian island of Papa Stronsay there is a grave of one Sir Patrick Spens. I don’t know if the grave is (still) there; Papa Stronsay is presently owned by a Catholic monastic order and is ‘home’ to a handful of monks

The words I sing are largely from Nic Jones, who also adapted the tune in William Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs (1876).

The Jones Boys play highly accomplished traditional music from Ireland, England, Scotland, Brittany, Sweden, Bulgaria …

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