Bessy Bell and Mary Gray: An ould Scots ballad fragment wi a new Ulster conclusion

Author: Gordon Jarvie

Date: 2012

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 12 Wunter 2011/12

Gordon Jarvie


I am a Scot who long ago attended Magee College in Derry, where I began my degree studies in English and French, before going on to complete a BA at Trinity College Dublin. On the first-year English syllabus, I had to study the ballads (among other things). A poem I wrote during that phase of my life was called “Ballad of an Irish Student”, written for Magee’s one-time student magazine, Acorn (issue 2, 1962), at the instigation of my English professor, Alan Warner — before the days of Ullans. I believe it is my first extant published poem, so I was delighted when it was recently reprinted (in Lallans, issue 74, 2009).

Incredible as it may sound nowadays, in 1960 I was Alan’s solo first-year honours English undergraduate student. One-to-one teaching — what a luxury! Thinking the Scots ballads would specially interest a Scotsman, Alan treated me (his attentive class of one) to a thorough overview of this literary form. So inspirational was his exposition of the topic that — from a distance of fifty years — I have finally felt moved to write my own completion to “Bessy Bell and Mary Gray”. Probably the longest gestation of anything I’ve written, my “conclusion” to this poem owes more than a little to Professor Alan Warner’s balladic promptings.

Readers may know that “Bessy Bell and Mary Gray” was a famous ballad fragment collected by Allan Ramsay in the late 18th century, and then by the American philologist Francis Child in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1857-8), and it is believed to date from the 17th century. In the Child version it runs to a mere four stanzas (comprising Part I of the poem below), verse four of which is a repetition of verse one. Child’s text contains scant detail beyond the names of the two ladies, plus the names of Methven kirk and Stronach pairk, in Perthshire.

The story goes that the two young ladies fled the town of Perth, where an outbreak of the plague was raging, for a safer haven or bower in the countryside of Strathearn or Glenalmond. But one of them had a lover in the town who visited them clandestinely in the bower, bearing the fatal illness; and so they all died.

Part II is my “conclusion” to the poem, which adds six new stanzas, hypothesising that the bearer of the illness is the lover of Mary Gray, leaving Bessy’s lover as the sole survivor of the two couples. It tells the story of how the bereaved youth emigrated to Ulster and how two hills in west Tyrone came to acquire the names of two recently deceased Perthshire ladies. “Undertakers” in this context of refers to men who undertook to import Protestant cottars, labourers and tradesmen from England and Scotland into Ulster. The Ulster Plantations started around 1610 and continued off and on through the 17th century.

I got to know County Tyrone in 1961, during my time at Magee. Bessy Bell (1387 feet in height) was the very first Irish hill I ever climbed, and it looks east across the vale of Strule to a slightly lower summit (828 feet), called to this day Mary Gray. Sion Mills is a nearby mill-village, a sort of County Tyrone version of Robert Owen’s utopian mill community of New Lanark, on the river Clyde in South Lanarkshire.

After retirement, Alan Warner of course wrote his famous book Walking the Ulster Way: A Journal and Guide (1983), his own account of the now-famous walk. In the early part of the book, he describes his climb of Bessy Bell. I recently had the pleasure of reading this classic, and was reminded of its gentle, honest, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, thoughtful and self-mocking author. He was a great teacher.

For John Herdman, o Perth. And minding the Herdmans, Claud, Barbara and Celia, o Sion Mills, Co Tyrone; in 1961, they gied me hospitality and suggestit the story outlined in Pairt II. Forby minding Alan Warner (1912-98), yince professor o English at Magee University College, Derry. Alan wis aye keen on the ballads, introducing me to Pairt I o the poem, based on Francis Child’s fragment in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1857-8).

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray: An Ould Ballant Concludit

I Fragment (c.1610)

O Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,

they war twa bonnie lasses.

They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae

and theekit it o’er wi rashes.

They theekit it o’er wi rashes green,

they theekit it o’er wi heather.

But the plague cam there wi Mary’s man

and slew a’ three thegethir.

They thocht tae lye neist Methven kirk

amang their noble kin.

But noo they lye in Stronach pairk

and pey the price o sin.

And Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,

they war twa bonnie lasses.

They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae

and theekit it o’er wi rashes.

II Dénouement (2010)

But Bessy’d hud a man forby.

Wha tint her brukken hertit.

Tae braw Strathearn he lea’d guid-bye:

fer Ulster he depairtit.

Fur undertaker tae Tyrone

his uncle John hud gaed.

He’d scrievit his nephew tae win on,

wi biggin a mill tae aid.

King Jamie sat on Inglan’s throne,

a-ruling kingdoms thrie,

a-planting prodestans in Tyrone,

as the lad sailed ower the sea.

Oor younker miller newed his life

at the aits neist Sion Mills.

Throu time he taen an Irish wife,

Amang Tyrone’s fair hills.

Twaa nameless hills, A strange tae tell,

He’d trevel monie a day.

He caa’d the first ane Betty Bell,

An the tither Mary Gray.

Thon’s whut ye caa thaim tae this day,

Forenent the vale o Strule;

Nems gien wi a lad frae ower the say

Tae mind him o his dule.


biggit — built

theekit — thatched

rashes — rushes

neist — next, close to

pairk — enclosed land or forest

hud — had

tint — left

lea guid-bye — say goodbye, bid farewell

scrievit — written

new — renew

aits — oats

twaa — two

strange — wonder

trevel — walk

tither — other

forenent — over against

nems — names

dule — grief, sorrow



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