I was looking through my music collection making playlists for a party last weekend and found I have six different recordings of Sir Patrick Spens (Child Ballad no. 58; to be strictly accurate, I have eight but three of them are from different line-ups of Fairport Convention). For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a tale of treachery, weather, shipwreck and, upon occasion, mermaidens*.
There are two versions of the story. In the short version, it’s a tale of politics at the Scottish court. Sir Patrick, despite being no mariner and the omens being bad, is sent out a-sailing at the suggestion of the king’s favourite and, as appears to be the intention, is wrecked and drowned. We don’t know why someone is so keen to be rid of him. In the longer version, there’s a full context: Sir Patrick is being sent to Norway to bring back the king’s daughter and the storm blows up on the return trip. This would seem to tie it to the true story of the Maid of Norway who did die, but not by drowning, on her voyage to Scotland in 1290. The shorter version seems to be recorded more often (due to modern attention spans?) but the longer version is sung by June Tabor (An Echo of Hooves) and Martin Carthy (Signs of Life).
Across all versions, three elements are consistent. The ballad always opens in Dunfermline, with the king drinking his blood-red wine. It always ends fifty miles off Aberdeen, where the water’s fifty fathoms deep. Somewhere in between the new moon is sighted with the old moon in her arms, an ill omen for sailors. Around these fixed points the various tales are spun – some concentrating on attempts to save the ship, some on the women waiting on the shore, some on the vanity of the doomed Scottish lords – an excellent example of the flexibility of the oral tradition.
With its hints of the misuse of power and central figure of Sir Patrick, an honourable man helpless in the face of forces he can’t control, it’s a powerful story. It’s captured other imaginations than mine: to see its influence appearing in a quite different poetic form I refer you to Louis MacNeice’s The North Sea (in Collected Poems 1925-1948) which conjures with its images in an account of a North Sea crossing in wartime.
Oh, for the party playlist, I went for Kris Drever’s version from Blackwater. Highly recommended.
* In the Fairport Convention versions. They use a different source text.