An encounter with Captain Wedderburn

Yesterday I visited Rosslyn Chapel. It wasn’t raining, I wanted to get out of the city for a couple of hours and the chapel does, of course, have some of the finest and most characterful mediaeval stone carvings in Scotland, probably in Britain. My favourite is the knight carrying the very large heart. Attempts have been made to read something into the carvings of ‘maize-cobs’  in a building that is pre-Columbian but the likely explanation is probably rather mundane.

I’d not been there for years, though it’s a place I visited fairly often in student days. Back then it was very quiet and very, very damp. A lot has changed since those days: the chapel has had a great deal of care and restoration and, well, the Da Vinci Code has put it on the map and brought all manner of tourists to the place (No, I’ve not read the book and if I haven’t done so by now the likelihood is I never will). The hotspot where various ley lines and forces converge and align is allegedly right beneath the keystone. I stood there yesterday for a good while and felt absolutely nothing – but then I’ve never had a sensitive cell in my body.

There’s also a shiny new visitors’ centre, filled with books, and gifts, and interactive audiovisual guides. The most interesting fact for me was on the wall right at the exit to the carpark. It was the line in the family tree of the St Clair (now St Clair-Erskine) family (who have owned the chapel since its founding by William St Clair (or Sinclair) in 1446) which reported that, sometime in the eighteenth century, Sarah, the daughter, and only surviving child, of William, 19th Baron of Rosslyn, married Sir Peter Wedderburn.

So what, you ask?

Well, I answer, Child Ballad no. 46 is Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship and it begins

THE Lord of Rosslyn’s daughter gaed through the wud her lane,
And there she met Captain Wedderburn, a servant to the king.
He said unto his livery-man, Were’t na agen the law,
I wad tak her to my ain bed, and lay her at the wa.

So there you are: real life immortalised in a ballad.  Thinking it over, it raises a few questions. The song tells of what is, at best, a forced marriage. If, however, there was anything odd about the circumstances of Sir Peter Wedderburn’s marriage to Sarah St Clair it appears lost in history. Their son, Alexander Wedderburn St Clair, became the 1st Earl of Rosslyn and was, in turn, Solicitor General, Attorney General, Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Chancellor. You don’t get closer to the heart of the establishment than that. The only point I can think of worth noting is that, in the absence of surviving brothers, the succession would pass through Sarah to her son, even though she could not inherit any of her father’s titles in her own right. She was, in other words, a catch.

The song itself doesn’t give any clue either. It’s a fairly standard example of a riddle song where one lover demands the other answers riddles before agreeing to wedding or bedding; Juniper, Gentle and Rosemary is another example of this type. They differ from the impossible task songs like Scarborough Fair as the questions are intended to be answered. Indeed, they are not at all hard to answer, at least if you’ve any familiarity with these matters:

‘O haud awa frae me, kind sir, I pray don’t me perplex,
For I’ll na lie in your bed till ye answer questions six:
Questions six ye maun answer me, and that is four and twa,
Before I lie in your bed, at either stock or wa.

‘O what is greener than the gress, what’s higher than thae trees?
O what is worse than women’s wish*, what’s deeper than the seas?
What bird craws first, what tree buds first, what first does on them fa?
Before I lie in your bed, at either stock or wa.’

Only the first and last verses of Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship deal with the Captain and his particular lady, and other parts of the courtship are shared with other riddle songs (a bird without a bone, a cherry without a stone, and so on). It would seem that a local gloss has been added to a fairly well known ballad. But spotting the similarities with other songs doesn’t explain why these two people should have been put in a ballad in the first place. I shall – now and again – keep looking for an answer.

Bellowhead recorded Captain Wedderburn (sic) for their album Hedonism. You may be able to listen here. Jon Boden also recorded it in a slightly longer form for February in his A Folksong A Day project.

*Alternatively a woman’s voice or a woman’s vice. The feminist in me prickles but mostly I look to folksongs for rhymes and tunes.

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