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  • Voices from Kilbarchan:Two versions of “The Cruel Mother” from South-West Scotland, 1825
  • Flemming G. Andersen (bio)


It was not until the early decades of the nineteenth century that a concern for preserving variants of the same ballad was really taken seriously by collectors. Prior to this ballad editors had been content with documenting single illustrations of ballad types in their collections; that is, they gave only one version (and often a “conflated” or “amended” one at that), such as for instance Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry from 1765 and Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border from 1802. But with “the antiquarian’s quest for authenticity” (McAulay 2013:5) came the growing appreciation of the living ballad tradition and an interest in the singers themselves and their individual interpretations of the traditional material. From this point on attention was also given to different variations of the same ballad story, including documentation (however slight) of the ballads in their natural environment.

William Motherwell (1797-1835) was one of the earliest ballad collectors to pursue this line of collecting, and he was very conscious of what this new approach would mean for a better understanding of the nature of an oral tradition. And as has been demonstrated elsewhere, Motherwell’s approach to ballad collecting had an immense impact on later collectors and editors (see also, Andersen 1994 and Brown 1997).

In what follows I shall first give an outline of the earliest extensively documented singing community in the Anglo-Scottish ballad tradition, and then present a detailed analysis of two versions of the same ballad story (“The Cruel Mother”) taken down on the same day in 1825 from two singers from the same Scottish village. The fact that Motherwell’s material includes alternative performances of the same ballad story from the same area allows us to get one of the earliest glimpses into ballads as a living oral tradition. We may assess at close hand the degree of variability and multiformity that is characteristic of texts in oral tradition (Foley 1998:5), and thus gain an appreciation of the ballads as a living cultural phenomenon.

Motherwell and his Ballads

The two versions of “The Cruel Mother” in question were recorded in the village of Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire, which was the most fertile hunting ground for William Motherwell, who paid about ten visits to that area spread over eight months in 1825 and 1826 (see also Brown 1996 and McCarthy 1987). There is no indisputable proof that Motherwell, in fact, undertook all the collecting trips himself; in the preface to his Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern (1827) Motherwell acknowledges the assistance of “my friend Dr. Andrew Crawfurd of Lochwinnoch, Mr. Robert Allan of Kilbarchan, and Mr. Peter Buchan of Peterhead, as having rendered me most essential help in procuring copies of ballads not hitherto printed, and different sets of others already edited” (civ). This acknowledgement is the only reference to Robert Allan, poet of Kilbarchan, and we can only speculate as to his exact role in the fieldwork. We know that it was Andrew Crawfurd who—on Motherwell’s behalf—collected most of the ballads taken down from Mrs. Storie of Lochwinnoch (Lyle 1975:xvii-xxiv). Motherwell’s entry in the Notebook: “To expenses in sundry trips to Kilbarchan in quest of old ditties” might refer to his visiting only Robert Allan; but the notes preserved in the Notebook concerning August 24, 1825, demonstrate that Motherwell did some active fieldwork in Kilbarchan.1

In all William Motherwell collected 48 complete ballad texts from this village, which constitutes a unique corpus of popular oral tradition.2 Motherwell’s contribution to ballad scholarship in general is well-documented by McCarthey (1987 and 1990) and Brown (2001), among others, but in order to place the two texts in their proper, immediate context I shall give a detailed account of how he came to acquire his ballads from Kilbarchan.

Motherwell was the first ballad editor to pay consistent heed to local and contemporary traditions. He sought systematically to discover both personal and regional repertoires, and consequently he was generally at pains to attribute the collected material to named singers of specific villages...

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