The Dowie Dens o Yarrow

"The Dowie Dens of Yarrow", also known as "The Braes of Yarrow" or simply "Yarrow", is a Scottish border ballad (Child 214, Roud 13). It has many variants (Child collected at least 19) and it has been printed as a broadside, as well as published in song collections. It is considered to be a folk standard, and many different singers have performed and recorded it.


The song describes an unequal conflict between a group of men and one man, concerning a lady. This takes place in the vicinity of Yarrow. The one man succeeds on overcoming nearly all his opponents but is finally defeated by (usually) the last one of them.

In some versions, the lady (who is not usually named) rejects a number (often nine) wealthy suitors, in preference for a servant or ploughman. The nine make a pact to kill the other man and they ambush him in the "Dens of Yarrow".

There lived a lady in the West,
I neer could find her marrow;
She was courted by nine gentlemen
And a ploughboy-lad in Yarrow.
These nine sat drinking at the wine,
Sat drinking wine in Yarrow;
They made a vow among themselves
To fight for her in Yarrow.[1]

In some versions it is unclear who the nine (or other number of men) are; in others, they are brothers or are men sent by the lady's father.[2] In the ensuing fight, eight of the attackers are generally killed or wounded, but the ninth (often identified as the lady's brother, John or Douglas) fatally wounds the victim of the plot, usually by running him through with a sword and often by a cowardly blow, delivered from behind.

Four he hurt, an five he slew,
Till down it fell himsell O;
There stood a fause lord him behin,
Who thrust his body thorrow.[3]

The lady may see the events in a dream, either before or after they take place and usually has some sort of dialogue with her father about the merits of the man who has been ambushed and killed.

"O hold your tongue, my daughter dear,
An tak it not in sorrow;
I’ll wed you wi as good a lord
As you’ve lost this day in Yarrow."
"O haud your tongue, my father dear,
An wed your sons wi sorrow;
For a fairer flower neer sprang in May nor June
Nor I’ve lost this day in Yarrow."[4]

Some versions of the song end with the lady grieving: in others she dies of grief.[5]


Dowie is Scots and Northumbrian English for sad, dismal, dull or dispirited ,[6][7] den Scots and Northumbrian for a narrow wooded valley.[8][7]

The ballad has some similarities with the folk song "Bruton Town" (or "The Bramble Briar"). This song contains a similar murderous plot, usually by a group of brothers, and directed against a servant who has fallen in love with their sister. It also includes the motif, present in some versions of "The Dowie Dens o Yarrow", of the woman dreaming of her murdered lover before discovering the truth of the plot. However, the rhythmical structure of the two songs is quite different and there is no obvious borrowing of phraseology between them.[9]

Historical background

The song is closely associated with the geographical area of the valley of the Yarrow Water that extends through the Scottish borders towards Selkirk. Almost all versions refer to this location, perhaps because the rhyming scheme for multiple verses, in most versions, relies on words which more or less rhyme with "Yarrow": "marrow", "morrow", "sorrow", "thorough", "narrow", "arrow" and "yellow" for example.

The song is believed to be based on an actual incident. The hero of the ballad was a knight of great bravery, popularly believed to be John Scott, sixth son of the Laird of Harden. According to history, he met a treacherous and untimely death in Ettrick Forest at the hands of his kin, the Scotts of Gilmanscleugh in the seventeenth century.[10] However, recent scholars are sceptical about this story as the origin of the song.[11]

Cultural relationships

Standard references


There are several broadside versions:

  • National Library of Scotland, reference RB.m.143(120)[13]

Textual variants

There are numerous versions of the ballad. Child recorded at least 19, the earliest of which was taken from Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1803).[14] However, the song is much older: William Hamilton of Bangour wrote a poem called "The Braes of Yarrow" which has some basis in the ballad. It appears in a collection of his poems first published in Edinburgh in 1724. It is said to be "written in imitation of an old Scottish ballad on a similar subject".[15][16] There are also American versions which go under the corrupted title of "Derry Dens of Arrow."[17] The ballad has also been linked to the American folk song "The Wayfaring Stranger," but there is little solid evidence for any relationship between them.

Non-English variants

Child points out the similarity with "Herr Helmer", a Scandinavian ballad (TSB D 78; SMB 82; DgF 415; NMB 84). In this, Helmer marries a woman whose family are in a state of feud with him because of the unavenged killing of her uncle. Helmer meets his seven brothers-in-law and a fight ensues. He kills six, but spares the seventh who treacherously kills him.[18]


The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume IIIEwan MacColl & A. L. Lloyd1956MacColl's version is taken from the singing of his father
Carolyn HesterCarolyn Hester1961
Strings and ThingsThe Corries1970
StargazerShelagh McDonald1971
Moonshine (Bert Jansch album)Bert Jansch1973
As I Went Over Blackwater Mick Hanly1980
The Voice of the People: O'er His Grave the Grass Grew GreenJohn Macdonald1988
The Voice of the People: It Fell Upon a Bonny Summer's DayWillie Scott1988
And So It GoesSteve Tilston1995
Outlaws and DreamersDick Gaughan2001Variant of Child 214S
The Mountain AnnouncesScatter2006
Fairest Floo'erKarine Polwart2007
The Voice of the People: Good People Take WarningMary Anne Stewart2012
Fall Away BluesRed Tail Ring2016"Yarrow"

Musical variants

The following is the tune as sung by Ewan MacColl:

Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn composed an orchestral ballad of the same title.


  1. Child version 214Q
  2. Child version 214J
  3. Child version 214I
  4. Child version 214B
  5. Child version 214D
  6. Robinson, Mairi (1985). The Concise Scots Dictionary. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press. p. 158. ISBN 0-08-028492-2.
  7. Richard Oliver Heslop Northumberland Words. London: for the English Dialect Society (Publications; vol. 28) by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1892
  8. Robinson, Mairi (1985). The Concise Scots Dictionary. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-08-028492-2.
  9. "The Bramble Briar" published in R. Vaughan Williams & A. L. Lloyd: The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Penguin Books, 1959
  10. Scott, Sir Walter. "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border". II. Retrieved 12 July 2007.
  11. A. L. Lloyd: Folk Song in England, Paladin, 1975. p. 129
  12. Gordon Hall Gerould: Old English and Medieval Literature, Ayer Publishing, 1970. ISBN 0-8369-5312-6. p360
  13. National Library of Scotland
  14. Francis James Child: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads; Vol. IV, p. 160
  15. Thomas Percy: Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets, Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1858; p. 294
  16. William Hamilton: The Poems and Songs of William Hamilton of Bangour, Edinburgh, 1850
  17. "Derry Dens of Arrow". Bluegrass Messengers.
  18. Child p.164
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