The trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

wedding1500The trees they do grow high is an originally Scottish ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the U.S.A. from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (based on an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the mere claims from the substantiated evidence.


My aim in this article is to trace the evolution of the song chronologically, working backwards from the present day until the evidence runs out …

The words and music for this arrangement of The trees they do grow high are entirely from memory, having performed several different versions of the song over the years, so I can’t say precisely whose set of words I was using, except that they are based on traditional variants from the 19th and 20th centuries. That’s the folk process. The tune I use here is based largely on that used by Martin Carthy on his first album, 1965, which isn’t very different to some other variants except the addition of the elongated ends of verses. He doesn’t give his source and I’ve not heard the ends of verses sung or written like this elsewhere, so it’s possible this was his own addition. A consequence of repeating the first verse at the end of the song is that the same words have a completely different meaning second time around.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window.

The words and music for this arrangement of The trees they do grow high are entirely from memory, having performed several different versions of the song over the years, including that used by Martin Carthy on his self-titled first album, 1965, and that sung by Walter Pardon of Knapton, Norfolk. The tune, it turns out, I unconsciously changed in memory from that sung by Mrs. Joiner of Chiswell Green, Hertfordshire, to folk song collector Lucy Broadwood on 7th September 1914, the source used on Martin Carthy’s recording. Lucy Broadwood’s original notation manuscript of Mrs. Joiner’s singing (below) can be found along with many others on the excellent Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. With thanks to Brian Peters for pointing me in the direction of Mrs. Joiner.


20th and 19th centuries: folk revival, traditional singers and broadsides

The trees they do grow high, with various tunes and titles, has been one of the staple songs of the folk revival for performers including Martin Carthy, A. L. Lloyd, The Pentangle, Joan Baez, John Renbourn, Robin and Barry Dransfield, Steeleye Span, Altan, Alan Stivell, and others. It has been a favourite, too, among generations of singers for whom traditional singing was just part of what they, their family and their community did, and who came to light as part of the folk revival: Joe Heaney, Fred Jordan, Lizzie Higgins, Walter Pardon, George Dunn and many others.

Go back one or two generations to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was collected multiple times and widely in Scotland, England, Ireland and the U.S.A. by travelling folk song collectors such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Cecil Sharp, Frank Kidson, Lucy Broadwood, Anne Gilchrist, Sabine Baring-Gould, Percy Grainger, Henry Hammond, and others.

Some of the many 20th century singers of The trees they do grow high. Left to right: Joan Baez, The Pentangle, Lizzie Higgins, Joe Heaney, Robin and Barry Dransfield. (As with all pictures, click for larger view.)

In the previous few generations before that, the song was very popular among singers in the 19th century, when it was printed several times as a broadside, a single sheet of paper printed with one or two songs. There were many such broadsides of this song printed between 1840 and 1885, now in the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, all telling the story in a similar way to that under the title given in 1824: The Young Laird of Craigs Town.

1824: The Young Laird of Craigs Town

A North Countrie Garland, edited by James Maidment, was published in 1824, including words and commentary to the song, The Young Laird of Craigstoun. The song appears exactly as follows, with its asterisked explanatory note. It does not differ materially in content from the broadsides and oral tradition variants of the 19th and 20th centuries, though in Maidment’s version the scansion is longer in the repeated chorus. In the penultimate verse, Holland is a fine, plain-woven linen, and sark is a shirt or chemise.

Portrait of a woman, c. 1532-35, by Han Holbein, wearing a pinned-on Holland linen shawl and cap under a woollen hat.
Portrait of a woman, c. 1532-35, by Hans Holbein. She is wearing a pinned-on Holland linen shawl and Holland cap under a woollen hat.

“FATHER,” said she, “you have done me wrong,
For ye have me married on a childe young man,
For ye have me married on a childe young man,
And my bonny love is long
A growing, growing, deary,
Growing, growing, said the bonny maid
How long my bonny love’s growing.

“Daughter,” said he, I have done you no wrong,
For I have married you on a heritor of land,
He’s likewise possessed of many bills and bonds,
And he’ll be daily
Growing, growing, deary,” &c.

“Daughter,” said he, “if you wish to do well,
Ye will send your husband away to the school,
That he of learning may gather great skill,
And he’ll be daily
Growing, growing, deary,” &c.

Now young Craigstoun to the college is gone,
And left his lady making great moan,
That she should be forced to lie a-bed alone,
And that he was so long,
A-growing, growing, &c.

She’s dressed herself in robes of green,
They were right comely to be seen,
She was the picture of Venus’ queen
And she’s to the college to see
Him growing, growing, &c.

Then all the Colleginers were playing at the ba’,
But the young Craigstoun was the flower of them a’;
He said, “Play on, my schoolfellows a’,
For I see my sister
Coming, coming,” &c.

Now down into the college park
They walked about till it was dark.
Then he lifted up her fine Holland sark,
And she had no reason to complain
Of his growing, growing, &c.

In his twelfth year he was a married man,
In his thirteenth year then he got a son; *
And in his fourteenth year his grave grew green,
And that was the end
Of his growing, growing, &c.

* By the extinction of the elder branch of the family this son succeeded to the estate of Cromarty.

So we have all the familiar elements of the song: a daughter complaining to her father that she is being married against her will to a young boy; the father’s justification of financial gain; the boy being sent away to school; the young woman’s affection for him growing; the boy married, siring a child and dying in consecutive years (the specific ages vary in different versions). No mention of trees growing high in this version, which is a later addition.

James Maidment’s commentary [with my explanations in square brackets], states that the “estate of Craigstoun [or Craigtown or Craigston in Highland Scotland] was acquired by John Urquhart, better known by the name of the Tutor of Cromarty.” This John Urquhart of the Cromarty estate, Craigstown, was born in 1547 and died in 1631, aged 84. Having had two daughters and three sons from his first marriage and no surviving children from his second, John Urquhart married his third wife, Elizabeth Seton, in 1610, when he was 63 and she was 18. On John Urquhart’s death in 1631, his eldest son from his first marriage, John Urquhart (same name) of Laithers was due to inherit. The potential inheritor had, however, shown an inability to manage his own affairs and so was disinherited: the estate passed to the eldest grandson, born in 1611, making him 20 years old at the time of his inheritance. The grandson, also called John, thus allegedly became The Young Laird of Craigstoun of the song’s title. “It would appear”, comments Maidment, “that the ballad refers to [this] grandson, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Robert Innes of that ilk, and by her had one son.”

If Maidment’s claims are verifiable, this locates the story the song is allegedly based on in the 17th century, the baroque period, not the middle ages, which definitively ended during the 15th century. Trying to make sense of Maidment’s comments by comparison with official records leads to a startling find and irreconcilable contradictions. It is certainly not true, as the song says, that “young Craigstoun” “was a married man” in “his twelfth year”. John Urquhart the inheriting grandson was born in 1611, and so was 10 years older than his wife, Elizabeth née Innes, born in 1621. According to these records, Elizabeth was only 13 years old in 1634 when her husband died, making the female the subject of child marriage, not the male. I can’t find a wedding date for the couple, so it is entirely possible that it was she who was 12 years old when married. James Maidment cites John Spalding’s Memorialls of the Troubles in Scotland, written between 1624 and 1645, which states that the marriage of John Urquhart and Elizabeth Innes was “not without her consent, as was thought”, and was done “quietly”.

For a moment, let’s assume the connection between ballad and events is real. In that case, since all the males in the story are called John, I wonder if the marital age difference in the song was an artistic amalgamation of grandfather and grandson’s stories, taken from the gap between the original John Urquhart and his wife, Elizabeth Seton, married at the respective ages of 63 and 18, and the age gap between inheriting grandson John Urquhart and Elizabeth Innes, probably aged 22 and 12, then gender-swapped in the ballad.

The official records contradict Maidment’s assertion that John and Elizabeth Urquhart had a child. Elizabeth née Innes gave birth to three children in the consecutive years from 1636, making her a mother at only 15 years old. Having been widowed, her new husband and the father of her three children was Alexander, Lord Brodie. There are no records of her having a child with John Urquhart. Therefore Maidment’s note for the final verse, “By the extinction of the elder branch of the family this son succeeded to the estate of Cromarty” is based on the unsubstantiated myth that John Urquhart and Elizabeth Innes had a child together and were thus the subjects of the song.

It seems like a lot of hard work to link a historical event to the ballad. If we question the validity of Maidment’s and Spalding’s connection of the song with the Urquharts and stop trying so hard, it is by no means clear that The Young Laird of Craigstoun is based on true events. The song gives no specific names or dates; there is no evidence of the constellation of forced marriage in the family as there is in the song (though it is difficult to imagine a 12 year old Elizabeth Innes giving true consent); no betrothal of a young woman to a boy; and therefore no one was sent away for education until he was old enough to marry; and there was no child from the marriage as there is in the ballad. There were two marriages in the Urquhart family with a large age gap, though the genders are the reverse of those described in the ballad; and there was a father who died young, but without siring a child, as he does in the song. The link of the ballad to an actual young laird of Craigstoun is either non-existent, extremely tenuous or highly confused. None of the historical facts are remarkable, given the times, and none fit the specific details of the ballad. If the connection is real – and there is no real evidence for this – then the originating events have been overlaid with a thick patina of fantasy.

1792: Lady Mary Ann, credited (erroneously) to Robert Burns

Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of Robert Burns.
Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of Robert Burns.

The earliest published complete version of the song is Lady Mary Ann, now commonly credited to Robert Burns (1759–1796). Scotland’s national poet lived in the days when copyright was a new idea. The very first copyright law historically was enacted in England in 1710. The Statute of Anne was the first to enshrine in law the idea that the author of a work legally owns it, and can protect the work from being copied by others. Burns, in common with others in his and previous times, was happy to take existing verses or melodies, change it or rearrange it a little, then put his name to it in the same way as he would an entirely original piece. This was within the law since there was no copyright legislation for unpublished works.

James Johnson and Robert Burns first met in 1787, when Johnson was working on the first volume of his book series, Scots Musical Museum, published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803, in which Lady Mary Ann was first published in 1792. Burns presented a copy of Scots Musical Museum to Captain Riddel of Glenriddel, which had Burns’ own handwritten interleaved annotations throughout; and it is these annotations James Currie uses in his The Works of Robert Burns: With Dr. Currie’s Memoir of the Poet, and an Essay on His Genius and Character, Volume 2, 1844, my source for the song under discussion.

Auld lang syne in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum with Robert Burns’ annotations.
Auld lang syne in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum with Robert Burns’ annotations.

James Currie notes, without giving his source, that “Burns noted the words and the air from a lady, during one of his tours in the North”, stating unambiguously that Burns is not the author. He continues, “A complete copy of the old ballad was first published in the North Countrie Garland, Edinburgh 1824”. This second statement, referring to The Young Laird of Craigs Town discussed above, is intriguing. Does Currie’s reference to this “old ballad” suggest that he thinks The Young Laird is of greater antiquity than Lady Mary Ann, and that Lady Mary Ann is incomplete? Since we lack a definite date for The Young Laird, it is impossible to know or to verify, but in terms of publication dates, which is all we have to go on, Lady Mary Ann is first.

Crucially, in Scots Musical Museum, James Johnson does not credit his friend Burns as the author of Lady Mary Ann (Volume IV, song 377, page 390), and neither does Burns credit himself when he annotates, “The starting verse should be restored”, which he then writes out, as below. English equivalents of some words are in square brackets.

Lady Mary Ann, 1792

Burns annotated in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum,
“The starting verse should be restored:–

Lady Mary Ann gaed out o’ her bower,
An’ she found a bonnie rose new i’ the flower;
As she kiss’d its ruddy lips drapping wi’ dew,
Quo’ she, ye’re nae sae sweet as my Charlie’s mou’.”

The song is printed thus:

Lady Mary Ann as it appears in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum.
Lady Mary Ann as it appears in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum.

O Lady Mary Ann looks o’er the Castle wa’,
She saw three bonie boys playing at the ba’,
The youngest he was the flower amang them a’,
My bonie laddie’s young, but he’s growin’ yet.

O father, O father, an ye think it fit,
We’ll send him a year to the college yet,
We’ll sew a green ribbon round about his hat,
And that will let them ken he’s to marry yet.

Lady Mary Ann was a flower in the dew,
Sweet was its smell and bonie was its hue,
And the longer it blossom’d the sweeter it grew,
For the lily in the bud will be bonier yet.

Young Charlie Cochran was the sprout of an aik [oak],
Bonie and bloomin’ and straught [straight] was its make,
The sun took delight to shine for its sake,
And it will be the brag [best] o’ the forest yet.

The simmer [summer] is gane [gone] when the leaves they were green,
And the days are awa’ that we hae seen,
But far better days I trust will come again;
For my bonie laddie’s young, but he’s growin’ yet.

Arthur Aiken, in The Annual review and history of literature, 1809, referring to the second printed verse above, noted that, among lovers, green ribbon signifies hope and yellow ribbon represents being forsaken.

Not only is the identification of “young Craigstoun” and his wife with actual people tenuous in the extreme, I have not been able to find any information about Lady Mary Ann and Charlie Cochran; neither have I found any commentator or researcher who has found anything. Their identities may be lost, or it is entirely possible, of course, that they were always fictitious. The traditional ballad of The Duke of Bedford, for example, collected from singers in the late 19th and early 20th century, has him as “a dead body wash’d away by the tide”, taken to Portsmouth and “to London, the place he was born”. Some years ago I contacted the ducal family to find out if there was any truth in the story in respect of any of their ancestors: none at all.

Lady Mary Ann lacks the tragic details of The Young Laird of Craigs Town and of the 19th century broadsides. In Lady Mary Ann, the couple are betrothed rather than married, they are “to marry yet”. While both partners are young, no age gap is mentioned. “Young Charlie Cochran” is a “sprout”, he’s “young, but he’s growin’ yet”, and Lady Mary Ann is also described as young and growing, “a flower in the dew”, i.e. she is still in the early morning of her life and yet to grow: “the lily in the bud will be bonier yet”. Neither is there any mention of an arranged marriage, and indeed the love Mary Ann feels for Charlie (we’re not told his feelings) from the beginning suggests a love match, however young they may be.

It is entirely possible that an existing and fictitious song such as Lady Mary Ann (or a variant) was adapted to become The Young Laird of Craigs Town. Such a remoulding of a traditional song was common practice: songs about war, for example, were often given new verses and the verses that were retained simply had the names of locations and reigning monarchs replaced. The early 18th century song, Over the Hills and Far Away, for example, existed in several versions as a love song and several others as a military song, the latter variants declaring that it is either “The queen” or “Queen Anne” or “King George” who “commands and we obey”.

We have an example of just this adaptive process specifically with Lady Mary Ann. In Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern: With an Historical Introduction and Notes, edited by William Motherwell, 1827, the editor cites a song published in 1808 to the same air as Lady Mary Ann, and gives one only verse, since he judges it to be of poor quality. You’ll see why:

My lady Dundonald sits singing and spinning
Drawing a thread frae her tow rock;
And it weel sets me for to wear a gude cloak,
And I span ilka thread o’t mysell so I did.
Lilty teedle doodle do, doodle do,
Lilty teedle doodle do dan. Lilty teedle & c.

The mention of “My lady Dundonald” in the song does not mean, of course, that such a titled lady at a spinning wheel actually existed.

1776 or later: David Herd’s fragment

Burns’ older contemporary, David Herd (1732–1810) of Edinburgh, was a collector of “the common popular songs and national music”. He published his Ancient and modern Scottish songs, heroic ballads, etc. in Two Volumes, printed in 1769, enlarged in 1776 and 1791, stating in the Preface that “Many of these are recovered from tradition or old MSS. and never before appeared in print.”

One two-verse fragment that didn’t appear in the book is a version of the song Robert Burns collected, almost identical to Burns’ two first printed verses, but with slightly shorter scansion, and not mentioning Lady Mary Ann:

She look’d o’er the castle wa’,
She saw three lads play at the ba’,
O the youngest is the flower of a’!
But my love is lang o’ growing.

‘O father, gin ye think it fit,
We’ll send him to the college yet,
And tye a Ribban round his hat,
And, father, I’ll gang wi him!’

The verses were published in Songs from David Herd’s Manuscripts, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Hans Hecht, Dr:Phil (Edinburgh: William J. Hay), published in 1904. Dr. Hecht states that the song words were written largely in David Herd’s own hand, as was the above, called My love is lang a-growing in the collection. The writing of all fragments is dated to 1776 or later.

What these verses infer about the development of the story is impossible to say without the rest of the ballad, which we cannot assume is the same as extant versions. Does sending the boy to college infer the significant age gap of The Young Laird of Craigs Town? It may, but not necessarily. It could suggest, as it seems to in Lady Mary Ann, simply a way of keeping him occupied until such an age as their betrothal can turn to marriage. We cannot assume from this fragment either the rosiness of Lady Mary Ann or the heartache of The Young Laird.

Uncertain chronology

It is impossible to know for sure whether The Young Laird adds the tragic elements of the story or Lady Mary Ann omits them, since the publication dates may not follow the song’s chronological evolution. The Young Laird was published in 1824 but allegedly refers back to events in 1633–34. If we take this contentious and thoroughly muddled connection to be real, it raises a key question: was this a 19th century song adaptation long after the 17th century event, or the 200 year survival of a song contemporaneous with a real-life story? There are two possibilities: that The Young Laird is not an adaptation at all, but a version of the original ballad, based on true events, which then became softened and prettied as Lady Mary Ann; or that the original Lady Mary Ann was then adapted to include the tragic past events of The Young Laird in a fantasised form. Both these possibilities, linked as they are to real events, lack any supporting evidence.

Certainty is impossible but, as folk songs go, names like “Lady Mary Ann”, “my lady Dundonald”, and “young Craigstoun” could be as interchangeable in the development of a song as names of battlefields, seas and monarchs, and may be chosen at random from the living, the dead or the entirely fictitious, as was the Duke of Bedford. I can see no evidence that links The Young Laird of Craigs Town with the Urquharts, and plenty of specific evidence to contradict it. Indeed, there are no particulars in the ballad to securely link the song to any historical people.

1634: Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare

Playwrights John Fletcher (1579–1625) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616).
Playwrights John Fletcher (1579–1625) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

In his Everyman’s Book of English Country Songs, Roy Palmer claims that in John Fletcher and William Shakespeare’s play, Two Noble Kinsmen, “one of the characters sings a snatch of the ‘old ballad’”, by which he means a version of The trees. Two Noble Kinsmen was first published in 1634, the same year as the death of 43 year old John Urquhart, so if Roy Palmer was right it would be highly significant, showing that The Young Laird was an adaptation of an earlier song.

However, Roy Palmer doesn’t state which character sings the song, nor does he give the words sung, nor the act or scene. I’ve read the play and word-searched it electronically: there is no reference to an “old ballad”, nor any reference to any song that resembles or implies The trees they do grow high or its variants.

Was Roy Palmer working on hearsay? Or did he mean to refer to another play by John Fletcher or William Shakespeare? I’ve searched, and can find no reference to any character in any John Fletcher or William Shakespeare text referring to an “old ballad” or a song resembling The trees. Alas.

A medieval song?

A. L. Lloyd and Martin Carthy.
A. L. Lloyd and Martin Carthy.

In the sleeve notes to his self-titled first album in 1965, Martin Carthy commented briefly on the 18th and 19th century sources mentioned above, then added that “the ballad may well be older as child marriages of convenience were by no means uncommon in mediaeval times.”

The idea seems to be taken from A. L. Lloyd – who Martin Carthy greatly admires – in Lloyd’s notes to the song on his album from 1960, A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs: “There is a story that the ballad was made after the death in 1634 of the juvenile laird of Craigton who married a girl some years older than himself, and died within a short time. In fact, the song is probably older, and may have originated in the Middle Ages when the joining of two family fortunes by child-marriage was not unusual.”

As shown above, A. L. Lloyd, in referring to the imputed story behind The Young Laird of Craigstoun, was wrong about the age gap: John Urquhart, laird of Craigton, was not a juvenile and was 10 years older than his wife, Elizabeth née Innes, who was, in fact, the juvenile.

It is certainly true that marriages of economic convenience took place in the middle ages, when marriage was under the jurisdiction of the church and there was no separation between church and state. But were there medieval child marriages? That, of course, depends on how we define adulthood, and that has changed over time. The church considered that girls at the age of 12 and boys at 14 had reached maturity, and so at those ages could give assent to marriage and have their first confession heard. Marriage carried with it a host of social meanings; primarily, for our purpose, entry into adult society and the establishment of a household. So economics played a significant part in who you married: brides carried dowries of land or money, so if a man was to establish a stable household, he did well to marry a woman who brought a good dowry, within the limitations of the feudal system where people married within their own class.

This being the case, the age an individual married in practice depended on their sex, class and economic status. Men married older than women, as they had primary economic responsibility, and the lower down the social hierarchy you were, the more effort you had to make to establish a landholding, a workshop or a trade, and so the older you married. Reliable medieval statistics are difficult to ascertain, but it appears that the average wedding for a female peasant took place when she was in her early 20s, late 20s for men; falling for prosperous city-dwellers to late teens for women, with a wide variety of ages for men, but almost always older than women. With mention of castle walls and college, the couple marrying in the song are certainly of the aristocracy and, for them, the age fell again: mid-teens for females, early 20s for men. And there are, of course, examples of aristocratic childhood betrothals to cement familial alliances, with marriage later. This is apparent in David Herd’s fragment, in Lady Mary Ann, in The Young Laird of Craigs Town and in The trees they do grow high and variants, with their reference to the boy being sent away to college until he’s old enough to marry.

But while all this is true – and I’ve heard and read the claim many times that this is a medieval song on the basis of child marriage – there is no evidence for the song prior to David Herd’s textual fragment of 1776 or later. By this date, we are past the middle ages, through the renaissance, beyond baroque, and into the classical period. Among the aristocracy of this time, we don’t have to look too hard to find politically or economically convenient child marriages.

Princess Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, married in 1697 on her 12th birthday; and Marie Antoinette, married in 1770 when she was 14.
Princess Marie Adélaïde of Savoy, married in 1697 on her 12th birthday; and Marie Antoinette, married in 1770 when she was 14.

On 6th December 1697, Princess Marie Adélaïde of Savoy became the wife of Louis, Dauphin of France and Duke of Burgundy, in the Palace of Versailles. He was 15. It was her 12th birthday.

On 19th April 1770, Marie Antoinette was legally married by proxy in Vienna to the Dauphin of France. Her husband, the Dauphin, Louis Auguste, was not only absent – her brother, Archduke Ferdinand, stood in for him – she had never even met him. She did so a month later, on 14th May, with the ceremonial wedding in the Palace of Versailles 2 days later. He was 15. She was 14.

There are other examples, and it is worth remembering that the concern for childhood, and the extension of the years considered to be childhood, are very much 20th century phenomena, concomitant with the rise of universal schooling and the eradication of child labour. It follows, then, that the presence of a child marriage in a song is certainly no indication of medieval origins.

A widely popular ballad

Like Greensleeves, The trees they do grow high has attracted unquestioned claims: that it is definitively about specific people – an attractive idea for which there is no evidence and which is clearly contradicted by the facts of the Urquharts’ biographies; that Lady Mary Ann was written by Robert Burns – which wasn’t claimed by Burns himself nor his friend, James Johnson, who published it, and which is contradicted by other witnesses; that it is medieval in origin – for which there is not a single piece of evidence, and the basis on which the claim is made is demonstrably erroneous.

We have a widely and internationally popular ballad that, like so many traditional songs, has appeared in divergent forms with a range of melodies and scansions, evolving for two and a half centuries. Something important has kept it going. It could be the pathos in the story; the singers’ identification with the injustice of youngsters deprived of their freedom in love; the emotional pull of the young love that develops; or sympathy and identification with the grief for a husband dying too soon and a woman left to bring up a child on her own. Its widespread and long-lived esteem among singers and listeners speaks for itself. Such popularity is not based on its questionable historical veracity, but on the emotional connection singer and audience make with the song.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.


4 thoughts on “The trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

  • 5th June 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Ian,

    fascinating article. I love Britten’s arrangement of this song. I enjoyed your harp performance a lot too. It seems there may be one or two issues with all the Johns (the Urquharts). The link you give for the chap (John, who married – it seems – Elizabeth Innes) who died as you say aged 43 says he died aged 23 (b.1611 d.1634). This may have made him a younger chap than you say when he married and had his own son, but I really don’t know. I’m just starting research on the subject myself, having discovered, and fallen in love with, Britten’s arrangement.

    I hope you don’t mind me adding these comments. I don’t mean to be a picky so and so. I comment because I’m interested too.


  • 5th June 2016 at 5:21 pm

    Hello, Tom.

    I am extremely grateful for your contribution. You’re quite right: John the youngest Urquhart, who married Elizabeth Innes, died aged 23, not 43. Having realised this, I retraced my steps and, in doing so, questioned every detail one more time. In doing so, one part of the ‘evidence’ linking history and ballad unravelled before my eyes: the inheriting son of John and Elizabeth was, it seems, invented by folk song commentators to make events fit the ballad, since there is no evidence of his existence. This being so, the final card that builds any possible credible link between ballad and actual people has been removed, and the whole house of cards has collapsed. I have therefore substantially rewritten the relevant sections of the article above, and been bolder in my assertion that the link between song and actual people is entirely without foundation. This process also revealed to me that the relationship that the ballad is allegedly based on *was* indeed a child marriage – but the child was the girl, not the boy, as was, historically, almost always so in the case of a substantial age gap.

    So thank you, Tom. Please let me know what you find out about Benjamin Britten’s arrangement. It certainly seems to be based on Mrs. Joiner’s singing to Lucy Broadwood in 1914, as is mine above.

    My best wishes.


  • 3rd August 2016 at 10:59 pm

    Hi, I am doing a research on this ballad and is seeking for the purpose it was written, or the theme of this poem.
    Thank you

  • 5th August 2016 at 1:27 pm

    Hello, Phoebe. The theme of this song is clear, I hope, from the article above. If there is anything specific not addressed that you’re looking for, please do ask and I’ll do my best. As for the purpose it was written, I show above that it certainly wasn’t to tell the story of a real event, though that is often claimed. The origin of this particular song is unclear. As with so many songs of this period, we don’t have an author, a geographical region of composition or any other details. In general, songs like this were learned and passed on as a way of uniting people in leisure activities, making music together, and such songs were passed down the generations. A great many of them, like this one, were tragic. Why is that? We could conjecture that such songs help people feel a common cause with the song’s protagonists, that the songs reflect the sad events of their own lives; or maybe that people just like their entertainment with lots of emotional oomph, just as today we like action films and weepies.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *