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

The trees they do grow high is a traditional 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, The Young Laird of Craigstoun, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the USA from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (describing 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 repeated assertions from the substantiated evidence.


My aim in this article is to trace the development 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.

Having performed several different traditional versions of The trees they do grow high over the years, the words and music in the video above were arrived at by an osmosis of various variants. Brian Peters – to whom many thanks – pointed out that I had unconsciously modified the tune sung by Mrs. Joiner of Chiswell Green, Hertfordshire, collected by Lucy Broadwood on 7th September 1914. Such a change is the folk process in action, as we’ll see below. Lucy Broadwood’s original notation manuscript of Mrs. Joiner’s singing (below) can be found along with many other facsimiles from traditional song collection notebooks on the excellent Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.


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 received wider attention in the folk revival: Joe Heaney, Fred Jordan, Lizzie Higgins, Walter Pardon, George Dunn and many others.

Some of the many 20th century singers of The trees they do grow high:
Joan Baez, The Pentangle, Lizzie Higgins, Joe Heaney, Robin and Barry Dransfield.
(As with all pictures, click for a larger view.)
The broadside My Bonny Lad Is
Young and Growing, printed in
London between 1858 and 1885.

Go back three or four generations to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the song was collected multiple times and widely in Scotland, England, Ireland and the USA 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.

Between 1840 and 1885, within the lifetime of singers who sang to these folk song collectors, The trees was printed several times under various titles as a broadside, a single sheet of paper printed with one or two songs. The Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, has several copies, one example of which is seen on the right. All the 19th century broadsides tell the story in a similar way to that under the title given in 1824: The Young Laird of Craigstoun.

1824: The Young Laird of Craigstoun

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 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 published 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 the editor of A North Countrie Garland, antiquary James Maidment, 1795-1879, painted by William Greenlees.

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.

Portrait of a woman, c. 1532-35,
by Hans Holbein, wearing a
pinned-on Holland linen shawl
and cap under a woollen hat.
(As with all pictures,
click for a larger view.)

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. This 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.” 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”.

If James Maidment’s claims are verifiable, this locates the alleged story behind the song in the 17th century, the baroque period, not the middle ages, which definitively ended during the 15th century. However, his claim to locate the details of the song in the lives of John and Elizabeth Urquhart prove false in every detail. It is not true, as the song says and Maidment claims to verify, that “young Craigstoun” was married in his 12th year, a father in his 13th year, and dead in his 14th year. I can’t find a wedding date for the couple, but since John Urquhart died in 1634, let’s assume it was 1633. John Urquhart the inheriting grandson was born in 1611, and so was 10 years older than his wife, Elizabeth née Innes, born in 1621: this would make him 22 years old and Elizabeth 12 years old when they wed, making the female the subject of child marriage, not the male. The official records also contradict Maidment’s assertion that John and Elizabeth Urquhart had a child, as in the ballad: when John Urquhart died at 23 years old and left Elizabeth Urquhart a widow at 13 years old, they were childless. Elizabeth gave birth to three children in the consecutive years from 1636, making her a mother at only 15 years old. Her new husband and the father of her three children was Alexander, Lord Brodie. 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 false assertion that John Urquhart and Elizabeth Innes had a child together and were thus the subjects of the song.

For a moment, let’s assume the association of ballad and events is real. Since all the males in the story are called John, the marital age difference in the song may be 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 with the sexes swapped in the ballad. But this is a lot of work to alter the supposed originating story to make it fit the ballad, and there are additional insurmountable problems: the song gives an aristocratic title, the young laird (lord) of Craigstoun, but no names or dates to identify any specific person; there is evidence in the family of mature males wedding much younger and immature females, but no evidence of the betrothal of a young woman to a boy, as in the song; and therefore no boy was sent away for education until he was old enough to marry; and there was no child from the marriage in question. It is clear, then, that there is no connection between the ballad and the Urquharts, nor is there evidence that the ballad is based on any specific true events.

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

Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of Robert Burns.
Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of
Robert Burns, painted in 1787,
when the poet was 27 or 28 years old.
He died young, aged only 37.

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 legally enforced copyright was relatively new. The first copyright law giving protection to authors was enacted in England and Scotland in 1710. The Statute of Anne (after Queen Anne) enshrined in law that the author of a work has legal ownership of it, and can protect the work from being copied by others. Traditional songs, passed from person to person with no known author, were in the public domain. Burns, in common with others in his and previous times, was in the habit of taking existing traditional verses or melodies, changing, rewriting, rearranging or adding to them, then putting his name to the result in the same way as he would an entirely original piece. The distinction between a song Burns collected and modified, and one that was entirely his, is therefore not obvious without further investigation.

James Johnson and Robert Burns first met in 1787, when Johnson was working on the first volume of Scots Musical Museum, published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803. Lady Mary Ann was first published in this series 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.
James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum with Robert Burns’ annotations for Auld lang syne.

James Currie comments: “A complete copy of the old ballad was first published in the North Countrie Garland, Edinburgh 1824”. This “old ballad” is The Young Laird of Craigstoun. Currie is suggesting that The Young Laird, published in 1824, is of greater antiquity than Lady Mary Ann, published in 1792, and that Lady Mary Ann is an incomplete variant. This may be correct, but the claim is impossible to verify. He remarks 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. 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, published in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, 1792

Burns annotated: “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’.”

Lady Mary Ann as it appears
in James Johnson’s Scots
Musical Museum, 1792.

The song is printed thus:

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.

Lady Mary Ann lacks the tragic details of The Young Laird of Craigstoun and 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. In the last verse, the couple are both still alive and there is no child from their relationship.

Not only is the identification of “young Craigstoun” and his wife with actual people demonstrably false, 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 are, in all likelihood, as fictitious as “young Craigstoun”. Giving names and titles to fictitious characters is just as common in song as it is in plays and novels. 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.

Stories are changed and adapted in the retelling, deliberately and unconsciously. The relationship between Lady Mary Ann and The Young Laird of Craigstoun is clear, and such a remoulding of a traditional song was common practice. Songs about war, for instance, were often given new verses, with the names of locations and reigning monarchs altered to fit new usage in retained verses. 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”.

Not only words, but tunes are put to new purposes. We have an example of just this adaptive process 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:

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 that such a titled lady at a spinning wheel actually existed. Names like “Lady Mary Ann”, “young Craigstoun”, and “My lady Dundonald” were 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 with the fabricated Duke of Bedford.

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 (first volume here, second volume here), 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 two-volume 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 1904 in Songs from David Herd’s Manuscripts, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Hans Hecht, Dr: Phil (Edinburgh: William J. Hay). 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 Craigstoun? It may, but it could suggest, as in Lady Mary Ann, that both are too young for their betrothal to become a marriage. Without further verses, we cannot assume either the rosiness of Lady Mary Ann or the heartache of The Young Laird.

1612–14: 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 (J. M. Dent, 1979), Roy Palmer prints the version sung by Walter Pardon of Norfolk in 1975. 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’”, meaning a version of The trees. Two Noble Kinsmen was probably written in 1612–14. It was first published in 1634, the same year as the death of 23 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, pre-dating the story of the Urquharts, whose story James Maidment and many writers since have erroneously connected with the ballad.

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 mention of an “old ballad”, nor any reference to a song that resembles or implies The trees they do grow high in any form. In Act I, Scene 1, there is a musical performance of Roses their sharpe spines being gon, and in Act IV, Scene 1, there is spoken reference to three songs, May you never more enjoy the light, the Broome, and Bony Robin, none of which are in any way related to The trees

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.

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 this, Lloyd follows James Maidment. As shown above, Maidment 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 – and every detail of the ballad is demonstrably different to the supposed originating story. Then Lloyd goes further: “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.”

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 depends on how we define adulthood, and this has changed over time. Since the medieval period covers a millenium, a period too huge and unwieldy to make meaningful generalisations, the following figures focus on the period 1100–1300 (from Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe, Greenwood Press, 1999).

The church considered that girls at the age of 12 and boys at 14 had reached maturity, and so at those ages could give consent 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 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, so the older you married. Reliable statistics are difficult to ascertain, but the available evidence suggests 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 in the song are of the aristocracy and, for them, the age fell again: mid-teens for females, early 20s for men.

There are medieval examples of aristocratic childhood betrothals to cement familial alliances, with marriage later, and this is apparent in David Herd’s fragment, in Lady Mary Ann, in The Young Laird of Craigstoun 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. However, A. L. Lloyd’s reasoning that “the song is probably older [than the 17th century Urquharts], and may have originated in the Middle Ages when the joining of two family fortunes by child-marriage was not unusual” is faulty for three reasons. Firstly, as a principle of evidence, we are on wholly unsafe ground if we try to argue from a vague generality to make an unverified claim about any specific case. Secondly, there is no evidence for the song prior to David Herd’s fragment of 1776 or later and, by this date, we are past the middle ages, through the renaissance, beyond baroque, and into the classical period. Thirdly, among the aristocracy of this later period we can easily find politically and economically motivated 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 new 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, all pointing to the fact that the presence of child marriage in a song is no indication of medieval origins. The concern for childhood, and the extension of the years considered to be childhood, are modern 20th century phenomena, concomitant with the rise of state-funded schooling and the eradication of child labour. But even today the parameters of childhood are not universally agreed. Child marriage is still legal in many states of the USA: in 13 states there is no legal minimum age. In examples which mirror the marriages of the Urquhart family in the 17th century, in Tennessee in 2001, men aged 24, 25 and 31 all married girls aged 10, in Idaho a 17 year old bride married a 65 year old groom, and in Alabama a 14 year old girl married a 74 year old man. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of minors legally married in the USA was at least 207,468, and this figure is known to be incomplete. There are still 116 countries in which child marriage is legal.

A widely popular ballad

Like Greensleeves, The trees they do grow high has attracted repeated and unquestioned claims: that it is 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.

This was a widely and internationally popular ballad that, like so many traditional songs, has appeared in divergent forms with a range of melodies and scansions, developing into many variants for two and a half centuries. To be effective and affecting, songs, plays and novels do not have to be based on a real person’s biography. Such tragic ballads reflect reality inasmuch as they depict the kind of heartbreaking events familiar to their listening audience: its pathos is in identification with the injustice of youngsters deprived of their freedom in love; the emotional pull of the young love that develops; sympathy for and identification with the grief for a husband dying too soon and a woman left to bring up a child on her own. The long-lived popularity of The trees they do grow high is not founded on its questionable historical veracity, but on the emotional connection singer and audience make with the song: it is not witness to some imputed originating event, but to the emotional lives of successive generations of singers and listeners. 


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

6 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.

  • 21st October 2020 at 6:30 pm

    Thank you for the excellent article and, in particular, the debunking of the medieval origin claims for this ballad. The Carthies do seem to be overly fond of medieval origin stories for the songs they sing, typically with very little evidence to back it up. They also assert that ‘Bessy Bell and Mary Gray’ is medieval (specifically 14th Century), becuase it refers to a plague. Why it should be attributed to the Black Death rather than the Great Plague (or indeed a fictitious plague or any one of the countless small plagues that have ripped through the population every few years from the dawn of time until the invention of vaccination and antibiotics) I do not know…

    • 22nd October 2020 at 10:56 am

      Thank you, Miriam, much appreciated.

      I haven’t seen Martin Carthy’s claim that ‘Betsy Bell and Mary Gray’ is 14th century. In his notes for his album, ‘Shearwater’, 1972, Martin locates the song in the plague of the 17th century which came to Edinburgh in 1645, 20 years before it swept though London. In this case, the version he and Maddy Prior sing does make specific reference to a plague: “The plague came from the burrows-town, and it slew them both together.” The earliest date I can find for the variant which references the plague is in Thomas Lyle’s ‘Ancient Ballads and Songs’, 1827, in which we see that what Carthy and Prior sing is an Anglicisation of the Scots, which calls what they died of “the pest”, the Scottish term for the plague. This isn’t the first iteration of the song, and earlier versions show the story of Bessy (not Betsy) Bell and Mary Gray building a bower to escape the plague to be fanciful legend, but still the story is repeated by Thomas Lyle, Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy, Bob Hudson, Paul and Liz Davenport, and many others.

      The earliest version of the words I can find is an undated broadside now in the National Library of Scotland, which describes the beauty of Bessy and Mary in typically florid 17th century terms, with mention of their building “a Bower on yon Burn-brae” but with no reference to death or a plague, which is a later accretion. The only decision to be made in this early (earliest?) version is whether to choose Bessy Bell or Mary Gray for her overwhelming beauty. We know the song was around in 1616 in some form, as the tune appears in Jane Pickeringe’s hand-written lute book (BL Egerton 2046) as ‘Besse Bell’, with identical scansion to the broadside lyric. You can hear that tune as track 16 here:

      So ‘Bessy/Betsy Bell and Mary Gray’ is certainly 17th century, but with no hint of plague or death in its earlier form. Like ‘The trees they do grow high’, the story told about it is an interesting example of legend continually repeated as fact. In the case of ‘The trees’, the legend was created by an author through poor research and wishful thinking, then repeated by others who didn’t go back to sources and check; in the case of ‘Betsy Bell and Mary Gray’, the legend appears to have been created by locals, then repeated by authors who didn’t go back to sources and check. I certainly don’t want to appear over-critical about this, as the internet has changed everything. I can travel around the country and the world, checking manuscripts, books and official records, all from the comfort of my home computer. In the days when *actual* travel around the country and the world was necessary to check sources, anyone’s ability to cross-question the information they were given was hugely limited, expensive and time-consuming compared to now.

      Not being able to check sources doesn’t account for over-claiming when there is no evidence, though, as we see with ‘Death and the Lady’, performed here by Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy. Norma rightly says that the earliest versions of the song are 17th century, such as the broadsides here and here She then goes on to say that she and Martin are convinced the song dates back to the black death of the 14th century, despite there being no evidence of the song before the 17th century, and despite lack of any reference in the song to a cause of death. This falls foul of the first principle of evidence I cite in the article above, that we are on wholly unsafe ground if we try to argue from a vague generality to make an unverified claim about any specific case. I find such a leap of faith when there is no substantiating evidence difficult to explain, except that there seems to be some kudos among folk singers in trying to make the song as old as possible, regardless of evidence.

      I love Martin and Norma, by the way, but those origin stories really do need robust substantiation if they’re to be credible.

      All the best.



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