Sung in the Kitchen, Whispered in the Hall: Scott & the Ballad Tradition in "The Heart of Midlothian"

It struck him as a curious fact that he had never heard a member of the Party singing alone and spontaneously.  It would even have seemed slightly unorthodox, a dangerous eccentricity, like talking to oneself.  Perhaps it was only when people were somewhere near the starvation level that they had anything to sing about.

George Orwell, 1984

“The elfin knight sate on the brae,
The broom grows bonnie, the broom grows fair;
And by there came lilting a lady so gay,
And we daurna gang down to the broom any mair.” (Scott 100)


“Scott makes Effie Deans, in The Heart of Midlothian, vol. 1, ch. 10, sing this stanza, probably of his own making,” says Francis James Child, in a note to the sixteenth entry in his collection, The English & Scottish Popular Ballads (186).  A hybridized verse drawn from disparate sources, it serves both a dramatic and thematic purpose in Scott’s novel: dramatic, in that it is used by Effie to divert attention from an indiscretion; thematic, in that the songs from which Effie draws her lines in themselves reflect not only the darker issues at work in the novel, but the contrasting characters of Effie and Jeanie on a fundamental level.
            Historically, as a mode of public communication readily available to an illiterate population, ballads functioned in a variety of ways beyond their primary function as entertainment: as the repository of social mores (not necessarily in keeping with religious or political doctrine); as admonitions to the community on the vulnerability of the individual; as a way of recording (and often editorializing on) events present and past.  As an early collector of ballads, Scott was fully aware of the role of this tradition in society, and so, in his representation of the Deans family and their troubles, he makes significant use of it.
            In traditional ballads of Scotland and the north of England, the phrase “going to the broom” is a common metaphor used to represent sex out of wedlock.  Lines two and four of Scott’s chapter 10 stanza are associated with the ballad Sheath & Knife.  Child comments that Scott recalled hearing this song as a boy (187), and, though Scott’s memory of the verses was incomplete, Child includes them as the B version in his collection.  The song deals with brother-sister incest, murder/suicide, and infanticide:  a woman is impregnated by her brother; at her own request, he kills her (and the baby); and then, after lamenting the loss of his knife and the sheath that contained it, he kills himself.  “The revolting nature of the subject of this ballad,” wrote William Motherwell (Child’s source for his A version), “might, on the opinion of many readers, have been a sufficient reason for withholding its publication; but, as tales of this kind abound in the traditional poetry of Scotland…” (63).   Clearly Motherwell could find no scholarly defense for omitting so emblematic (not to say interesting) an artifact in his own collection. 
It isn’t difficult to see why this song would have occurred to Scott as an appropriate bit of verse to put in Effie’s mouth.   Scott’s own memory of the nursemaid’s song ran this way:

Ae lady has whispered the other,
The broom grows bonnie, the broom grows fair,
Lady Margaret’s wi’ bairn to Sir Richard, her brother.
And we daur na gae doun to the broom nae mair.

“And when ye hear me loud, loud cry,
O bend your bow, let your arrow fly.

But when you see me lying still,
O then you may come and greet your fill.”

“It’s I hae broken my little pen-knife,
That I loed dearer than my life.

It’s no for the knife that my tears down run,
But it’s a’ for the case that my knife was kept in.” (Child 186)

The infanticide verse was either one Scott ‘s nursemaid judiciously edited out, or he simply couldn’t remember how it went.  It is included, however, in Motherwell’s version, and it is likely that Scott was familiar with it, even if he hadn’t heard it in his youth:

“Then he dug her a grave both long, wide and deep,
And he buried his own sister with their baby at her feet.” (Child 186)

In this ballad, unlike many others, there is no clear protagonist or antagonist, only people paying a heavy toll for their own indiscretions. The song begins with a rumor in the community of an egregious transgression of community law; the rumor turns out to be fact; in the eyes of the perpetrators, the remedy for the transgression is a series of additional transgressive acts, ending in the (inferred) death by suicide of the remaining perpetrator. The fact that the subjects take matters into their own hands – appropriating from the community the act of judgement – leaves no room for comment, either from the whisperers or from an external narrator.   Since there is no appeal or even reference to the laws of Religion or the State, it is left to the audience to make of the story what they will. 
In a sense, this resonates with Effie’s progress through The Heart of Mid-Lothian, in that her transgressions – her liaison with “Robertson” (a transgression against the moral codes under which she was raised), her refusal to turn him in (a transgression against the State), her eventual elopement with him (a transgression against her family) – are matters of personality rather than intent.  In other words, she transgresses in a series of bids for personal happiness, rather than with the direct intention of doing harm to other people.  And as in the ballad, the outcome of her actions proves its own judgement and conviction – life with Staunton, though it does bring social elevation and its corresponding wealth and influence, does not bring happiness.
Meanwhile, back on the brae, the Elfin Knight sate, waiting to be placed in the grand scheme of things.  In his notes, Tony Inglis, the editor of the Penguin edition of The Heart of Mid-Lothian, puts him squarely in Child 2, The Elfin Knight (108), as the Would-be Seducer of the archetypal Wise Virgin, who bests him in a game of riddles and thus retains her virginity.  But the source is more likely to be Child 4, Lady Isabel & the Elf Knight, which is where the Elf Knight is not only Would-be Seducer but Serial Killer (“It’s seven kings daughters here have I slain/And you shall be the eighth of them”), and Isabel, who has expressed interest in the Elf Knight as lover but not so much interest in being his next victim, turns the tables by (in at least one version) using her feminine wiles to lure him into a false sense of security, nicking his dagger, and stabbing him to death (or sometimes just skipping the preamble and pushing him into the sea).
            Whichever option we choose to apply, however, as the “broom” lines foreshadow Effie’s self-created difficulties, the “Elf Knight” line points to Jeanie as the solution.  In that mythic segment of the novel where Jeanie takes to the road, she has a long series of obstacles to overcome which require both cleverness (successful negotiation as a matter of self-defense) and spine (outwitting of superior forces by a combination of patience, guile and fortitude) – qualities Archetypal Wise Virgin and/or Lady Isabel exist to demonstrate.   
            Unlike the subjects of Sheath & Knife, in Lady Isabel we find a very clear protagonist, though not a flawless one.  In light of what comes after, her idle wish to have the Elf Knight for a lover, and her willingness to go off with him when he magically appears, stand as a warning to the audience on the evils of temptation, particularly of the supernatural, Devil-related kind. On the other hand, the song stands as an approbation of cool wits and treachery in the service of the preservation of self and the community (insofar as in saving herself she removes a common threat).  It is perhaps ironic that Jeanie, the level-headed, down-to-earth sister, is represented by this somewhat fanciful ballad of Temporal versus Supernatural, while Effie, whose imagined life is probably not much different from a ballad heroine of, say, the Bonnie May stripe (farmer’s daughter runs off with nobleman), is represented instead by the song of a reality raw, unbuffered, and grim.   

In his introduction to volume 1 of The Border Minstrelsy, Scott places the ballad tradition in terms of Rousseau:  “The more rude and wild the state of society, the more general and violent is the impulse received from poetry and music. The muse, whose effusions are the amusement of a very small part of a polished nation, records, in the lays of inspiration, the history, the laws, the very religion, of savages” (40). This, of course, would be a heavy-handed way of describing any of the characters in The Heart of Mid-Lothian.  In fact, the statement serves as preamble to Scott’s description of society in the Debatable Lands, that border region between southern Scotland and northern England that was at that time remote and fairly lawless.  It is also the area through which, in the novel, certain of the lower segments of society pass at will.  In the social striations of the 18th century Lowlands, these are not the “polished nation” -- “Their morality,” Scott says of the Border people, “was of a singular kind” (Minstrelsy 40).  However, Scott  argues that they are the bearers of a vestigial original culture.
In the chapter 10 scene referred to above, Jeanie silences Effie’s singing, on the grounds that their father is nearby and likely to overhear.  David Deans, whose particularly stringent sect of Scottish Calvinism leaves no room for music in the lives of the God-fearing, would certainly be shocked at the repertoire displayed by the youngest member of his household (and Jeanie’s knowledge of it betrayed by a swift “Whisht!”). Effie has not only turned out a verse of scandalous provenance, casually, off the cuff, and aloud, but follows it up with a fairly rude comic song intended as a thinly veiled taunt.   Effie has no need to carry the verse to its conclusion – Jeanie knows the lines well enough to be insulted by them before they’re sung.  In chapter 29, Dick Ostler suggests to Jeanie the perils of the road ahead obliquely with a Robin Hood song.  In chapter 18, Ratcliffe mocks his new (and apparently oblivious) boss Sharpitlaw by humming the tune to a particular song.  And Madge Wildfire, of course, is a constant stream of melodic commentary.
This particular store of knowledge represents a network of social and cultural references far different from David Deans’s dexterous and frequent wrangling of Scripture, Mr. Saddletree’s keen understanding of legal culture, and Mr. Butler’s intimate familiarity with the workings of accusative and dative.  In the world of Scott’s novel, these things are, if not the exclusive province of men – Deans would have his daughters able to read their Bibles – then certainly under the exclusive control of men, and men of a certain class.  Unlike the Psalms, Horace, or Balfour’s Practiques, very little of this body of narrative had anything to do with the printed page or literacy.  (The trend of publishing ballads from the oral tradition is thought to have started in the 1720s, but it would be a few decades yet before the cause of preservation would be taken up by bourgeois taste-makers. (Filene 10))  Thus do we find it instead in the mouths of dairy maids, madwomen, ostlers, and career criminals.   These are the people who are without much book-learning.  What they do know about is farming, or managing itinerant, border-crossing existences on the road, or the finer points of dodging the Long Arm of the Law while trying to make a living.  In other words, thoroughly practical knowledge about survival, born of social conditions where the more formal – which is to say, printed – codes of law are often incomprehensible, impractical, and, at worst, genocidal.  In The Heart of Mid-Lothian, these (except for the Duke of Argyle, who is a whole other story) are the only people who sing. 
The fundamental goal of Power is to solidify its base and perpetuate itself.  While Religion and the State, as institutions, are all about carving in stone, the ballad tradition is fluid. It acknowledges and respects the inevitability of change.  It is often more reflective of the values of the community, being of the community itself, than any externally applied body of religious or legal doctrine.  It has no minister or chancellor, no Westminster or Nicaea, no Covenant, no Apocrypha.  Thus, paradoxically, among the continually and dangerously shifting polarities that form the historical framework of this novel, songs come to represent a lingua franca of the Constant.


Child, Francis James.  The English & Scottish Popular Ballads. Vol. 1.  New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1965.

Filene, Benjamin.  Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Motherwell, William.  Minstrelsy, Ancient & Modern. Vol. 2.  Boston: William D. Ticknor & Co., 1846.

Scott, Sir Walter.  Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.  New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1931.

Scott, Sir Walter.  The Heart of Mid-Lothian. New York: Penguin, 1994.