In recent years, this researcher has become obsessed with the haunting collecting of traditional English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis James Child during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Child was both a graduate of, and later professor at, Harvard University. This was quite an accomplishment for a man like Child, who hailed from a firmly working class background, in the nineteenth century. As such, it is hardly surprising that Child was something of Renaissance Man, reportedly being as equally talented as a mathematician, historian, and folklorist.
While nowadays we tend to think of ballads as being sappy love songs, a ballad in a traditional sense is simply a song that tells a story. This is especially true of the songs collected by Child. However, the collection that he assembled, commonly referred to as "Child Ballads," is quite esoteric and occultic.
This fact is probably lost on most American, however, as they are principally familiar with Child Ballads via a very specific type: the murder ballad. Murder ballads have been a staple in these United States since at least the nineteenth century, originally in folk, and later in both blues and country. This traditional was later translated into rock 'n' roll, ensuring its survival into the twenty-first century. In 1996, the Australian musician Nick Cave released a collection such songs in the aptly named Murder Ballads, which at the time became Cave's biggest commercial hit in the States. One of the songs, "Henry Lee," had its origins in the Child Ballad "Young Hunting" (Child 68). Elsewhere, many others are written in the style of a classic, Child-derived murder ballad.
The American obsession with murder ballads is indicative of the more literal and exoteric approach to this type of material, which stands in stark contrast to their roots in the British Isles. Most Child Ballads, including many of the murder-centric ones, are quite mythologically inclined. Ghosts, the fay, witches, and magic are all common staples, as are King Arthur and Robin Hood. Indeed, almost half of the ballads in the third volume of Child's magnum opus The English and Scottish Popular Ballads revolve around Robin Hood. By contrast, many of the more popular Child Ballads in these United States tend to be concerned with more sordid and "mundane" acts such as extramarital affairs and murder.
Child's decision to focus on more mystically-inclined ballads may have been influenced in part by his friendship with the Brothers Grimm. Certainly he makes extensive use of the brothers' research to trace the mythological origins of many of the ballads included in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. As should come as little surprise to regular readers of this blog (or The Secret Sun), the bulk of the Child Ballads involving "Otherwordly" beings (which is the principal focus on this particular article) have an origin in the Nordic countries and/or Scotland:
"In one important particular the balladries of Northern Europe differ from those elsewhere on the continent; the ballad traditions of the Nordic countries and Britain, especially Scotland, are distinguished by the relative prominence of their supernatural ballads. The prominence generally declined in the anglophone tradition transplanted to North America, although certain groups of ballads retained a strength in societies where they continued to fulfill certain socio-cultural functions for their audiences, such as revenant ballads in Newfoundland. In British balladry the supernatural ballads constitute one of the three major subgernes, one of itself comprises six minigenres, among them the ballads of Otherworld beings.
"Although some versions have been recorded in North America and one or two in England, this minigenre, as recorded, is preponderantly Scottish, which serves to underline the specifically Scottish-Nordic linkage in supernatural balladry..."
(The Good People, "Ballads of Other World Beings," David Buchan, pg. 142)
|the Brothers Grimm|
Elsewhere, no less an authority than the Nobel Prize-nominated novelist and poet Robert Graves would attempt to incorporate the most Otherwordly of Child's ballads into a neo-Paganism, especially in regards to Wicca and neo-Druidism. Graves' nonfiction work The White Goddess proved to be deeply influential on the pagan revival of the second half of the twentieth century. Peter Levenda describes it as "a canonical text of the European and American witchcraft revival of the 1970s, a book not read so much as handled like a talisman by devotees of the Wicca movement" in the first volume of his classic Sinister Forces trilogy (pg. 91). It was here that Graves would first incorporate the more Otherworldly Child Ballads (as well as the Robin Hood ones) into the emerging neo-pagan zeitgeist. He would later expand upon these notions in his 1957 work The English and Scottish Ballads, in which he would ascribe quite a spiritual importance to certain Child Ballads:
"The world of folk songs and ballads is a savage and mysterious one; indeed, a great many of them, though disguised in Christian dress, belong originally to the ancient pagan witch cult – or 'Old Religion' – which fought a losing battle with Christianity until finally suppressed at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The witches, who were organized by covens, or groups of thirteen, would meet in wild places for their 'Sabbaths', for worship, dancing and merrymaking. Shakespeare, in Macbeth and The Tempest, shows only the black side of the Old Religion: the witches' use of magic to blight crops, cause miscarriages, kill cattle and people, and raise contrary winds. He did this because James I, then on the throne, lived in terror of the Scottish witches who, at the instigation of his political enemies, had made several attempts to poison him, and whose mass-trials he had attended in person..."
Graves was even more implicit in linking various Child Ballads to the "Old Religion" or Witch Cult in The White Goddess, which appears to have believed served as the basis of modern Wicca and other types of European neo-paganism. However, how much of a basis these practices have in the ancient world has been hotly debated for years now. In his examination of the history of Wicca in The Roots of Magick 1700 thru 2000 occultist Allen Greenfield concluded that these claims were tenuous at best.
"... Some form of intact quasi pagan folk beliefs did survive through this period; even as late as the High Middle Ages it survived among the Vikings of Northern Europe. Human sacrifice was practiced at Old Uppsala well into the High Middle Ages. However, the historical record in Europe and later in the Americas generally suggests that, once Christian missionaries began to proselytize in a given area, conversion was astonishingly rapid and pagan beliefs and even most customs rapidly faded. In more recent times, the total conversion in a single generation documented in Mexico and Peru following the Spanish conquest provides substantial proof of the thoroughness of this process... Of course some customs and folklore from paleopagan times exist worldwide, but there has never been any evidence of a link to modern Wicca, other than a literary one..."
(The Roots of Magick 1700 thru 2000, Allen Greenfield, pgs. 124-125)The antiquity of the Child Ballads is every bit as problematic as that of Wicca. Naturally, Graves believed that they had an origin dating back to at least the Middle Ages, if not earlier:
"... These ballads are ascribed to no author; many exist in several different versions; their tunes are almost always in a haunting minor key; they are clearly not the work of either court poets or townsman; humor is rare; they preach no sermon or political message; they appeal to the heart rather than to the head; most of them concern the twin themes of love and death; and the stories are cut down to the bare bones, with a careful avoidance of rhetoric....
At one time these ballads were the stock-in-trade of, but not necessarily composed by, strolling minstrel such as Sir Walter Scott celebrated... These minstrels – the word ministralis means a dependent – were first kept by great landlords for the entertainment of their households; but the War of the Roses, and other troubles, must have sent many of them out to seek their fortunes with harp or viol in the countryside. Some ballads are complete in themselves; some only fragments..."
(English & Scottish Ballads, Robert Graves, pg. xiv)
And then there is the question of the authorship. As Graves indicates above, there is much uncertainty in that regard. Graves attributes these ballads to minstrels, bards, troubadours, and the like. In more recent years, its become popular to attribute many of the Child Ballads to simply "the people," i.e. the common folk. As to the latter, this is likely the case with more crass compositions such as "Hughie Graham" (Child 191) and the like.
But what of the "high" Child Ballad, especially the Otherwordly Scottish ones? "King Orfeo" (Child 19) is, for instance, an adaption of the myth of Orpheus that also incorporates fairy lore. And then there are "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child 37) and "Tam Lin" (Child 39), the epic compositions that arguably spawned the entire mythos around the Queen of Elphame (aka, the Fairy Queen). There is simply no way a farmer or tradesman could have come up with these compositions during this time frame.
Is Graves correct then in suggesting that these more esoteric tracks were the work of minstrels and bards? Quite possibly, but as with many things, the reality seems to be far more complex and stranger. A crucial source for many of the more mysterious Scottish ballads was a certain "Mrs. Brown of Falkland," who was in fact a minister's wife named Anna Gordon.
Child noted that "no Scottish ballads are superior in kind to those recited in the last century..." (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume I, pg. vii) than those of Mrs. Gordon. In particular, Anna Gordon appears to have been quite knowledgeable of the most Otherworldly and supernatural of these ballads. Child was especially indebted to her version of "Thomas the Rhymer" while her versions of "Willie's Lady" (Child 6) and "Clerk Colvill" (Child 42) were among the only the Harvard professor was able to uncover.
But where did Gordon learn the songs? She alleged that she had heard them as a child via her mother, her aunt, and an unidentified nursemaid, among others. However, her father claimed to have never heard many of the songs in his life. What's more, while Gordon is often depicted as being from more humble origins, her father was a professor at what is now the University of Aberdeen and appears to have been chummy with some rather prestigious Scots families. In other words, she came from a solidly middle class background, which in this era implied servants and the like. No doubt she was well educated for a woman from this era as well. Thus, it is unlikely that her songs have much working class pedigree, unless it comes from the unnamed nursemaid.
It was her father, Thomas Gordon, who would do much to promote her ballads. They eventually reached the general public during the early nineteenth century via the likes of Robert Jamieson and Sir Walter Scott, both of whom made extensive use of her collection for popular works they would publish on Scottish ballads. The interests her ballads generated among such circles was principally due to a close friend of her father's: William Tytler. Tytler was apparently the first man who had Gordon's ballads written down and copies of his manuscripts would eventually find there way to men such as Jamieson and Scott. Thus, Tytler was instrumental in bringing her ballads to the public at large.
As best as this researcher can tell, Lord Woodhouselee was not born with any Fraser ancestry (at least not for a great many generations), but he did marry into a certain branch of Clan Fraser. Whether he adopted the Fraser name from his wife is unknown, but she did certainly have quite a storied line. Ann Fraser was a distant descendant of Hugh Fraser, 1st Lord Of Lovat via his third son, Alexander Fraser, 1st of Farraline. As regular readers of this blog are well aware, Recluse is quite obsessed with Clan Fraser, and especially the Lovat branch. As I noted before here, this family played a crucial role in crafting modern special operations forces and in addition to numerous other intrigues over the centuries. As such, it wasn't entirely unsurprising to find Clan Fraser of Lovat lurking in the Child Mysteries, but I had not expected in such a bizarre fashion.
She would later become Mary Seton Fraser Watts upon her marriage (she wed famed painter George Frederic Watts) and a leading figure in the Celtic Revival. A symbolist craftswoman, she co-founded the Compton Potters' Artists Guild. The genesis of this outfit produced the Watts Cemetery Chapel, a noteworthy example of Celtic Revival architecture that Mary designed.
|Mary Seton Fraser Watts|
However, as the years went on many of these ballads became lost, especially those initially collected by William Tytler. Despite this, Child became convinced that Aldourie contained many of Gordon's most elusive ballads and Watts was more than happy to make periodic pilgrimages to the family seat in search of the lost manuscripts. She was never able to find the originals compiled by William Tytler (these did not turn up at Aldourie until the twentieth century) but she did find several copies of two especially rare ballads, "Willie's Lady" and "Clerk Covill."
Stranger still is the location of Aldourie: right off of Loch Ness. What's more, its only a little over 12 miles from Boleskine House. As I'm sure regular readers of this blog are well aware, Boleskine has quite a sinister history. Like Aldourie, Boleskine was also owned by members of Clan Fraser of Lovat until until the last few years of the nineteenth century. It was at this point that it was sold to its most notorious resident: Aleister Crowley.
When Crowley procured Boleskine from Clan Fraser of Lovat, he had ambitious plans for the former hunting lodge. Using rituals found in the grimoire known as The Book of Abramelin, Crowley intended to use Boleskine as the site for his summoning of his Holy Guardian Angel. Crowley had, in theory, selected Boleskine for this ritual due to its seclusion. It was to be a painstaking process that lasted for some six months. The film A Dark Song, one of the best ever depictions of ceremonial magic in cinema, was likely inspired by this particular working.
While Crowley performed the ritual at Boleskine, strange things began to happen. Crowley reported that his lodgekeeper went mad and tried to murder his wife and children, another general laborer he had hired attempted to kill Crowley himself, and a local butcher cut off his own hand while trying to read a note the Great Beast had written. Eventually, Crowley abandoned the ritual before its completion, but not due to any of these strange happenings. Rather, he had to return to London to deal with a quasi-civil war that had broken out among the Golden Dawn.
As such, Crowley never completed the ritual. Despite this, he regarded Boleskine as the "kiblah," the holiest of shrines in Thelema. The rituals of both the Gnostic Mass and the Ritual of the Mark of the Beast require the principal orientation to be towards Boleskine. In other words, it is the Mecca of Thelema. And it is right in the midst of lands owned by various branches of Clan Fraser of Lovat. And then there's Aldourie, repository of some many weird ballads.
"The question of intent looms in he background of this inquiry. If I had to guess, I would venture that Gerald Gardner did, in fact, invent Wicca more or less whole cloth, to be a popularized version of the OTO. Crowley, and his immediate successor Karl Germer, who also knew Dr. Gardner, likely set 'old Gerald on what they intended to be a Thelmic path, aimed at reestablishing at least a basic OTO encampment in England."
(The Roots of Magick 1700 thru 2000, Allen H. Greenfield, pg. 155)
While many of the Child ballads themselves can only be reliably dated to about eighteenth century, both "Thomas the Rhymer" and "Tam Lin" have somewhat older pedigree. The latter can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century while the former grew out of a very similar Medieval Romance than can be traced back to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth centuries. Do they then represent a genuine serving fragment of the "fairy faith" of the Middle Ages, which was later preserved in ballad form? In the case of "Thomas the Rhymer," the ballad version may not have appeared until 1700, indicating a more recent attempt to not preserve, but revive the old ways.
It is thus likely that these types of ballads were the result of learned men and not "the people," men interested in preserving the old ways at a time when the modern age threatened to wipe out the last vestiges of the fairy faith. Thus, folklore was translated into balladry, where it then reentered the public consciousness. As such, it is not surprising that a branch of Clan Fraser of Lovat would become such keen collectors. What's more, they are exactly the type of family that would have sponsored the creation of such ballads in the first place. This is highly speculative on my part, but clearly these ballads came from somewhere, and their Celtic-Nordic pedigree is in keep with both Clan Fraser and many of the other Scots lords (the Nordic origins of various clans was addressed before here). Clan Fraser of Lovat clearly did their part in both preserving and reviving these ballads (remember that Mary Seton Fraser Watts was a leading figure in the Celtic Revival). It hardly seems a stretch that this mysterious family played a role in their origins as well.
And with that, I shall sign off for now. The next installment will breakdown several of the most noteworthy supernatural ballads. For those of you looking for more details concerning this article's information, check out this recent podcast I did with Christopher Knowles of the Secret Sun discussing Clan Fraser of Lovat, Scottish ballads, and a host of other related topics: