British Fiction, 18001829

CUNNINGHAM, Allan. Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry (1822)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 99 (Nov 1822): 246–52.

In Germany, which abounds with the wild and beautiful traditions that are almost peculiar to the northern nations, many attempts have lately been made, and are still making, to collect and preserve the relics of old national manners and feelings. This seems to us a very laudable design; for, with all the changes and improvements which the last few centuries have witnessed in the character of society, we shall soon be in danger of losing those small particles of romance which are still mingled in our composition. In our own country more particularly, such apprehensions appear to be well founded; our Sunday-schools have expelled no inconsiderable portion of the old poetical superstitions from the minds of our peasantry; the universal bustle, which pervades every [246/247] part of the kingdom, has scarcely left a single supernatural tenant in the quiet possession of its residence; and the laborious but peaceful pursuits, in which all ranks are compelled to engage, leave no leisure for the formation of romantic dispositions. Our nobility and powerful gentry have changed from bold leaders and gallant knights into sinecure courtiers, or placable gentlemen-farmers;—the contests between our great families are confined to a contested election, or the return of a mayor of some small borough;—our bold yeomen have become sickly artificers;—the sword is converted into the plough-share and the bow into the shuttle;—and, in short, we are in the greatest danger of becoming a most matter-of-fact, logical, dull, unpoetical people. At this juncture of time, then, we feel enlivened and aroused by a work which revives in our minds the interesting images of former times, ‘when all the men were brave and all the women virtuous,’ the days of chivalry and love, and pastoral happiness.

The vallies of Scotland and the north of England yet retain many curious and romantic traditions among the peasantry;—especially in the former, where the common people have long enjoyed a sort of literature of their own, simple indeed and rude, but full of sentiment and expression. Ramsay and Burns and Fergusson are all examples of this national spirit, operating on men of high genius and powerful feeling; while the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ and the author of the volumes before us are living instances to the same effect. The admiration, which Burns felt and expressed for the forgotten authors of the old Scotish [sic] ballads, is a proof that he duly appreciated the merits of his instructors; and the present attempt by Mr. Cunningham to collect some of the scattered traditions of his native vallies was a debt of gratitude, which he owed to the country that had stored his mind with such abundance of poetic imagery and feeling.—How far the legends contained in these pages may be the genuine relics of antiquity, we cannot determine: but we are sure that these tales are written in the spirit of that wild and simple romance, which is so characteristic of the antient traditions and ballads of Scotland. In all probability, we owe many of them almost entirely to the fancy of Mr. C. himself; though he assures us that such as are not immediately copied from recitation are founded on traditions, or stories, prevalent in the north. He has interspersed these tales with a few imitations of the old ballads and songs, which frequently rival their originals in spirit, pathos, and simplicity. Indeed we prefer his poetry to his prose, which is occasionally a little forced and overloaded, [247/248] and evidently does not flow from his pen with the freedom and fullness which his poetical compositions exhibit. Nor has he always preserved that simplicity of style in the dialogue which we should have expected from him: his rustics, his foresters, and his pedlars, are too magniloquant, and round their sentences with far too much skill. This blemish may be particularly remarked in the conversation of Dame Foljambe, in ‘the King of the Peak.’

‘The Selbys of Cumberland’ contribute the longest and one of the best of these traditional tales. A descendant of that noble house, once the fairest of its daughters, but now aged and poor, is supposed to relate some legends of her unfortunate family; and she tells how she accompanied her cousin and lover young Walter Selby, the last of his name, when he marched under the banner of the exiled Stuarts, and fell at the battle of Preston. The following is an animated description of the rebel army:

‘ “It is not my wish to relate all I heard, and describe all I saw on our way southward; but our array was a sight worth seeing, and a sight we shall never see again—for war is now become a trade, and men are trained to battle like hounds to the hunting. In those days the noble and the gentle, each with his own banner,—with kinsmen and retainers, came forth to battle; and war seemed more a chivalrous effort than it seems now—when the land commits its fame and its existence to men hired by sound of trumpet and by beat of drum. It was soon broad daylight; all the adherents of the house of Stuart had moved towards Lancashire, from the south of Scotland and the north of England; and forming a junction where the Westmoreland mountains slope down to the vales, now covered the road as far as my eye could reach—not in regular companies, but in clusters and crowds, with colours displayed. —There might be, in all, one thousand horsemen and fifteen hundred foot, the former armed with sword and pistol, and carabine —the latter with musket and spear. It was a fair sight to see so many gentlemen dressed in the cavalier garb of other days, some with head and bosom pieces of burnished mail, others with slouched hats and feathers, and scarlet vests, and all with short cloaks or mantles, of velvet or woollen, clasped at the bosom with gold, and embroidered each according to their own or their mistress’s fancy. A body of three hundred chosen horsemen, pertaining to my Lord Kenmore, marched in front, singing, according to the fashion of the Scotch, rude and homely ballads in honour of their leader.

‘Kenmore’s on and awa, Willie,
Kenmore’s on and awa,
And Kenmore’s lord is the gallantest lord
That ever Galloway saw. [248/249]

‘Success to Kenmore’s band, Willie,
Success to Kenmore’s band;
There was never a heart that fear’d a Whig,
E’er rode by Kenmore’s hand.

‘There’s a rose in Kenmore’s cap, Willie,
There’s a rose in Kenmore’s cap,—
He’ll steep it red in ruddie life’s blood,
Afore the battle drap.

‘ “Such were some of the verses by which the rustic minstrels of those days sought to stimulate the valour of their countrymen. One hundred horse, conducted by Lord Nithsdale, succeeded; those of Lord Derwentwater followed; a band, numerous, but divided in opinion; unsteady in resolution, and timid in the time of need and peril, like their unfortunate lord. The foot followed: a band of warriors, strange, and even savage in their appearance; brave and skilful, and unblenching in battle, with plaid and bonnet and broadsword, bare-kneed, and marching to a kind of wild music, which, by recalling the airs of their ancestors, and the battles in which they fought and bled, kindles a military fury and resolution which destroys all against which it is directed. These were men from the mountains of Scotland, and they were led by chieftain Mackintosh, who was to them as a divinity; compared to whom, the prince, in whose cause they fought, was a common being, a mere mortal. I admired the rude, natural courtesy of these people, and lamented the coward counsels which delivered them up to the axe and the cord, without striking a single blow. The rear, accounted, in this march, with an enemy behind as well as before, a post of some peril, was brought up by about two hundred border cavaliers and their adherents; and with them rode Walter Selby and his new companion. The command seemed divided among many; and without obeying any one chief in particular, all seemed zealous in the cause, and marched on with a rapidity regulated by the motions of the foot.” ’

The picture of a Cumberland peasant’s cottage is well drawn:

‘ “A bright fire, a clean floor, and a pleasant company,” is one of the proverbial wishes of domestic comfort among the wilds of Cumberland. The moorland-residence of Randal Rode exhibited the first and second portions of the primitive wish, and it required no very deep discernment to see that around the ample hearth we had materials for completing the proverb. In each face was reflected that singular mixture of gravity and humour, peculiar, I apprehend, to the people of the north. Before a large fire, which it is reckoned ominous ever to extinguish, lay half-a dozen sheep-dogs, spreading out their white bosoms to the heat, and each placed opposite to the seat of its owner. The lord or rather portioner of Fremmet-ha himself lay apart on a large couch of oak antiquely carved, and ornamented like some of the massive [249/250] furniture of the days of the olden church, with beads, and crosses, and pastoral crooks. This settee was bedded deep with sheep-skins, each retaining a fleece of long white wool. At each end lay a shepherd’s dog, past its prime, like its master, and, like him, enjoying a kind of half-ruminating and drowsy leisure peculiar to old age. Three or four busy wheels, guided by as many maidens, manufactured wool into yarn for rugs, and mauds, and mantles. Three other maidens, with bared arms, prepared curds for cheese, and their hands rivalled in whiteness the curdled milk itself. Under the light of a large candlestick several youths pursued the amusement of the popular game of draughts. This piece of rude furniture ought not to escape particular description. It resembled an Etruscan candelabra, and was composed of a shaft, capable of being depressed or elevated by means of a notched groove, and sunk secure in a block of wood at the floor, terminated above in a shallow cruse or plate, like a three-cocked hat, in each corner of which stood a large candle, rendering the spacious hall where we sat as light as day. On this scene of patriarchal happiness looked my old companion Eleanor Selby, contrasting, as she glanced her eye in succession over the tokens of shepherds’ wealth in which the house abounded, the present day with the past; the times of the fleece, the shears, and the distaff, with those of broils and blood, and mutual inroad and invasion, when the name of Selby stood high in the chivalry of the north. One might observe in her changing looks the themes of rustic degradation and chivalrous glory on which she brooded; and the present peaceful time suffered by the comparison, as the present always does in the contemplation of old age. The constant attention of young Maude Rode, who ministered to the comfort of her ancient and wayward relative, seemed gradually to soothe and charm down the demon of proud ancestry, who maintained rule in her breast; and after interchanging softer and softer looks of acknowledgment and kindness with her fair young kinswoman, she thus proceeded to relate some of the adventures she had witnessed in the time of her youth. These she poured out in a very singular manner, unconscious, apparently, at times, of the presence of others, and often addressing herself to the individuals whom her narrative recalled to life, as if they stood life-like and breathing before her.’

We wish that we had space to give that truly martial and spirit-stirring ballad, ‘Sir Roland Græme:’ but we must beg our readers to content themselves with the shorter one of ‘Lady Selby.’

‘LADY SELBY.

‘On the holly tree sat a raven black,
And at its foot a lady fair
Sat singing of sorrow, and shedding down
The tresses of her nut-brown hair:
And aye as that fair dame’s voice awoke,
The raven broke in with a chorusing croak. [250/251]

‘ “The steeds they are saddled on Derwent-banks;
The banners are streaming so broad and free;
The sharp sword sits at each Selby’s side,
And all to be dyed for the love of me:
And I maun give this lily-white hand
To him who wields the wightest brand.”

‘She coost her mantle of satin so fine,
She kilted her gown of the deep-sea green,
She wound her locks round her brow, and flew
Where the swords were glimmering sharp and sheen:
As she flew, the trumpet awoke with a clang,
And the sharp blades smote, and the bow-strings sang.

‘The streamlet that ran down the lonely vale,
Aneath its banks, half seen, half hid,
Seem’d melted silver—at once it came down
From the shocking of horseman—reeking and red;
And that lady flew—and she utter’d a cry,
As the riderless steeds came rushing by.

‘And many have fallen—and more have fled:—
All in a nook of bloody ground
That lady sat by a bleeding knight,
And strove with her fingers to staunch the wound:
Her locks, like sun-beams when summer’s in pride,
She pluck’d and plac’d on his wounded side.

‘And aye the sorer that lady sigh’d,
The more her golden locks she drew—
The more she pray’d—the ruddy life’s blood.
The faster and faster came trickling through:—
On a sadder sight ne’er look’d the moon
That o’er the green mountain came gleaming down.

‘He lay with his sword in the pale moonlight;
All mute and pale she lay at his side—
He, sheath’d in mail from brow to heel—
She, in her maiden bloom and pride:
And their beds were made, and the lovers were laid,
All under the gentle holly’s shade.

‘May that Selby’s right hand wither and rot,
That fails with flowers their bed to strew!
May a foreign grave be his who doth rend
Away the shade of the holly bough!—
But let them sleep by the gentle river,
And waken in love that shall last for ever.’

We find our old friend ‘Richard Faulder, mariner,’ to whom we were introduced in the volume of poems by Mr. C., which we noticed some months ago, again making his appearance in the work before us. In his maritime legends, the author’s fancy runs riot with peculiar luxuriancy, and a spectre-shallop in the Solway appears to have greater charms [251/252] for him than even the Benshees, Brownies, and Dobbies of his native vallies. ‘The last Lord of Helvellyn’ is a striking and powerful tale of this kind: —but the superstitions of our mariners are quite strong enough, without the additional authority of Mr. Allan Cunningham and Mr. Washington Irving to confirm them; whose stories of airy ships and ghostly sailors are sufficient to terrify many a stripling ‘from his propriety.’

All these tales, excepting one, have appeared in the London Magazine.

Notes: Format: 2 vols 12mo; price 12s. Boards. Publisher: Taylor & Hessey.

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