Sir Patrick Spens
The events of the ballad are similar to, and may chronicle, an actual event: the bringing home of the Scottish queen Margaret, Maid of Norway across the North Sea in 1290 (though there is speculation that it may relate to a voyage by the princess's mother in 1281). The seven-year-old princess died on the crossing, though not in the manner of Sir Patrick in this song. However, many of the ships sent to fetch her are said to have foundered and perished.
The name "Patrick Spens" has no historical record, and, like many of the heroes of such ballads, is probably an invention, although some historians believe that he was actually Sir Patrick Vans.
Earl's Knowle on Papa Stronsay is traditionally thought to be the final resting place of Sir Patrick Spens. The history relating to the burial of Sir Patrick Spens on Earl’s Knowle on Papa Stronsay is related by William Edmonstoune Aytoun (b. Edinburgh 21 June 1813, d. 4 August 1865). He was made Sheriff and Lord Admiral of Orkney and Shetland in 1852. It was after his retirement from this position that he edited a collection of Scottish poetry in which the first poem is Sir Patrick Spens. In his foreword to the poem Aytoun writes:
- “It is true that the name of Sir Patrick Spens is not mentioned in history; but I am able to state that tradition has preserved it. In the little island of Papa Stronsay, one of the Orcadian group, lying over against Norway, there is a large grave or tumulus, which has been known to the inhabitants, from time immemorial, as ‘The grave of Sir Patrick Spens’. The Scottish ballads were not early current in Orkney, a Scandinavian country; so it is very unlikely that the poem could have originated the name. The people know nothing beyond the traditional appellation of the spot, and they have no legend to tell. Spens is a Scottish, not a Scandinavian name. Is it, then, a forced conjecture, that the shipwreck took place off the iron bound coast of the northern islands, which did not then belong to the Crown of Scotland? ‘Half ower to Aberdour’ signifies nothing more than that the vessel went down half-way between Norway and the port of embarkation.”
The story as told in the ballad has multiple versions, but they all follow the same basic plot. The King of Scotland has called for the greatest sailor in the land to command a ship for a royal errand. The name "Sir Patrick Spens" is mentioned by a courtier, and the king despatches a letter. Sir Patrick, though honoured to receive a royal commission, is dismayed at being put to sea in the dead of winter, clearly realising this voyage could well be his last.
Versions differ somewhat at this point. Some indicate that a storm sank the ship in the initial crossing, thus ending the ballad at this point, while many have Sir Patrick safely reaching Norway. In Norway tension arises between the Norwegian lords and the Scots, who are accused of being a financial burden on the king. Sir Patrick, taking offence, leaves the following day. Nearly all versions, whether they have the wreck on the outward voyage or the return, relate the bad omen of seeing "the new mune late yestreen, with the auld mune in her airms", and modern science agrees the tides would be at maximum force at that time. The winter storms have the best of the great sailor, sending him and the Scottish lords to the bottom of the sea.
This is one of the versions:
- Buffy Sainte Marie recorded this song on her album Little wheel spin and spin, released in 1966.
- Ewan MacColl has recorded the song numerous times.
- Fairport Convention included this song on their 1970 album, Full House, while an earlier but previously unreleased version with Sandy Denny is included as a 'bonus track' in the reissue of Liege & Lief.
- Nic Jones recorded this song on his 1970 album, Ballads and Songs.
- Brian Peters recorded this song on his 1989 album "Fools of Fortune".
- Jackie Leven recorded this song on his 1997 album Fairytales For Hard Men.
- Martin Carthy recorded this song on his 1998 album Signs of Life.
- John Roberts recorded this song on his 2003 album Sea Fever, as well as a song derived from fellow Child Ballad The Sweet Trinity.
- June Tabor recorded this song in 2003 for her album An Echo of Hooves.
- Jim Malcolm recorded this song on his 2002 album Home and his 2004 album Live in Glenfarg.
- James Yorkston recorded this song on his 2005 mini-album, Hoopoe.
- Robin Williamson recorded this song on his 2006 album, The Iron Stone.
- Kris Drever recorded this song on his 2006 mini-album Black Water titled as "Patrick Spence".
- Martin Simpson recorded this song on his 2009 album True Stories.
- Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer perform this song on Child Ballads, released in 2013.
- Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "Sir Patrick Spens"
- The first line mentions Dunfermline:
The king sits in Dunfermling toune
Drinking the bluid-reid wine...
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 19, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Maurice Lindsay, "The Lowlands of Scotland", p. 175, Robert Hale & Co, 1973
- There is no one definitive version of more validity than any other, because the song continues in oral tradition and it may be interpreted in both the singing and the transcription. A common reading of first two lines is “The king sits in Dunfermline toune/ drinking the blude reid wine”: Atkinson, David (2007). "Editing the Child Ballads". In Van Mierlo, Wim. Textual Scholarship and the Material Book. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi. p. 154. ISBN 978-90-420-2818-0.
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