Broom of the Cowdenknowes

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"Broom of the Cowdenknowes", also known as "Bonny May", is a traditional Scottish love ballad, Child #217. It has been traced to the seventeenth century, but its exact origin is unknown.[1]

The title of the song references the Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) flower, a vibrant yellow flower found throughout Scotland, including Cowdenknowes, a Scottish barony east of the Leader Water (River Leader), 32 miles southeast of Edinburgh in Berwickshire.[2]


The original and extended ballad was the story of a young shepherdess who falls in love with a stranger on horseback, who rides by her pasture every day. The song became popular across Scotland and England towards the end of the reign of James Vl & I, and the earliest publication date found is 1651.[3] The melody was also published as a dance tune, during the same year, in John Playford's first edition of The English Dancing Master.[4]

Throughout the many versions of the popular folksong, there are many lyrical variations, but the plot remain consistent. The shepherdess and stranger fall in love and have an affair. When she becomes pregnant, she is banished from her country. She seeks out her lover, finding him to now be a wealthy lord. They marry, but she is never truly happy away from her own country, and she pines for "the bonnie bonnie broom".

Traditionally, the song is sung from the perspective of the shepherdess. The broom, a tall shrub which blooms with spikes of small golden flowers, once grew abundantly on hillsides of the Scottish Borders.


"Broom O' the Cowdenknowes" was recorded by Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath on her 1987 release A Fine Song for Singing.[5] Other artists who recorded the song under either this title or its variants include Alexander James Adams, Baltimore Consort, John Allan Cameron, Cherish the Ladies, The City Waites, Liam Clancy, Meg Davis, Frankie Gavin, Dave Gunning, The Highwaymen, Jimmy MacBeath, Ed Miller, North Sea Gas, Kim Robertson, Lucie Skeaping, The Watersons, and Robin Williamson.[6]

The ballad was recorded under its alternate title "Bonny May" by British folk singer June Tabor on her first solo album, Airs and Graces, in 1976.[7] It was also released under this title by the group 10,000 Maniacs on its 2015 album Twice Told Tales[8] and by Offa Rex, a group featuring the American indie rock band Decemberists and British folk singer Olivia Chaney, on its 2017 debut The Queen of Hearts.[9]


  1. ^ Child, Francis James, ed. (1890). English and Scottish Popular Ballads. IV Part 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company. pp. 191–209. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  2. ^ The Barony of Cowdenknowes
  3. ^ "Broom of the Cowdenknowes"
  4. ^ Playford, John. The English Dancing Master, 81. London, 1651
  5. ^ "Jean Redpath: A Fine Song for Singing". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  6. ^ "Broom O' the Cowdenknowes". AllMusic. Retrieved 2018-04-24.
  7. ^ Dougan, John. "June Tabor: Airs and Graces". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  8. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "10,000 Maniacs: Twice Told Tales". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-11-10.
  9. ^ Monger, James Christopher. "Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-11-10.