AYRSHIRE has comparatively few ballads. Songs she has innumerable, and song-writers galore; but ballads of the old school and style, which have hung about the country side from days unknown, and which are either the product of local tradition, or are themselves responsible for tradition, not otherwise authenticated, are scanty in the extreme. The Scottish and English borderland is peculiarly rich in this class of literature; and many an event which must otherwise have perished out of mind and memory, many a fray and foray, many a ride and raid, are thus as imperishably enshrined in verse as they could possibly have been by the most prosaic of historians, or the most candid and matter of fact of paragraphists. But speaking generally, the south west of Scotland has a dearth of such literature; and the county of Ayr has certainly not a dozen old-world ballads worthy of the name. That of " Johnny Faa and the Earl of Cassillis' Lady " is the best known that we have. Its origin is unknown. It is found in old story books and in dog eared and brown-paged song books; but whence it came and who wrote it are, as has been said, alike unknown.
One thing, however, is certain, it is not less than about a couple of centuries old. And this much, too, seems to be fairly assured, that as a ballad sung round the country and "crooned " by inge-neuk and in peasant gatherings, it existed in its earlier days rather as "' household words than as a recognized and defined production. There are at least three or four versions of it, which go to show that as it passed from month to mouth and from memory to memory it under went such changes as are easily understood when it is considered that those who reproduced it in black and white drew their knowledge of it, from various sources. Had it been traceable to a given author, such changes could hardly, indeed, could not possibly, have occurred. As reproduced in magazine literature early in the present century, it is admittedly an antique ballad ; and its author is specified as "unknown." Viewed as a ballad, it is a very fair specimen of the art of the balladist. It is quaint, it is long drawn, the lines are somewhat irregular ; but sung to the tune now associated with " A wee bird cain' to oor ha' door," and with the believing sympathy of the Ayrshire peasant of a hundred years ago, we can well believe that it was one of the most popular hits of the country side. It is too long for modern consumption or to suit the canons of the popular taste of to-day; but taste is a, relative thing, and I am not disposed to say that it is too long or that it is without very considerable merit.
"Johnny Faa" was printed in the Scots Magazine about seventy years ago; and was accepted by the writer of the article which accompanied it, as worthy of credence. Whether he was right in his conclusions we shall inquire by-and-bye; let us, in the meantime, have a look at the ballad itself as it appeared in the pages of that magazine. It is not given as original; on the contrary the writer says distinctly that he took it down from the lips of a peasant, who no doubt had it in turn from somebody older than he.
Here it is :-
The gypsies they came to my Lord Cassillis' yett,
And O but they sail" bonny;
They sang sae sweet and sae complete
That down came our fair Ladie.
She came tripping. down the stairs
And all her maids before her,
As soon as they saw her weel-far'd face,
They coost their glamourie owre her.
She gave to them the good wheat bread,
And they gave her the ginger,
But she gave them a far better thing,
The gold ring off her finger.
Will ye go with me, my hinny and my heart,
Will ye go with me, my dearie?
And I shall swear by the staff of my spear
That your Lord shall ne'er come near thee."
Gae tak' from me my silk manteel,
And bring to me a plaidie;
For I will travel the world owr
Along with the Gypsie Laddie.
I could sail the seas with my Jockie Faa,
I could sail the seas with my dearie.
I could sail the seas with my Jockie Faa,
And with pleasure could drown with my dearie."
They wandered high, they wandered low,
They wandered late and early,
Until they cam' to an old tenant's barn,
And by this time she was wearie.
Last night I lay in a weel made bed
And my noble Lord beside me,
And now I must ly in an old tenant's barn
And the black crew glowerin' owre me."
O hold your tongue my hinny and my heart,
O hold your tongue, my dearie,
For I will swear by the moon and the stars
That thy Lord shall nae mair come near thee."
They wandered high, they wandered low,
They wandered late and early,
Until they cam' to that wan water,
And by this time she was wearie.
"Aften have I rode that wan water
With my Lord Cassillis beside me,
And now I must set in my white feet and wade,
And carry the Gypsie Laddie."
By and by came home this noble Lord,
And asking for his ladie,
The one did cry, the other did reply,
She is gone with the Gypsie Laddie."
Go, saddle to me the black he says,
The brown rides never so speedie,
And I will neither eat nor drink
Till I bring home yy Ladie."
He wandered high, he wandered low,
He wandered late and early,
Until he cam' to that wan water,
And there he spied his Ladie.
O wilt thou go home, my hinny and my heart,
O wilt thou go home, my dearie,
And I'll close thee in a close, room
Where no man shall come near thee?"
I will not go home, my hinny and my heart,
I will not go home my dearie,
If I have brewn good beer I will drink of the same,
And my Lord shall nae mair come near me.
But I will swear by the moon and the stars,
And the sun that shines so clearly,
That I am as free of the gypsie gang
As the hour my mother did bear me."
They were fifteen valiant men,
Black but very bonny,
And they lost all their lives for one
The Earl of Cassillis' Ladie.
There is no lack of detail here, indeed, there is on the other hand such a wealth of circumstance as to suggest to the careful reader that there is something mythological about the whole affair.
It is impossible to conceive of the Countess acting as she is said to have done, or to believe that, even if she were mad enough to leave the comforts of Cassillis behind her, she so openly and ostentatiously renounced her position and accepted the attentions of the fascinating " Gypsie." There is, in short, no inherent evidence in the ballad itself, detailed as it is, that it is dealing with a matter of strict fact.
There is no necessity to compare the wording of the ballad as given above with that of other versions. In all which have come under our notice, the incidents are practically the same. But there is one which does deserve a passing reference. It has one special difference from that quoted, which will be alluded to later on. Apart from this, it is in some respects an improvement on the version given above. It is taken from a Collection of Scottish Songs published some years earlier than the Scots Magazine from which the ballad has been extracted. The name of the gipsy hero, instead of being spelt as " Faa," is given as "Faw;" and the song, with the delightful incongruity of this class of poetry, is put in the mouth of one of the gipsies, who was himself hung for his part in the transaction. The dialect, too, is more consistent than of that given. In the first verse, " And O but they sang bonny," reads-
" And wow but they sang sweetly."
"Glamourie" " glamer ;" the gipsy chief swears "by the hilt of my sword," instead of "by the staff of my spear ;" and the Countess, instead of expressing her determination to "travel the world owre with the Gypsie Laddie," expresses herself thus :-
"Tho' kitil and kin and a' had sworn,
I'll follow the Gypsie Laddie."
The Earl, on, his return, orders out the " black, black steed," but makes no reference to the brown. And the last verse runs-
"And we were fifteen well-made men,
Of courage stout and steady,
And we were a' put down for ane,
A fair, young wanton lady"
which, to say the least of it, is hardly complimentary to the moral character of the heroine of the ballad.
But, has the Ballad any foundation in truth ? Before trying to settle that question, it is well to tell the story, in so far as it can be gleaned from very scant materials. The writer of the article in the Scots Magazine fixes the date of the elopement in 1643. The Earl of that period is recognized in the family traditions, and in the story of the times, as " the grave and solemn Earl." He was a Presby terian, staunch and rigorous, and he was so prominent in this capacity that he was sent up from Scotland to Westminster, where the Assembly of Divines were in session, to sign, as representing the Presbyterianism of Scotland, the Solemn League and Covenant. Indeed, it was during his absence upon this very commendable errand that his wife, according to the story, gave occasion for the ballad. The Countess was Lady Jean, daughter of Thomas, first Earl of Haddington. So much, then, is gospel, that the grave and solemn Earl was the husband of Lady Jean. It is not much, indeed ; but it has its bearing as throwing, some light upon the character of the tale. Before her wedding, and here, I am afraid, we must throw ourselves somewhat more at large, she was wooed by a knight who hailed from Dunbar, and who rejoiced in the name of Sir John Faa. Sir John's attentions were favoured by the fair Lady Jean ; but her father frowned upon them. Whether the knight was poor, or whether her parents aspired higher in their regards for their daughter's position in life, cannot be said now, but, at all events, the Earl of Haddington frowned savagely, and to some purpose, upon Sir John Faa. He encouraged the Earl of Cassillis, on the other band, and insisted so hotly on Lady Jean accepting the noble lord from the westland, that she played the part of the dutiful daughter, deferred to his wishes, and wedded " the King of Carrick." Sir John Faa suffered in silence, but his heart was big within him, and he swore, no doubt, by the hilt of, his sword and by his faith, that not even her marriage should be allowed to stand between him and his love for his old sweetheart.
Time passed on : but its soothing influences were of no effect upon Sir John, So he resolved to gain strategically what he had failed to secure by fair means. Accordingly he attired himself as a gipsy chief, and with a band of his followers similarly disguised he set out for Carrick. Arrived at Cassillis House, the quasi-gipsies contrived to attract the attention of the Countess, who was not long in recognizing the leader of the wanderers her old lover from the east country. Her slumbering affection for Sir John revived, and, believing that the Earl was in London on State errand, and that the coast was clear for escape, she left Cassillis House behind her, and joined the gipsies, who, having attained their object, lost no time in taking their departure. But, unfortunately for them, the Earl was not so far away is they thought. His business in London concluded, he had set forth on his return journey, and, ere the gipsies with their willing captive were far removed from the scene, he rode into the courtyard and dismounted by the walls of the Castle. All was in confusion. Demanding the wherefore, the attendants told him what had occurred. Grave and solemn as he was, and fresh from an interview with the reverend fathers of the Solemn League and Covenant, the Earl was still a Kennedy. The Chief of a powerful family, proud of his race, his name, his honour, he listened impatiently while the frightened servants told the tale, and at once laying aside the semi-ecclesiastical character he had worn in England, he called his retainers to horse, and set out on his quest. According to one version of the story, the chase, as nearly all stern chases are, was a long one; for it was not until the gipsies were hard by the walls of merry Carlisle that they were overtaken. According to the other account, the Earl captured them ere they were out 0f sight of the House of Cassillis, at a place known from that day to this as the Gipsy Steps. In either case, however, the result was the same. The gipsies objected to capture, and fought for their lives ; and if they were not slain near Carlisle, nor by the banks of the Doon, they were hanged in the border city itself, or else from the gnarled branches of the ancient " dule tree " which throws its shadow over the hall door whence issued, that fateful day, the hapless Lady Jean. The gipsies, that is, Sir John Faa and his followers, thus disposed of, the Earl turned his attention to his wife. There stands at the foot of the High Street of Maybole a square peel of the old-fashioned type, strong-walled, built by men who meant that their handiwork should bear the brunt of war and of weather, and see generation upon generation of the sons of men go down under their shadow, and thither the Countess was conveyed. Here she was confined till the day of her death.
To keep her in constant memory of her lapse into unfaithfulness to the, bands of wedlock, there were carved round the windows of her room a number of stone heads. These were to remind her of the fate which befell the masquerading gipsies, " and there they stand until this day to witness if I lie." She spent her spare time, and it must have been very considerable, sewing an elaborate tapestry still in existence, whereon she is represented seated on horseback behind a gaily-attired cavalier, and surrounded, or followed by a band of horsemen, whose garb is suggestive of something very different from that which may have been supposed to have been worn by a group of tatterdemalion gipsies.
The other story is practically the same in detail though the gipsy chief is a real and not a fictitious " Egyptian." He is the veritable Johnny Faw or Faa. By the aid of his charms or sorceries lie bewitched the heart of the Countess; and having " cast the glammer owre her," persuaded her to fly with him. This she did. As before, the Earl arrived in the nick of time, overtook the gipsies, brought them back to Cassillis House, and hung them in a row from the branches of the family tree. This is the tale which finds the greater credence in Carrick; and it is dangerous to doubt it on the scene of its reputed occurrence. Why, there stands fair and flourishing the very dule tree from which the gipsies dangled in their dance of death; there is the very identical staircase adown which tripped the Countess with all her maids before her ; and there even is " Johnny Faa's bedroom," where he slept, and the self-same bed in which he reposed. It must be said, however, with all respect to the sensitive feelings of the natives, that there is no tradition or ballad which gives the slightest colouring to the story that the gipsy chief ever passed a night under the roof of the Earl.
Now to examine into the truth of the two versions of the occurrence. It will be remembered that, according to the first, the occurrence took place in the year 1643. That is not so very long ago. History was history in the middle of the seventeenth century: and it is unlikely, to say the least of it, that a lady in the position of the Countess of Cassillis could have eloped, even with a Knight, without leaving behind some record of the adventure more reliable than a ballad. The memorials of the Kennedy Family are tolerably complete, from a much earlier date than this. They have not been compiled by a chronicler so very favourable to the great Carrick family that he, would have permitted such an event to escape his attention; on the contrary, he would gladly have grasped at anything likely to stain the annals of the Kennedys. But worse than that, Lady Jean in 1643 would not, had she been alive, have been less than thirty-eight or thirty-nine years of age; and it is barely conceivable that a lady who was verging on forty summers, and who was in possession of a family of at least two daughters, would have left kith and kin and comfort behind her, and sullied her life by running away with anybody, no matter whom. There is another side to this argument. Sir John Faa, if indeed he be not a myth altogether, was not at all likely to attempt to steal from the arms of her husband a lady over whose head nearly four decades had passed. Worse still, for the authenticity of the tale, Lady Jean died in 1642, the year before her reputed escapade. That ought to settle it so far as the year is concerned.
But, objectors may say, there is a possibility that it may be the date that is at fault. There is a good deal in possibility; but here at least not even possibility can explain away what certainty has written on records which are still existing. Lady Jean never was confined a prisoner in Maybole, but lived on terms of sincerest affection with her husband to the close of her chapter; and when she died and was buried from Cassillis, the Earl wrote, lovingly and touchingly of her attributes and her faithfulness as a spouse. In the charter room of Eglinton Castle there was discovered a few years ago a letter from the Earl to Alexander, sixth Earl of Eglintoun (Greysteil,) intimating that, "it hath pleased the Almighty to call my dear bed-fellow from this valley of tears to her home (as she herself in her last hour so called it)," and inviting Lord Eglintoun to the funeral at Cassillis, and from this to our burial-place at Maybole." Lord Eglintoun answered in terms of condolence. A contemporary letter from the Earl of Cassillis to the Rev. Robert Douglas is also in existence, in which the Earl refers to his deceased wife in terms of endearment, and which slays anew the thrice slain falsehood of the noble lady's misdemeanour. It may be added that Lady Jean left two daughters, one of whom was married to Lord Dundonald; the other, " in the last stage of antiquated virginity," conferring her hand, and her purse, upon the youthful Gilbert Burnett, afterwards celebrated as the Bishop of Salisbury.
Seeing then, that the 1643 story goes to the limbo of impossibility; that the Knight of Dunbar is a weak invention of the enemy ; and that the popularly accepted tale of two centuries and more is a mere myth, we must look a hundred years further away if we are even to find a gipsy worth considering as a potent factor in a case of such aristocratic abduction. The fact might have been elaborated that in 1643 gipsies, or Egyptians as they are called in the criminal proceedings of the period, in which, unfortunately for their reputation, their names most often appear, were little better than the common vagrants that they are to-day, and that they were under the ban of a severe statute framed for their extermination. This was unnecessary.
A hundred years before, however, there was a Jolinne Faw of distinction and note in his own way, who, in the reign of James V., ruled his own subjects as he listed, and who was not subjected to any interference on the part of the Crown; who, on the contrary, was backed up by the monarch in the exercise of his sway. This is clearly shown by a letter under the Privy Seal in favour of " Jolinne Faw, Lord and Erle of Little Egypt," of date February 15, 1540. It is addressed to the Sheriffs of Scotland, including the Sheriff of " Air," to the " Baillies of Kile, Carrilc, and Cunynghame," and to the Provost of " Air," as well is to the other chief magistrates of the burghs enjoying separate jurisdiction. It had been represented to His Majesty by " our lovite Johnne Faw " that he required assistance in the execution of justice upon his "company and folks, conform to the laws of Egypt, and for the punishment of all them that rebel against him." It seems that various members of his troop had run away from him ; and, adding injury to insult, that they had taken away with them a large sum of money which they contended was theirs in lawful possession. The chief offender was one Sebastian Lalow, and among his accomplices were Anteane Donea, Salona Fanga, Nona Finco, Phillip Halfeyggow, Grasta Neyri, Bernard Beige, Demer Mats Kalla, Noffow Lawlour, and Martin Femine. The gipsy chief declared himself bound to account for all his followers, dead or alive; and he therefore made appeal to the King to assist him. This James at once did, issuing a proclamation to the magistrates of the kingdom, whichcannot be regarded as other than a most interesting and remarkable document. " Our will is therefore," he says, " and we charge you shortly that you and each one of you within the bounds of your offices, command and charge all our lieges within the bounds of your offices that none of them take in hand to reset, assist, fortify, supply, maintain, defend, or take part with the said Sebastian and his accomplices above written, against the said Jolinne Faw, their lord and master; 'but that they and ye in likewise take and lay hands on them where they may be apprehended, and bring them to be punished for their demerits conform to his laws; and help and fortify him to punish and do justice upon them for their trespasses ; and to that effect lend to him your prisons, stocks, fetters, and all things necessary thereto, is ye and each one of you, and all others our lieges will answer to us thereupon, and under our highest Pain and charge that after may follow, and likewise that ye command and charge all skippers, masters and mariners, of all ships within our realm, where the said Johnne and his company shall happen to resort and come, to receive him and them upon their expenses, for taking, them forth of our realm to parts beyond sea."
These surely were the halcyon days for a gipsy chief in Scotland! But they did not last for ever. Early the following century, in 1609, an Act was passed for the extermination or banishment of the wandering aliens; and most reluctantly were its provisions acted upon. Two years after its enactment, for instance, we find a group of Faas, four in number Moses, David, Robert, and John alias Willie, sentenced to he taken to the Burrow Muir of Edinburgh, and there to be hanged "till they be deid." In 1415 the Court of Justiciary is found dealing with in individual who had resetted John Fall, " a notorious Egyptian and chieftain of that unhappy sort of people." Sentence of death was passed next year upon John Faa, James Faa, his son; Moses Baillie, and Helen Brown for no other crime apparently than that of behing in the country contrary to statute, but thee doom was ordered to be suspended pending the pleasure of the King. What that pleasure was there is no means of knowing. In 1624 Captain John Faa, Robert Faa, Sainuel Faa, John Faa, younger, Andrew Faa, William Faa, Robert, Brown, and Gavin Trotter, "all Egyptians, vagabonds, and common thieves," were sentenced to be hanged on the Burrow Muir. A most inhuman sentence was passed upon the wives and daughters of these victims of 1624. By the High Court of Justiciary they were ordered " to be taken to the place of their execution in some convenient part, and there to be drowned till they be deid." Fortunately for the credit of the Sovereign, he remitted the death sentence, and had the women and children, more mercifully, banished the kingdom.
It would be absurd to look among, these vagrant wanderers for a worthy hero of such an adventure as that with which we are dealing. With the exception of Johnne Erle of Little Egypt," there does not seem to have been one of all the gang fit for such a high enterprise ; and unfortunately for his claim to rank as the hero of the ballad, we cannot find the faintest shadow of proof that he ever so distinguished himself. It is not at all improbable that the Earl of Cassillis may have been associated with gipsydom to this extent, that he may have been instrumental in having had prompt justice executed upon some members of the fraternity, who, through their misconduct, had incurred his displeasure; but it is too much to ask any intelligent reader to believe that nothing short of such an escapade as the stealing away of his lawful spouse can be accepted as justification for his execution of summary vengeance upon the Faas. An earl's power and a gipsy's life were two very different things in these good old days.
The contemporary in the earldom of Cassillis to Johnne Faa, the " Erle of Littel Ecypt," was Gilbert, the third earl, and there is abundant evidence to prove that his wife was a faithful spouse until the close of the chapter. Into that there is no need to go. It will be time enough to show that she did not disgrace the family name when it is seriously alleged that she did.
To conclude, there is evidence in the older version of the ballad itself to which I have alluded, to indicate that, as it was framed originally, it did not even affirm that its heroine was a Countess of Cassillis. The gipsies did not come to " Lord Cassillis' yett," but to " our good Lord's gate." How easy as the song went from mouth to mouth to account for the transition From "our good Lord's yett" to "the Castle yett," and from that to "Lord Cassillis' yett " is accomplished without the faintest difficulty; and the local pronunciation of Cassillis (Castle's) makes the change all the more easy. Must we then dismiss the ballad as utterly devoid of foundation ? We are loathe to give up such stories as "a weak invention of the enemy;" but in this case there can be no alternative. And therefore the most that can be said for the ballad now is that it is a fairly good specimen of the class of songs which delighted our ancestors. Historically, it is absolutely worthless, and worse, it is absolutely untrue.