Saturday, 26 December 2009

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray

In the estate of Barons Court in county Tyrone the river Strule flows between two mountains known as Bessy Bell (420 m) and Mary Gray (230 m). They were so named by Scottish settlers after the heroines in an old Scottish ballad that begins ‘Bessie Bell an Mary Gray, they were twa bonnie lasses’. It concerns two girls who fled from Perth to escape an outbreak of plague in 1645.  The plague crossed the border from England in April 1645, reaching Edinburgh in June and Perth in August.  Nearly 3,000 peopple died in Perth and corpses were left rotting in the street.  The two girls built a bower out in the country and were supplied with food by a young man from the town but in the end they caught the plaque and eventually  died from it.  The following is just one version of the ballad:

Oh Bessie Bell an Mary Gray,
They war twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae,
An theekit it owre wi rashes.

They theekit it owre wi rashes green
That happit it roun wi heather;
But the pest cam frae the borough's toun
An slew them baith thegither.

They thocht to lie in Methven kirk
Beside their gentle kin;
But they maun lie in Dronach-haugh
An beik fornenst the sin.

Oh Bessie Bell an Mary Gray, 
They war twa bonnie lasses,
They biggit a bower on yon burn-brae,
An theekit it owre wi rashes.

[biggit = built; theekit = thatched, covered; happit = wrapped; frae = from; baith = both; thegither = together; thocht = thought; maun = must; haugh = level ground on the banks of a river; beik = bask]

The song was certainly in existence and well-known by the end of the 17th century and the tune appeared in printed form under the title 'Bess Bell' in Henry Playford's Original Scotch Tunes, which was published in 1700. .  A version of it by Allan Ramsay appeared in a volume of his poetry in 1721 and another version was published by Robert Burns.

The most important document relating to the ballad is a letter written on 21 June 1781 by Major Barry, then proprietor of Lednock, which appeared in the Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland:
When I came first to Lednock, I was shewn in a part of my ground (called the Dranoch-haugh) an heap of stones almost covered with briers, thorns and fern, which they assured me was burial place of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray.  The tradition of the country relating to these ladys is, that Mary Gray's father was laird of Lednock and Bessie Bell's of Kinvaid, a place in this neighbourhood; that they were both very handsome, and an intimate firendship subsisted between them; that while Miss Bell was on a visit to Miss Gray, the plague broke out in the year 1666 [should be 1645]; in order to avoid which they built themselves a bowerabotu three uqarters of a mile west of Lednock House, in a very retired and romantic place called Burn-braes, on the side of Brauchie-burn.
The ballad was known to the Ulster-Scots in Tyrone and presumably it was sung by them.  Moreover they must have understood the Scots words such as biggit, happit and theekit.  This shows just what we can learn about the language and the folk-songs of the Ulster-Scots by simple and careful study.

Moreover the story does not end in Ulster because many emigrants from Tyrone went to America and behind the town of Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley there are two peaks called Bessy Bell and Mary Gray which were named after the homeland hills of Newtownstewart.

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