> June Tabor > Songs > Young Johnstone

Young Johnstone

[ Roud 56 ; Child 88 ; G/D 8:1929 ; Ballad Index C088 ; trad.]

David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc. James Kinsley: The Oxford Book of Ballads

Perthshire traveller singer Betsy Whyte sang Young Johnston on the anthology The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition 5; Tangent 1975; Greentrax 1992). Hamish Henderson and Ailie Munro noted in the accompanying booklet:

The Johnstons were well-known on the West Marches of the Borders as ‘unbrydlit men'’ and ‘vicious reivers’. A ballad The Lads o' Wamphray (Child 184) recounts the exploits of Willie Johnston of the Kirkhill, who avenges the death of his uncle, another Willie Johnston—and a famous freebooter—who was nicknamed ‘the Galliard’.

Twixt the Girthhead and Langwood-end
Livd the Galiard and Galiard's men…

Come out now, Simmy o' the Side,
Come out and see a Johnston ride!

The anecdote which epitomises the reputation of this rantipoling crew (ironically called, in popular parlance, ‘the gentle Johnstons’) is the one—quoted by Chambers—which describes an English traveller trying, without success, to find lodgings in Lockerbie on a winter night. An old woman finally looked over her window, and asked what he wanted. The Englishman said: “Oh, is there no good Christian in this town that will give shelter to a poor benighted traveller?” “N a!” answered the woman, “We're a' Johnstons and Jaidines here.”

The songs and stories about the Johnstons give them the character of being reckless, volatile, unaccountable, camsteerie (this last being an untranslatable Scots word having the sense—according to the Scottish National Dictionary—of ‘perverse, unmanageable, riotous’). Allowing for all this, what are we to say of a ballad hero who, having killed his true love's brother and having been welcomed and given refuge by her in spite of it, runs her through with his sword after his pursuers have departed? Peter Buchan's genteel recension rationalises this incomprehensible act by giving us to believe that Johnston has mistaken his true love for one of the knights who are after him. Child dismisses this, saying: “Young Johnston's first instinct is as duly to stab as a bulldog's is to bite.” The singer's explanation—that he was ungovernably jealous-natured, and could not bear the thought that the girl might have gone to bed with one of the knights, even if it was to protect him“seems to me psychologically the most plausible of all the way-out explanations so far preferred.

One very important point must be emphasised—Johnston is the family name of a large number of Scots travelling folk, and Betsy Whyte of Montrose has Johnston blood in her. Indeed, this ballad seems to have been handed down in a sort of family tradition, and bearers of the name—and those related to them—undoubtedly identify with it. It is impossible to say whether or not the travelling Johnstons have any connection with the ‘wild reivers’ of earlier days, but it must be admitted that the historical Johnstons were exactly the sort of lawless clan who may well have provided recruits for the tinkler-gypsy bands in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Ewan MacColl sang Young Johnstone in 1982 on his and Peggy Seeger's Blackthorne album Blood & Roses Volume 3. They noted:

Of the six versions of this bloody ballad given in Child, only Peter Buchan's provides a motive for the unfortunate Johnstone's murder of his mistress. Child's note on the ballad is coloured with some of the prejudice which marks most of his references to Buchan and he treats the explanation with more than a little contempt. And yet is it so far outside the bounds of possibility that a violent young man who has recently killed his friend in a drunken argument should unwittingly stab the sister on being suddenly wakened out of a drunken stupor?

Arthur Knevett sang Young Johnston and the Young Colonel on his 1988 cassette Mostly Ballads. Vic Gammon noted:

Psychological motivation is often scantly sketched in ballad texts. This ballad contains what Levi Straus might describe as the under-valuing of blood relations. Johnston kills to redress an insult to his sister but that sister then rebukes him and sends him away; the murdered man's sister welcomes and protects her brother's murderer who is also her lover. Why does Johnston then kill his lover and the instantly regrets it? This point has vexed critics for a considerable time and it has been proposed that Johnston takes his lover for a pursuer and kills her by mistake, that he is intensely jealous that his lover may have gone with another man to protect him, or simply that he is a wild and vicious character. There is, perhaps, a hint of class difference, the colonel is willing to keep Johnston's sister as a housekeeper, thus Johnston's slaying of the colonel's sister could be an act of class revenge. None of the texts make Johnston's motivation explicit and perhaps part of the continuing appeal of the ballad is what some critics would describe as the openness, the listener has to complete the story in his or her imagination.

This fine version of Young Johnston is mainly from Betsy Whyte, a Scottish traveller and an excellent ballad singer.

June Tabor recorded Young Johnstone in 2003 for her CD of Border Country ballads, An Echo of Hooves. This track was also included in 2005 on her anthology Always. She noted on the original album:

Mostly from Motherwell, W., Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern, 1827.

This is the true stuff of Tragedy—a short temper fuelled by alcohol sets in motion an inexorable sequence of events in which the innocent suffer and the (anti-)hero meets a bloody end (cf. Korusawa's Throne of Blood)—all the careless violence of a Western but set in a Scottish landscape.

Ellen Mitchell learned Johnston and the Young Colonel from the singing of Betsy Whyte, and sang it on her and Kevin Mitchell's 2001 Musical Traditions album Have a Drop Mair. She also sang Young Johnstone at he Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2006. This recording was included a year later on the festival anthology, Some Rants o' Fun (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 3). The latter album's notes commented:

This rare old ballad has survived in the song tradition of the Scottish traveller family of Johnstones. It has been collected from several members of the family since the 1960s—Duncan Johnstone of Birnam in 1967 when in his 80s, his niece Margaret Johnstone recorded in Fife in 1968, another niece Betsy White (nee Johnstone), author of two books about Scottish traveller life The Yellow on the Broom and Red Rowans and Wild Honey, and also from Betsy's sister in Australia.

Jackie Oates sang Young Johnson in 2011 on her CD Saturnine, and she played the role of Johnston's lover in the dramatic video that accompanied this recording:

Ron Taylor and Jeff Gillett sang Young Johnson in 2013 on their WildGoose CD Buy It, Try It (and Never Repent You). Jeff Gillett noted:

An American version of a Scottish ballad, with a collated text and tune from Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. At first, Johnson’s murderous actions seem to be in defence of family honour. By the end of the song, he seems to be something of a psychopath!

Alasdair Roberts sang Young Johnstone on his, Amble Skuse and David McGuinness' 2018 CD What News. They noted:

Our source for this ballad is the Glasgow singer Ellen Mitchell, although it has also been influenced by that sung by the late Perthshire traveller singer Betsy Whyte, from whom Ellen originally had the song. Indeed, the song is often regarded as the jewel of Betsy’s repertoire.

Lyrics

Ewan MacColl sang Young Johnstone

Young Johnson and young Connel
They sat drinking at the wine:
Gin ye wad marry my sister
It's I wad marry thine.”

“I wadnae marry your sister
For your houses and your land,
But I'll keep her for my leman
When I come ower the strand.

“I wadnae marry your sister
For a' your gowd sae gay;
But I'll keep her for my leman
When I come by this way.

Young Johnson had a little wee sword
Hung low doon by his gair;
And he stabbed it through young Connel's hairt
And word he ne'er spak' mair.

Then he's awa' tae his sister's bower
And tirled at the pin;
“Whaur hae ye been, my brither dear,
Sae late as ye come in?”
“I hae been at the school, sister,
Learnin' young clerks tae sing.”

“I dreamed a dreary dream this nicht
I dout it means nae gude;
I dreamed the ravens tore your flesh
And the wolves did drink your blood.”

“Tae dream o' blood, my sister dear,
I dout means muckle ill;
For I hae slain young Connel
And they're seekin' me to kill.”

“If ye hae slain young Connel
Then ye'll get nae help fae me;
May the wolves and ravens tear your flesh
As you hing on the gallows-tree.”

Then he's awa' tae his true love's bower
And tirled at the pin;
“Whaur hae ye been, young Johnson,
Sae late as ye come in?”
“I hae been at the school, my love,
Learnin' young clerks tae sing.”

“I dreamed a dreary dream this nicht
I dout it means nae gude,
They were seekin' ye wi' hawks and hounds
And the wolves did drink your blood.”

“Hawks and hounds they may seek me,
As I trow weel they be;
For I hae killed young Connel,
Thy ae brither was he.”

“Gin ye hae slain my ae brither,
Alas and wae is me!
But gin your body's free frae wounds
The easier I will be.

“Lie doon, lie doon, then, young Johnson,
Lie doon and tak' your sleep;
It's ower this chaulmer I will watch,
Thy fair body to keep.”

He hadnae slept within' that bower
An hour but barely three,
When four-and-twenty belted knichts
Did seek his fair body.

And when they cam' unto the gate
Unto her they did say:

O did you see yon bloody knicht
As he rode by this way?”

“Whit colour was his hawk,” she said,
“Whit colour was his hounds?
Whit colour was the gallant steed
That bore him frae the toon?”

“O, bloody, bloody was his hawk
And bloody was his hounds;
But milk-white was the gallant steed
That bore him frae the toon.”

“Gin his hawk was red wi' blood,
And bloody was his hounds,
He's ower yon hill and far awa',
He's gane tae Embro toon.”

They've turned their high horses' heids
And fast they rode awa';
And she's gane whaur young Johnson lay
And saftly she did ca':

“Lie still, lie still, my young Johnson,
Lie still and tak' your sleep.”
But he's ta'en up his twa'edged sword
And wounded her fu' deep.

“Whit aileth thee, my young Johnson,
Some ill deith may ye dee!
First ye hae slain my ae brither
And noo ye hae slain me.”

“O live, o live, my ain true love,
O live but half-an-hour!
And the best doctor in Embro toon
Shall come within your bower.”

“How can I live? How shall I live?
Young Johnson, dinna ye see
The red draps o' my bonnie hairt's blood
Rin trinklin' by my knee?;

“Tak' aff, tak' aff my holland sark
And rive't frae gair tae gair,
And stap it in my bloody wound
That it may bleed nae mair.”

Syne he's ta'en aff her holland sark,
And rive't frae gair tae gair;
And stapped it in her bloody wound
But aye it bled the mair.

Then he has ta'en his twa-edged sword
And leaned it on the ground,
And he has gi'en his ain body
A deep and deadly wound.

June Tabor sings Young Johnstone

Young Johnstone and the young Colonel
Sat drinking at the wine,
“It's if you'll marry my sister,
It's I will marry thine.”

“I wouldn't marry your sister
For all your houses and lands,
But it's I will make her my mistress
When I come o'er the strand.”

Young Johnstone had a little wee sword
Hung low down by his gear,
And he's thrust it through the young Colonel;
That word he never spoke more.

Then he's away to his sister's bower,
He's tirled at the pin:
“Where have you been, my dear brother,
So late a-coming in?”
“It's I have been at school, lady,
Learning young clerks to sing.”

“Oh, I have dreamed a dreadful dream,
I hope it may be for good;
They were seeking you with hawks and hounds
And the young Colonel was dead.”

“Hawks and hounds they may seek me,
As I trow well they be;
For I have killed the young Colonel,
Thy own true love was he.”

“If you have killed the young Colonel,
Then dule and woe is me!
May they hang you from the high gallows
And have no power to flee.”

Then he's away to his true love's bower,
He's tirled at the pin:
“Where have you been, my dear Johnstone,
So late a-coming in?”
“I have been at school, lady,
Learning young clerks to sing.”

“I have dreamed a dreadful dream,
I hope it may be for good;
They were seeking you with hawks and hounds
And the young Colonel was dead.”

“Hawks and hounds they may seek me,
As I trow well they be;
For I have killed the young Colonel,
Thy own brother was he.”

“If you have killed the young Colonel,
Then dule and woe is me!
But I care the less for the young Colonel
If thy own body be free.”

“Come in, come in, my dear Johnstone,
Come in and take a sleep;
And I will go to my casement,
And carefully I'll thee keep.”

She had not well been at her bower door,
No not for half an hour,
When four and twenty belted knights
Came a-riding by the bower.

“Well may you sit and see, lady,
Well may you sit and say;
Did you not see a bloody squire
Come riding by this way?”

“What colour were his hawks?” she says,
“What colour were his hounds?
What colour was the gallant steed,
That bore him from the bounds?”

“Bloody, bloody were his hawks,
And bloody were his hounds;
But milk-white was the gallant steed,
That bore him from the bounds.”

“Yes, bloody, bloody were his hawks,
And bloody were his hounds;
But milk-white was the gallant steed,
That bore him from the bounds.”

“Light down, light down now, gentlemen,
And take a glass of wine;
And the steed be swift that he rides on,
He's past the bridge of Lyne.”

“We thank you for your bread, lady,
We thank you for your wine,
But I'd rather thrice three thousand pound
That that bloody knight was ta'en.”

“Lie still, lie still, my dear Johnstone,
Lie still and take a sleep;
For thy enemies are past and gone,
And carefully I'll thee keep.”

Young Johnstone had a little wee sword,
Hung low down by his gear,
And he thrust it in fair Annet's breast,
A deep wound and sore.

“What aileth thee now, dear Johnstone?
What aileth thee at me?
Have you not got my father's gold
And my mother's fee?”

“Now live, now live, my dear lady,
Now live but half an hour,
And there's no a leech in all Scotland
But shall be at thy bower.”

“How can I live? How shall I live?
Young Johnstone, don't you see
The red, red drops of my heart's blood
Run a-trickling down my knee?

“But take your harp into your hand,
And harp out o'er yon plain,
And think no more on thy true love
Than if she'd never been.”

He had not well been out of the stable
And on the saddle set,
When four and twenty broad arrows
Were thrilling in his heart.

Ellen Mitchell sings Johnston and the Young Colonel

Johnston and the young colonel
Sat drinking high at wine.
“Oh I will marry your sister
If you will marry mine.”

“Oh no, oh no,” says the young colonel
“Such a thing can never be.
I'll keep her as my housekeeper
When I come o'er the lea.”

Noo Johnston had a guy broad sword
And a guy broad sword had he,
He reared it through the young colonel
'Til he fell dead on the floor.

He spurred his steed and swiftly rode
Like lightning o'er the lea,
Until he came to his sister's gates
And he tirl'd at the pin.

“I dreamed a dream brother, dear Johnston,
And I hope it's for your good.
They're seeking ye wi hawk and hound
And the young colonel is dead.”

“They're seeking me wi hawk and hound
As I well expect they'll be,
For I have slain the young colonel,
Your ain dear lover was he.”

“Be gone, be gone, ye bloody knight,
Be gone, be gone, fae me
If ye have slain the young colonel,
Ye'll be nae brother tae me.”

He's spurred his steed and swiftly rode
Like lightning o'er the lea
Until he came to his true love's gate
And he tirl'd at the pin.

“I dreamed a dream love, dear Johnston
And I hope it's for your good.
They're seeking ye wi hawk and hound
And the young colonel is dead.”

“They're seeking me wi hawk and hound
As I well expect they'll be,
For I have slain the young colonel,
Your ain dear brother was he.”

“Come in, come in love, dear Johnston,
Come in and take a rest,
For I care nae mair for the young colonel,
If your ain dear body is safe.”

He'd scarcely landed up the stair,
Intae the tower above,
When four and twenty belted knights
Cam seeking him at the gate.

“Ah did you see a bloody knight
And a bloody knight was he,
Or did ye see a bloody knight
Ride furiously ower the lea?”

“Come in, come in, dear gentlemen,
And have some bread and wine.
If the steed be good that he rides upon
He's across the bridge o Tyne.”

“Oh thank ye, lady, for your bread,
And thank ye for your wine,
But I'd give thrice a hundred pounds
If your ain dear body was mine.”

Noo Johnston had a guy broad sword,
And a guy broad sword had he,
He reared it through his ain true love
Til she fell down on the floor.

“What ails thee now, dear Johnston,
What ails thee now at me?
Haven't I given you all ma mither's gold
And all ma faither's fee?”

“Oh live, oh live, Lady Margaret,” he said,
“Even for a half an hour.
How can I live when my very heart's blood
Is trinkling on the floor?”

Noo Johnston had a guy broad sword,
And a guy broad sword had he,
He reared it through his ain false heart
And joined his fair lady.