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Child Owlet

[ Roud 3883 ; Child 291 ; Ballad Index C291 ; Mudcat 32124 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang the grizzly Child ballad Chylde Owlet in 1976 on his and Peggy Seeger’s album of traditional and contemporary folk music, No Tyme Lyke the Present, and in 1981 on their album of Child ballads, Blood & Roses Volume 2. There is no mention of MacColl’s source for either words, which are a little different from those in Child, or music. He noted:

A death in the family is a common ballad feature and the instruments of death are fairly common as well: the knife, the axe, the stake, the pistol, the noose, all take their toll. Sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces kill each other by stabbing, shooting, de-capitating, drowning, smothering, strangling and poisoning. There is something off-beat about having one’s nephew torn to pieces by wild horses but, as Professor Child has observed, “the last two stanzas are unusually successful”.

Maddy Prior sang Child Owlet in 1997 on the Fellside anthology Ballads and in 2004 on Steeleye Span’s CD They Called Her Babylon. Paul Adams commented in the first album’s sleeve notes:

This extremely rare ballad is fairly horrific even by ballad standards. The failed seduction and the revenge of the spurned temptress provides another theme for the high drama of ballads, but it is the way his body is spread over the landscape which takes it one step beyond the more usual ballad disposal methods of poisoning, stabbing, drowning, burning and beheading.

and Maddy Prior noted in the latter one’s:

I originally heard this from the singing of Ewan MacColl but I have extended the tune to take it over two verses. If there is a lesson to be learned from this ballad it is that hell really hath no fury like a woman scorned. Also that being honest and upright does not necessarily result in affirmation and happy endings. Sometimes the cost of principles is very dear.

Alistair Hulett sang Chylde Owlett on his and Dave Swarbrick’s 1998 album The Cold Grey Light of Dawn.

Paul Davenport wrote Giles Howlett based on the traditional Childe Owlett plot. He and Liz Davenport sang it in 2006 on their Hallamshire Traditions album Under the Leaves. They noted:

The ballad, Childe Owlett is a singularly gruesome tale in which a young man rejects the advances of the local Lord’s wife and is then, by her machinations, accused and condemned by popular consent without trial. Childe Owlett is then hung, drawn and quartered. This ballad was written during the 2005 Sheffield Folk Festival for two reasons: firstly, to illustrate how a traditional ballad could be brought into a modern context, and secondly because there are various folk jokes about teachers and social workers singing about mining and fishing disasters. Here’s a song of a teaching disaster which miner and fishermen can sing to their heart’s content. Equality is a wonderful thing.

Mick West sang Chylde Owlett in 2009 on his Greentrax CD Sark o’ Snaw. The album’s booklet noted:

The only source of this ballad is Peter Buchan (1790-1854). William Motherwell also has it in his Manuscripts, but it is Buchan’s version. In later times, it was not recovered by Greig-Duncan, nor by Carpenter. In the ballad, Lady Erskine tries to seduce her husband’s nephew, Child Owlet. He refuses. She stabs herself and tells her husband that he had tried to seduce her. He puts Child Owlet to death by having him torn apart by wild horses.

Child remarks: “The ballad seems at best to be a late one, and is perhaps a mere imitation, but, for an imitation, the last two stanzas are unusually successful.”

Buchan gives no provenance for the ballad, nor does he give a tune. With Ewan MacColl apparently making the earliest recording, one might speculate that the tune has MacColl’s hand in it, but a better claim might be made on behalf of the outstanding and modest John Faulkner.

Fellow Glaswegian Alistair Hulett—friend, singer and songwriter—passed this version on to Mick. To quote Mick—“it’s a bit of a gorefest, as are many of our great ballads, but I suppose a body count of only one is quite unusual.”

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman sang Child Owlet in 2015 on their CD Tomorrow Will Follow Today, commenting:

This traditional Child ballad portraits a shocking tale of incest, betrayal and murder.

This 2018 video shows Fay Hield, possibly in her University of Sheffield office, singing Child Owlet for TradSongTues:


Maddy Prior sings Child Owlet

Lady Erskine sits intae her bower, a-sowing a silken seam,
A bonny shirt for Child Owlet as he goes out and in
His face was fair, long was his hair, she’s called him to come near
“Oh, you must cuckold Lord Ronald for all his lands and gear.”

“Oh, lady, hold your tongue for shame for such should ne’er be done.
How can I cuckold Lord Ronald and me his sister’s son?”
Then she’s ta’en out a small penknife that lay beside her head
She’s pricked herself below her breast which made her body bleed.

Lord Ronald’s come into her bower where she did make her moan.
“Oh, what is all this blood,” he said, “That shines on your breast bone?”
“Young Child Owlet, your sister’s son, is new gone from my bower.
If I’d not been a good woman I’d have been Child Owlet’s whore.”

Then he has taken Child Owlet, thrown him in prison strong
And all his men a council held to judge Child Owlet’s wrong
Some said, Child Owlet he should hang, some said that he should burn,
Some said they would he Child Owlet between wild horses torn.

“Ten horses in my stable stand, can run right speedily.
It’s you must to my stable go and take out four for me.”
They tied a horse unto each foot and one unto each hand.
They’ve sent them out o’er Elkin Moor as fast as they could run.

There was no stone on Elkin Moor, no broom nor bonny whin
But’s dripping with Child Owlet’s blood and pieces of his skin.
There was no grass on Elkin Moor, no broom nor bonny rush
But’s dripping with Child Owlet’s blood and pieces of his flesh.


Transcribed by Reinhard Zierke. Thanks to Jim Lawton for correcting some errors.