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Twa Corbies / Two Ravens

[ Roud 5 ; Child 26 ; Ballad Index C026 ; The Twa Corbies at A Puckle Mucke Sangs ; MusTrad MT325 ; DT THRERAV3 , THRERAV4 ; Mudcat 19936 ; trad.]

Norman Buchan: 101 Scottish Songs Sir Walter Scott: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border

Roud 5 comprises three distinct variants, the tender English The Three Ravens, the bleak Scots The Twa Corbies, and the more burlesque American The Three Crows. There are also versions combining several of these strands.

Ray Fisher sang the bleak Twa Corbies, accompanied by her brother Archie on guitar, in 1962 on their EP Far Over the Forth; this recording was included in 1975 on the famous 4 LP compilation Electric Muse and later on its CD version New Electric Muse, and in 2009 on Topic’s 70th anniversary anthology Three Score and Ten. The EP’s sleeve notes commented:

When is a ballad not a ballad? Answer—when it isn’t sung. The Twa Corbies has for long been regarded as one of the most flawless as it is one of the grimmest of all our ballads; but it wasn’t being sung. No tune appeared to survive in oral tradition and attempts at setting it remained literary, academic and dead. Then R.M. Blythman (the Scots poet “Thurso Berwick”) set it [in ca 1956] to this marvellously sombre old Breton tune, An Alarc’h, The Swan, learned from the Breton folk-singer Zaig Montjarret. The result was astonishingly right and The Twa Corbies has passed into the repertoire of our younger folk-singers. It is related to the English Three Ravens.

Jean Redpath sang Twa Corbies in 1962 too on her Elektra album Scottish Ballad Book. She noted:

Proof that not all of the ‘big ballads’ are big in both form and feeling, Twa Corbies owes much of the power of its impact to its very brevity. In contrast to the more hopeful Three Ravens—that form of the ballad which is more widely known—this version presents in five compact stanzas its hard and cynical comment and captures the very spirit of the Anglo-Saxon fatalism, especially in the terrible finality of the last two lines. In this form the ballad is rare in Britain, has no European analogies and is practically unknown in Canada. The popularity of The Three Ravens and its variants in America has been attributed to minstrel stage burlesque. Since it is difficult to explain how such apparently restricted oral tradition has resulted in such a perfect and unique poem, it has been suggested that Twa Corbies is in fact a formal composition, perhaps from the pen of Motherwell. Whatever its origin, this ballad, start and desolate as it is, remains one of the most arresting I know.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group (then with Dave Swarbrick) sang The Twa Corbies at an evening at the Jug of Punch folk club at the Crown, Station Street, Birmingham. This concert’s recording was published in 1962 on their Topic EP Ceilidh at the Crown.

Steeleye Span recorded Twa Corbies in 1970 for their very first album, Hark! The Village Wait and more than 25 years later for their album Time, this time with the shorter title Corbies. A live recording from The Forum, London on 2 September 1995 was released on the CD The Journey. The first recording’s sleeve notes commented:

[…] otherwise known as the Two Ravens, and sometimes called The Three Ravens. First printed in [Scott]’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1803 it is one of the most popular of the Scottish ballads. For those unused to the dialect the two birds are discussing the pros and cons of eating a newly slain knight. Ashley Hutchings: “This goes back to the 13th Century at least, and it was recorded at Tim’s suggestion.” Why is it particular about a knight? Why not a footsoldier? “Songs that go back a long way are usually about Lords and Ladies, possibly because they were a great source of interest to the people, rich and poor.”

And the Time sleeve notes commented:

Scraggy feathered, mean beaked carrion crows tearing at the tender flesh of a dead, deserted knight. As an image of impermanence there is no equal.

This is from the Time video that was released by Park Records in addition to the CD:

In between both studio albums, Steeleye Span’s singer Maddy Prior recorded Twa Corbies in 1993 for her solo album Year. She noted:

Reflection on death in its physical reality is known to the Buddhists and Hindus, but in the West only in Medieval times was it dealt with directly and evoked by skeletons carved on graves and gruesome images of Death the Reaper. In these more antiseptic times there is little in this line and flowers, wreaths and gentle doves cloud the unacceptable thought of our mortal destination. This song dates from earlier times and is for me a brilliant examination of decay.

[R.M. Blythman] set the stark old Scottish words to this moody Breton tune and we have amplified its Gothic atmosphere.

‘Corbies’ means ‘carrion crows’ and ‘hause bane’ is a ‘breast bone’.

Marie Little sang The Twa Corbies in 1971 on her Argo album Factory Girl. This track was also included in the same year on the Argo anthology The World of Folk.

Folque did a wonderful Norwegian version of Twa Corbies—which they called Ravnene—in 1974 on their eponymous debut album, Folque.

Barry and Robin Dransfield sang The Two Ravens in 1977 on their Free Reed album Popular to Contrary Belief; this was also included in 1997 on their Free Reed 2CD anthology Up to Now.

Andy Hunter sang The Twa Corbies in 1984 on his Lismor album King Fareweel.

Rhiannon sang Twa Corbies in 1985 on their Fellside album The Birds of Rhiannon.

Seannachie sang Twa Corbies on their 1988 album Take Note!.

Folly Bridge sang Twa Corbies in 1991 on their WildGoose cassette All in the Same Tune. Claire Lloyd commented:

Two crows are discussing what to have for dinner, and decide on a knight recently killed in battle. An earlier form of this ballad, Three Ravens, dates back to at least 1611, but no tune ever was found. The old Breton tune that is commonly used today for this Scottish dialect version was added by Scots poet R.M. Blythman.

Old Blind Dogs sang The Twa Corbies on their 1993 album Close to the Bone. Ian Benzie noted:

The Old Blind Dogs seem to have a penchant for the macabre (listen to Bedlam Boys on their previous CD). This song has two crows talking about the fate of the corpse they have found. If there is a true story behind it I would love to hear it.

Andy Turner sang Two Ravens in 1998 on Magpie Lane’s Beautiful Jo CD Jack-in-the-Green. They noted:

Two ravens discuss eating the corpse of a newly slain knight. The 19th-century collector Francis J. Child identified this sinister song as one of the classic folk ballads. The words sung here are based on an anglicisation of the lowland Scots Twa Corbies—two crows. The tune was recorded from the singing of J.H. Chisholm at Greenwood, Virginia, in 1936.

Janet Russell and Linda Adams sang The Twa Corbies in 1998 on the Fellside CD of songs of the Border reivers, Fyre & Sworde. They noted:

The image of two ravens / crows discussing a corpse is one of the most stark and evocative of all the songs associated with the Borders. It conjures up images of the bleak Border fells with its underlying themes of betrayal and murder. The text is stripped bare and its simplicity coupled with the un-accompanied treatment given here reinforces the sheer desolation. We have given the song one Scottish and one English corbie.

Stairheid Gossip sang The Twa Corbies in 2002 on their Greentrax album Stirrin’ It Up. They noted:

Morris Blythman set these words to an ancient Breton melody. A gruesome, eerie little number from the Borders, suggesting evil doings. Just to finish on the same discordant note we started on.

Danish group Svøbsk sang De to ravne on their 2005 album Sig Mig. They noted:

This Scottish ballad The Twa Corbies is a “cynical version” of The Three Ravens, which dates back to 1611. Corbie is another word for raven or crow. It was translated into Danish by Svend Grundtvig in the 18th century and about 100 years later people started to sing it was a traditional melody from Brittany—An alach. […] We know the song in this version from the Danish singer Alan Klitgaard. An old story, which unfortunately is still current.

Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner sang Twa Corbies in 2007 on their WildGoose CD September Days. They noted:

This ballad is a variant of The Three Ravens which dates back to 1611. It tells the tale of a dead man whose wife, hawk and dog have all deserted him and left his body to the mercy of the crows.

The Maerlock sang Twa Corbies, “an Anglicised version of the Scottish song Twa Corbies” [sleeve notes], in 2008 on their Fellside CD Sofa.

Pinkie Maclure sang Twa Corbies in 2011 on the Woodbine & Ivy Band’s eponymous album, The Woodbine & Ivy Band.

The Macmath Collective sang The Corbie and the Craw on their 2015 CD Macmath: The Silent Page. They noted:

This version of the better known Scots song The Twa Corbies was shared with [William] Macmath in 1893 by John Christison who learnt it from his father, Robert, when he was a boy. His father had heard it sung at the Maxwells’ house Portrack in Dumfries.

John Roberts and Debra Cowan sang The Twa Corbies in 2015 on their CD Ballads Long & Short. They noted:

Of the ballads included in the Child anthology, Twa Corbies, first published in Ravenscroft’s Melismata in 1611 as The Three Ravens, is perhaps the oldest. Morris Blythman (d.1981), a seminal figure in the development of the Scottish folk ‘scene’, set this Scottish version of the poem to a Breton tune, An Alarc’h (The Swan), and Norman Buchan included it in his 1962 collection, 101 Scottish Songs (the best Scottish songbook ever!). We have anglicised it slightly.

Danish group Phønix with SangKo sang De to ravne on their 2017 Danish/Chinese CD Groovy Guzheng.

Lewis Barfoot sang Twa Corbies on her 2021 CD Glenaphuca. She noted:

Originally an English ballad Three Ravens, first published in Ravenscroft’s Melismata in 1611, later to become a Scottish ballad, The Twa Corbies, speaks of two ravens (corbies) plotting to eat the corpse of a freshly dead knight. This track appears on the album as part of my explorations and acceptance of the life—death—life cycle.

Lori Watson sang Twa Corbies, an out-track from her Yarrow Acoustic Sessions, on Duncan Lyall’s 2021 album Milestone.


Ray Fisher sings Twa Corbies

As I was walkin’ all alane
I heard twa corbies makkin a mane;
Tha tain unto the other ane say-o,
“Where sall we gang and dine the day-o,
Where sall we gang and dine the day?”

“It’s in ahint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there-o
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair-o,
Hawk and his hound and his lady fair.”

“His hawk is tae the huntin gane,
His hound tae bring the wildfowl hame;
His lady’s ta’en another mate-o
Sae we mun mak our dinner sweet-o,
Sae we mun mak our dinner sweet.”

“It’s ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair-o
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare-o,
Theek our nest when it grows bare.”

“There’s mony a ane for him maks mane
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
And o’er his bones when they lay bare-o
The wind sall blaw for evermair-o,
The wind sall blow for evermair.”

Steeleye Span sings Twa Corbies

As I was a-walking all alane
I heard twa corbies makkin a mane;
And tain untae the tither did say-o,
“Where shall we gang and dine the day-o
Where shall we gang and dine the day?”

“In behind yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there-o
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair-o,
His hawk and his hound and his lady fair.”

His hound is tae the hunting gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wildfowl hame;
His lady’s ta’en anither mate-o
So we may mak our dinner sweet-0,
We may mak our dinner sweet.”

“Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi’ many a lock of his golden hair-o
We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare-o,
Theek our nest when it grows bare.”

“Many a one for him maks mane
But nane shall ken where he is gane;
O’er his white bones when they are bare-o
The wind shall blow for evermair-o,
The wind shall blow for evermair.”

The Macmath Collective sing The Corbie and the Craw

The Corbie wi his roupie throat
Cad frae the leafless tree,
“Come ow’r the loch! Come ow’r the loch!
Come ow’r the loch tae me!”

The Craw pit up her sooty heid,
Looked frae whaur she did lay
And gied a fluff wi’ her roustie wings and cried,
“Whaur tae, whaur tae?”

“To fyke a deid man lying there
Ahint yon mickle stane.”
“"Oh is he fat. oh is he fat?
If no we’ll let him alane.”

“He’s come frae merry England
Come to steal oor sheep and deer.”
“I’ll come, I’ll come for an Englishman
Is aye the best o cheer!”

“We’ll breakfast on his bonnie breest
And on his back we’ll dine,
For his love has gane tae her ane countrie
An’ll ne’er come back sin-syne.”

Folque sing Ravnene

Der jeg meg så ene i vang monne gå,
Jeg hørte to ravner at holde råd.
Den ene seg til den annen vendte:
“Hvor skal i dag vi vår føde hente?”

Bak gresstorv-diket det gamle hist
Der ligger en nyslagen ridder forvisst,
Og ingen vet at han ligger der
Enn hans høk, hans hund og hans hjertens kjær.

Hans hund den jager i vilden skov,
Hans høk den søker bak sky sitt rov.
Hans frue har givet en annen sin tro
Så vi kan ete vår mat i ro.

Hans hvite halsben kan du sitte på
Så hogger jeg ut hans øyne blå.
Og med en lokk av hans gule hår
Vi dekker vårt rede neste vår.


When I saw one of them, I was allowed to go,
I heard two ravens keeping council.
The one turned to the other:
“Where are we going to get our food today?”

Behind the grass-dike, the old wall
There is a newly slain knight lying for sure,
And nobody knows he’s lying there
But his hawk, his hound and his heart’s dear.

His hound is hunting in the wild wood,
His hawk it seeks behind the clouds.
His wife has given to another her faith
So we can eat our food in peace.

His white neck-bone you can you sit on
Then I peck out his eyes blue.
And with a lock of his yellow hair
We’ll thatch our nest next spring.

Phønix sing De to ravne

Da jeg så ene i vang monne gå,
Jeg hørte to ravne der holdt et råd.
Den ene sig mod den anden vendte,
“Hvor skal i dag vi vor føde hente?”

Hist ude på vang bag ved grønnen vold
En slagen ridder ligger under skjold
Slet ingen ved at han ligger dér
End hans hund, hans høg og hans hjertenskær

Hans hund den jager i vilden skov
Hans høg den søger bag sky sit rov
Hans frue har givet en anden sin tro
Så vi kan æde vor mad i ro

De hvide brystben kan du sidde på
Så hugger jeg ud de øjne blå
Og med en lok af hans gyldne hår
Tækker vi vor rede til efterår

Så mangen én vil for ham da kvide
Hvad der er hændt ham skal ingen vide
Men over de hvide og tørre ben
Blæser for evigt den barske vind


Thank you very much to Jack Eden for correcting Steeleye Span’s lyrics.