> Tony Rose > Songs > Sheath and Knife
> Eliza Carthy > Songs > Sheath & Knife
> Maddy Prior > Songs > Sheath & Knife

Sheath and Knife

[ Roud 3960 ; Child 16 ; Ballad Index C016 ; Mudcat 48317 ; trad.]

Tony Rose learned the incest ballad Sheath and Knife from a very young June Tabor—five years before her first album— and recorded it in 1971 for his second album. Under the Greenwood Tree. He re-recorded it in 1999 for his CD Bare Bones; and a live recording from Eagle Tavern, New York, in 1981 was included in 2008 on his CD Exe. He commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

Along with Lucy Wan, Edward, and The Bonny Hind, Sheath and Knife is one of the comparatively few ballads to deal with the rather sombre subject of incest. Apart from the obvious difficulty of being able to pin the events of these songs down to any particular date, it seems difficult too to gauge the sociological attitude of the people involved to their “crime”. In this song, as in Lucy Wan, there is no intimation that the act of incest itself is felt to be wrong or conductive to any kind of guilt. In both cases it is only after a child has been conceived that urgent action is felt to be imperative. Here the girl demands that she die at her brother's hand—a decision apparently motivated by the feeling of remorse and the wish to preserve her own and/or the family┬┤s honour, and of course necessitating a terrifying act of penance from her brother. This is tragedy on an epic scale, and this is reflected in the power of the song.

Ewan MacColl sang Sheath and Knife in 1972 on his Argo album Solo Flight and in 1986 on his and Peggy Seeger's Blackthorne album Blood & Roses Volume 5. A Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger live recording from Seattle on 16 November 1984 was released in 1990 on his Cooking Vinyl collection Black and White. The first album's notes commented:

Of the four texts in Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, only that taken from Motherwell's manuscript can be said to be more than a fragment of this magnificent ballad. A more complete form of the story did not appear until 1960 when Helen Mennie Shire published a 26-stanza version from the Dalhousie Manuscript. This collection is based almost completely on the Shire text.

Jean Redpath sang Sheath and Knife in 1976 on her Trailer album There Were Minstrels. She noted:

I first heard this sung by Helen Schneyer, a fine singer from Washington. So strong was the impact of her singing, in fact, that it had taken more than two years for me to find my own approach to the story. This is surely one of the most powerful of the tragic ballads.

Gordeanna McCulloch sang Sheath and Knife in 1978 as the title track of her Topic album Sheath and Knife. She noted:

The words of this version are more or less as collected by William Motherwell in Ayrshire in 1825. Robert Burns noted the tune during the 1790s.

Sheena Wellington sang Sheath and Knife in 1986 on her Dunkeld album Kerelaw. She noted:

An abridged version, and a slightly altered tune, but this is basically learned from the singing of the redoubtable Jean Redpath.

Maureen Jelks sang Sheath and Knife in 1988 on her Dunkeld album First Time Ever.

Janet Russell sang Sheath and Knife in 1993 on her Harbourtown album Bright Shining Morning?. She noted:

Sheath and Knife is a version of an incest ballad which was brought to my notice by Peta Webb. This is a mixture of the tune Peta taught me and the lyrics sung by Gordeanna McCulloch, a Scots singer I very much admire.

Sangsters sang Sheath and Knife in 1993 on their Greentrax album Begin.

Eliza Carthy sang Sheath and Knife in 1996 on her CD Heat Light & Sound. She noted:

A woman gets pregnant, we never find out by whom, and in despair decides to commit suicide, saving her family's good name. But finding herself too frightened to do it on her own she asks her best friend to help her stage a hunting accident, and kill her when she gives the signal. What are friends for? This can be found in the Child Collection, where in some versions it is her brother that gets her pregnant and kills her.

Christine Kydd sang Sheath & Knife in 1997 on the Fellside anthology Ballads. Producer Paul Adams noted:

There are two classic ballads dealing with the subject of incest, Lucy Wan and Sheath and Knife. It is the sheer nobility of the tune which gives Sheath and Knife the edge. It is a truly magnificent ballad which has all the stature of a Shakespearean tragedy. Christine writes “Like most singers I am drawn to songs when I hear them sung and it seems that most of the great ballad singers of the folk revival have sung a version of this one, Gordeanna McCulloch, Jean Redpath, Sheena Wellington, Ewan MacColl and Tony Rose. The published written sources of which I'm aware are Motherwell's and Helen Mennie Shire's from the Dalhousie Manuscript. I have told the story in my own words rather than learning set verses and it has emerged as a compilation of all the ones I know. The bravery and resignation of this young woman and the grief of her brother are heart wrenching. I see this as not just a piece of history, it's stark modern reality.”

Maddy Prior learned Sheath & Knife from Tony Rose and recorded it in 1997 for her album Flesh & Blood. This was later included in the Park Records sampler A Stroll Through the Park and on the Maddy Prior anthology Collections: A Very Best of 1995 to 2005. She noted on the original album:

One of the great incest ballads. A devastating and compelling story told in so few words. The rude intrusion of music and dancing into a mind torn with grief is heart rending.

I more and more realise how much of my taste and style is based in the 60's revival—formed by many talented musicians and singers all of whom researched with great energy their own repertoires that have now become part of a background body of material available to all. I am grateful for having been among them.

I first heard this sung by Tony Rose and it has taken me 20 years before I could find a way to sing it that did not lean too heavily on this version.

Joe Rae sang Sheath and Knife as the title-giving track of his 2001 Musical traditions album of ballads, songs and stories from Ayrshire, The Broom Blooms Bonny. Rod Stradling noted:

According to Professor Child, both Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott knew versions of this ballad, which appears to be known only from the late 18th and early 19th century. Child also notes the similarity of the story to that of other ballads, such as The Bonny Hind (Child 50)—which Joe Rae also sings— Lizzy Wan (Child 51), and The King's Dochter Lady Jean (Child 52). It may also be that Packie Manus Byrne's The Rich Man's Daughter can be added to this group of ballads.

The directions for finding a burial site—verses 4 and 5—are similar to those given by Robin Hood in the ballad Robin Hood's Death and Burial (quoted by Child in his notes to Sheath and Knife):

But give me my bent bow in my hand,
And a broad arrow I'll let flee,
And where this arrow is taken up
There shall my grave diggd (sic) be.

In parts of India there is a belief that a loosed arrow will land where a young man will find his intended bride.

Joe learnt Sheath and Knife over thirty years ago from the friend of a work colleague, who was then living in Glasgow and whose name he no longer remembers.

Corrina Hewat sang Sheath & Knife in 2003 on her CD My Favourite Place.

Mary Humphreys sang Sheath and Knife in 2003 on her and Anahata's WildGoose album Sharp Practice. They noted:

Without an understanding of the metaphors of sheath and knife the song loses its meaning. Sir William's self-mutilation in his abject despair and sorrow after he has shot his sister-lover Lady Margaret at her insistence is not made explicit in the ballad. Over the many years that Mary has been singing this song, she has anglicised the text and added the last verse from Scott s vestigial version in Child so that it gives Sir William the final emotional comments on the tragedy.

Broom is a very ubiquitous plant in folk song. It can be a symbol of witchcraft as in The Broomfield Wager or here, sexual activity: ‘going to the broom’.

Rachael McShane sang Sheath and Knife in 2018 on her Topic album with The Cartographers, When All Is Still. She noted:

I've heard this song described as “one of the great incest ballads”. It's certainly in my top ten! The lovely Maggie Boyle, who is sadly no longer with us, taught this rather sad song to me many years ago and I still love singing it.

Lyrics

Tony Rose sings Sheath and Knife

O it's whispered in the kitchen and it's whispered in the hall,
    O the broom blooms bonny and the broom blooms fair,
That the king's daughter goes with a child to her brother
    And they'll never go down to the broom anymore.

He has taken his sister down to her father's deer park
    O the broom blooms bonny and the broom blooms fair,
O with a yew-tree bow and arrow slung fast across his back,
    And they'll never go …

“O it's when that you hear me, give a loud cry,
Shoot from your bow an arrow, and there let me lie.
    And we'll never go …

“And when that you see that I am lying dead,
Then you'll dig for me a grave with the turf at my head.”
    And we'll never go …

O it's when that he's heard her give a loud cry,
Ah, then a silver arrow from his bow he suddenly let fly.
    And they'll never go …

Then he has dug a grave both long, wide and deep,
And he's buried his own sister with their child at her feet.
    And they'll never go …

Then he has gone back to his father's own hall,
There was music, there was minstrels and dancing and all.
    But they'll never go …

“O Willie, O Willie, what gives you such pain?”
“I have lost a sheath and knife that I'll never see again
    And we'll never go … ”

“There are the ships of your father's all sailing on the sea,
That'll bring as good a sheath and knife unto thee.
    But they'll never go … ”

“There are the ships of my father's all sailing on the sea,
But such a sheath and knife they can never bring to me
    And we'll never go … ”

Ewan MacColl sang Sheath and Knife

There was a sister and her brither,
    The sun gaes tae oot owre the wood
Wha maist entirely loved each other,
    God give we had never been sib

“Sister we'll gang tae the broom,
O sister, I would lay thee doon.”

“Brother, alas, would ye dae sae
I sooner would my deith gang tae.”

A' the folk they talk through ither
That the lassie is wi' bairn to her brither.

“O, brither ye hae done me ill,
And we will baith burn on yon hill.”

“Ye'll gang tae my faither's stable
And tak' twa horses stout and able.”

She's up on the white horse, he's on the black,
Wi' his yew-tree bow slung fast tae his back.

They hadnae rode a mile but ane
E'er her pains they did come on.

“I would gie a# my faither's land
For a good midwife at my command.”

“Ye'll gang tae yon hill sae high
And tak' your bow and arrows wi' ye.

“When ye hear me lood, lood cry,
Then bend your bow and let me die.”

When he heard her lood, lood cry,
He bent his bow and let her die.

When he cam' tae her beside
The babe was born, the lady deid.

Then he has ta'en his young, young son
And borne him tae a milk-woman.

He's gien himsel' ae wound fu' sair,
“We'll never gang tae the broom nae mair.”

“Oh mither, I hae tint my knife,
I lo'ed it better than my life.

“But I hae tint a better thing,
The bonnie sheath my knife was in.”

“Is there no' a cutler intae Fife
That could mak' to thee a better knife?”

“There's no' a cutler in all the land
Could mak' sic a knife tae my command.”

Gordeanna McCulloch sings Sheath and Knife

It is talked, it is talked the world aa o'er,
    The broom blooms bonny and sae it is fair,
That the king's yae dochter gaes wi child tae her brither
    And we'll never gyang doon tae the broom ony mair.

He's taen his sister doon tae their faither's deer park,
    The broom blooms bonny and sae it is fair,
Wi his yew-tree bow and arrows fast slung at his back.
    And we'll never gyang …

Now when that he heard her gie a loud cry,
An arrow frae his bow he suddenly let fly,
    Noo they'll never gyang …

He has howkit a grave that wis lang an wis deep,
He has laid his sister in, wi' her bairn at her feet,
    And they'll never gyang …

Aye an when that he cam tae his faither's coort haa,
There was music an dancin an minstrels mangst them aa,
    But they'll never gyang …

“O Willie dear, O Willie, whit maks ye in pain?”
“I har lost a sheath an knife and will never see again
    And they'll never gyang … ”

“There are ships o yer faither's a-sailin on the sea,
That will bring as guid a sheath and a knife untae ye,
    Noo we'll never gyang … ”

“There are ships o my faither's a-sailin on the sea,
But sic a sheath and knife they can never bring tae me,
    Noo we'll never gyang … ”

Janet Russell sings Sheath and Knife

It is talked of the whole world over,
    The Broom blooms bonnie, the broom blooms fair,
That the king's yae dochter goes with child tae her bother
    And they'll never gyang doon tae the broom onymair.

He has taen his sister doon tae their faither's deer park
Wi' his yew tree bow and arrow slung fast across his back.

“And it's when that ye hear me gie a loud cry
Shoot me with and arrow and there let me lie.

“And when that ye see that I am lying dead
Lay me in a grave wi' a turf tae my head.”

So it's when that he heard her gie a loud cry,
It's with a silver arrow, he suddenly let fly.

He's houpit a grave that was long, wide and deep
And he's laid her in the grave wi' her young babe at her feet.

And it's when that he's come tae his faither's great ha'
There's music and dancing, and minstrels mangst them a'.

“What ails thee, what ails thee, my brither John?”
“I have lost a sheath and knife I will never see again.”

“Yer faither, yer faither has ships on the sea,
And such a sheath and knife he will surely bring to thee.”

“And it's aye that my faither has ships on the sea,
But such a sheath and knife he will never bring to me.”

Sangsters sing Sheath and Knife

It's whispered in the kitchen and it's whispered in the ha',
    The broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair,
That the king's daughter gaes wi a bairnie by her brither
    And they darena' gae doon tae the broom ony mair.

He's taen his sister doon tae their faither's deer park,
Wi his yew tree bow and arrows held fast against his back.

And when that he's heard her gie a loud cry,
A silver arrow frae his bow he's suddenly let fly.

He's dug tae her a grave that was lang, wide and deep
And he's buried his ain sister wi their bairnie at her feet.

And when that he's gaed tae his faither's ha',
There was music, there were minstrels, aye and dancin an' a'.

“O Willy, my son Willy, whit gies tae ye sic pain?”
“I hae lost a sheath and knife that I can never find again.

“My faither micht hae ships that sail upon the sea,
But sic a sheath and knife they can never bring tae me.”

Eliza Carthy sings Sheath and Knife

It's whispered in parlour it's whispered in hall,
    Oh the broom blooms bonny the broom blooms fair,
Lady Anne's with child among the ladies all
    And she dare not go …

One king's daughter said to another,
    Oh the broom blooms bonny the broom blooms fair,
“We'll go ride like sister and brother
    And we'll never go …

“We'll go ride in yonder valley
Where the green green trees are budding so rarely
    And we'll never go …

“With hawk and hound we'll hunt so rarely
And we'll come back all in the morning early
    And we'll never go … ”

So they rode out like sister and brother,
And they hunted and hawked in the valley together
    And they'll never go …

“Lady hold my horse and my hawk,
For I cannot ride and I dare not walk
    And we'll never go …

“But set me down by the root o' this tree,
For there have I dreamt that my last bed shall be
    And we'll never go … ”

The one king's daughter did lift down the other,
She was light in her arms like any feather
    And she'll never go …

Bonnie Lady Anne sat down by the tree,
And there a grave was made where none should be
    And she'll never go …

The hawk had no lure the horse had no master,
And the faithless hounds through the woods they ran faster
    And they'll never go …

“Oh when that you hear my loud loud cry,
Then bend your bow and let your arrow fly
    Cause we'll never go … ”

Maddy Prior sings Sheath & Knife

It's whispered in the kitchen, it's whispered in the hall
    The broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair,
The king's daughter goes with child, among ladies all
    And they'll never go down to the broom anymore.

It's whispered by the ladies one unto the other,
    The broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair,
“The king's daughter goes with child, unto her own brother.
    And they'll never go down to the broom anymore.”

He's ta'en his sister down to his father's deer park
With his yew-tree bow and arrow slung fast across his back.

“And when that you hear me give a loud cry,
Shoot from your bow an arrow, and there let me lie.”

“And when that you see that I am lying dead
Put me in a grave with the turf all at my head.”

And when he has heard her give a loud cry,
A silver arrow from his bow he suddenly let fly.

And he has dug a grave both long and deep,
He has buried his sister with their babe all at her feet.

And when he has come to his father's own hall,
There was music and dancing, there were minstrels and all.

O the ladies asked him, “What makes thee in such pain?”
“I've lost a sheath and knife, I will never find again.”

“All the ships of your father's a-sailing on the sea
Can bring as good a sheath and knife unto thee.”

“All the ships of my father's a-sailing on the sea
Can never ever bring such a sheath and knife to me.”

Joe Rae sings Sheath and Knife

O it's whispered in the kitchen and it's whispered in the hall,
    O the broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair.
That the king's dochter gaes wi a bairnie tae her brother,
    An they daurna gae doon tae the broom onymair.

He has taen his sister doon tae his faither's deer-park,
Wi a yew-tree bow and arrows all strapped tae his back.

“Weel, it's when that you hear me gie a lood, lood cry,
Shoot an arrow from your bow, it's there let me lie.”

Weel, it's when that he's heard her gie that lood, lood cry,
A silver arrow from his bow he's suddenly let fly.

Then he has dug a grave, that was long, wide and deep,
And he's buried his ain sister, wi her bairnie at her breist.

Then he has gone back to his father's court-hall,
There was music, there was minstrels, ay dancing on the green.

“O Willie, my son Willie, what gies tae ye sic pain?”
“I hae lost a sheath and knife, I can never find again.”

“There are ships of your father's, all sailing on the sea,
But sic a sheath and knife, they can never bring tae me.”

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sing Sheath and Knife

It is whispered in parlour, it's whispered in hall,
    The broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair
Lady Margaret's with child among our ladies all,
    And she'll never go down to the broom any more

One lady whispered unto another,
    The broom blooms bonny, the broom blooms fair
Lady Margaret's with child to Sir William her brother,
    And they'll never go …

He's taken his sister down to his father's deer park,
With his yew tree bow and arrows fast slung at his back,
    And they'll never go …

“Oh when that you hear me give a loud loud cry,
Shoot your arrow from your bow, there let me lie.
    And we'll never go …

“And when that you see me lying cold and dead
Lay me in a grave with a turf at my head.”
    And I'll never go …

Oh, when that she gave a loud loud cry
His arrow from his bow he suddenly let fly.
    And she'll never go …

He's dug a grave long wide and deep,
He's laid his sister in it with their baby at her feet.
    And they'll never go …

As he was a-going to his father's hall,
There was music and minstrels and dancing among them all,
    And they'll never go …

“O Willie, O Willie what makes you in pain?”
“I have lost a sheath and knife I will never see again.”
    And I'll never go …

“Oh, there's ships of your father's sailing on the sea
That will bring another sheath and knife unto thee.”
    But he'll never go …

“Though there's ships of my father's sailing on the sea,
Oh, such a sheath and knife they can never bring to me.
    And we'll never go …

“And it's not for the knife my tears down do run
It's all for the sheath that I kept it in,”
    And we'll never go …

Acknowledgements

Eliza Carthy's version was transcribed by Kira White. Some small changes and thanks from Garry Gillard.