> 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 ; trad.]

Tony Rose learned this incest ballad 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.

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

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. Her album's liner notes commented:

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.

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

Eliza Carthy sang and played Sheath and Knife in 1996 on her CD Heat Light & Sound. She commented in the sleeve notes:

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 commented in the album's liner notes:

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 commented in the original record's sleeve notes:

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.

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

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

Gordeanna McCulloch sings Sheath and Knife Tony Rose 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.

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'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 …

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 …

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

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 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 … ”

“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 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 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 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 … ”

“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 … ”

Maddy Prior sings Sheath & Knife Eliza Carthy sings Sheath and 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.”

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 … ”

Acknowledgements

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