Cruel Sister

A song in my heart...
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Cruel Sister

Post by cammykitty » Wed Nov 09, 2005 3:22 pm

Are any of you familiar with this Scottish Ballad "Cruel Sister" about a woman who drowns her sister over a love triangle with a knight? I'm working on a research project. Where did you hear it? Old Blind Dogs? Pentangle? There seems to be a few versions -- especially when it comes to the harp "made out of her breastbone." If you know any versions that get grislier than the harp -- or include more information about the musicians than they just saw this body and decided to make a harp out of it, please let me know. I know there's a version with a fiddle, but I've never actually been able to track it down.


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Post by Rockhopper » Wed Nov 09, 2005 4:29 pm

Loreena McKennitt turned this into a song called the Bonny Swans, if you were to search for that, you'll find the lyrics and why she chose it.

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Post by Paganlight » Wed Feb 01, 2006 5:56 pm

I first heard this song sung around a Bardic fire in my medieval re-enacment group. I love this song, and I love what Loreena Mckennit did with it - it's one of my faves of hers. I've never heard one about a fiddle, though.

This is the version I know the best, though I do know plenty others. In this one, the harper seems to be struck by love for the girl, and takes three of her hairs to string his bow with, rather than making it from her breastbone:

There was twa sisters in a bowr,
Edinburgh, Edinburgh
There was twa sisters in a bowr,
Stirling for ay
There was twa sisters in a bowr,
There came a knight to be their wooer.

He courted the eldest wi glove an ring,
But he lovd the youngest above a' thing.

He courted the eldest wi brotch an knife,
But lovd the youngest as his life.

The eldest she was vexed sair,
An much envi'd her sister fair.

Into her bowr she could not rest,
Wi grief an spite she almost brast.

Upon a morning fair and clear,
She cried upon her sister dear:

"O sister, come to yon sea stran,
An see our father's ship come to lan."

She's taen her by the milk-white han,
An led her down to yon sea stran.

The youngest stood upon a stane,
The eldest came and threw her in.

She tooke her by the middle sma,
And dashd her bonny back to the jaw.

"O sister, sister, tak my han,
An Ise mack you heir to a' my lan."

"O sister, sister, tak my middle,
An yes get my goud and my gouden girdle."

"O sister, sister, save my life,
An I swear Ise never be nae man's wife."

"Foul fa the han that I should tacke,
It twin'd me and my wardles make."

"Your cherry cheeks an yallow hair,
Gars me gae maiden for evermair."

Sometimes she sank, and sometimes she swam,
Till she came down yon bonny mill-dam.

O out it came the millers son,
An saw the fair maid swimmin' in.

"O Father, father, draw your dam,
Here's either a mermaid or a swan."

The miller quickly drew the dam,
An there he found a drownd woman.

You couldna see her yallow hair,
For gold and pearle that were so rare.

An by there came a harper fine,
That harped to the king at dine.

When he did look that lady upon,
He sighd and made a heavy moan.

He's taen three locks o her yallow hair,
An wi them strung his harp sae fair.

The first tune he did play and sing,
Was, "Farewell to my father the king."

The nextin tune that he playd syne,
Was, "Farewell to my mother the queen."

The lasten tune that he playd then,
Was, "wae to my sister, Fair Ellen."

Versions of the ballad vary a great deal. In one a harper comes to the body and makes a harp out of the breastbone (so "he can play it forever...") In a Norse version the authorities bring a pipe for the family to play to determine who killed her. When the sister plays the pipe, blood spews forth and the pipe plays of her guilt - so she is condemned and pulled apart by horses. One version from Sweden has a miller discover the girl and bringing her back to her family where she forgives her sister.
"ǽr notian ond æfteryld céosan ǽghwæðer, gehwilc gesælan of árweorðung gān begeondan gelǽran and gelust."
("Till use and old age accept them, and all chance of valour has gone beyone recall or desire...")

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