Article MT147

More Blood on the Stairs

A 'New' version of Lamkin



A mason is owed money for building work on a Lord's castle.  The mason, seeking revenge when the Lord is absent, kills the Lord's child and wife.  The child's nurse is also implicated in the killings and, like the mason, is subsequently executed.  So runs the story to one of the most gruesome ballads that Professor Child included in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Roud 6, Child 93).  Dr Sheila Douglas presented a paper, Blood Everywhere.  The Ballad of Lamkin, at the 2002 IBC Conference held at Leuvin in Belgium, and, following a lead from Child, suggested that the ballad was based on an actual event that occurred at Balwearie Castle in Fife, which was built in the 15th century.  Sheila also suggested that the culprit's real name was probably Rankin, the name that can be found in some of Child's texts.1. My thanks to Sheila who sent me a copy of her, as yet, unpublished paper.1

Over the years much has been written about this ballad.  Anne Gilchrist, for instance, has ingeniously suggested that the name Lamkin/Lammikin (which Child saw as an epithet) possibly indicated that the murderer was pale-skinned and, as such, could possibly have been suffering from leprosy, which was well-known in medieval Britain.  Gilchrist, adding that that one supposed medieval 'cure' for the disease was to be obtained by taking human blood (obtained from an innocent child and preserved in a silver bowl), was thus able to offer a 'complete' explanation for the events described in this ballad.2. Anne Geddes Gilchrist Lambkin, a study in evolution Folk Song Journal, 1932.2  In Classic English Folk Songs (London, 2003) Malcolm Douglas recounts another theory, one first proposed by the American folklorist John DeWitt Niles.  'The ballad has lasted particularly well in the USA, where a large number of examples have been found.  John DeWitt Niles ('Lamkin: The Motivation of Horror', Journal of American Folklore 90, 1977.  pp.  49 - 67) makes an interesting suggestion that 'Lamkin' may be a deliberately oblique name, of the sort applied to the fairies ('the good folk') or the Devil ('the Old Boy'), and that he may have started out as a supernatural being, contracted to build a castle and, having been denied his due fee - not money, but human life - collected it for himself.'

Some years ago a friend of mine was knocking a hole through an interior wall of her house.  This was in the Lancashire village of Whalley and, in the rubble; she found a life-size stone carving of a human head.  Experts were called and she was told that this was similar to a number of other heads found inside ancient walls.  Most, apparently, had been found in Lancashire and Yorkshire.  I tell this story because Bert Lloyd once told me of a Balkan ballad about a young girl who is 'walled-up', and left to die inside a new building.  In Bulgaria it is known as Trima bratya dyulgeri (The Walled-In Bride), while the Hungarian version is titled Madárka, madárka.  And I just wonder if, at one time, blood had to be spilt when a new building was being erected.  Were the stone heads representative of a tradition in which human sacrifice was once a necessary part of the building process, and, if so, does the ballad of Lamkin echo this tradition?

Almost all of Child's versions come from Scotland and, as I mentioned above, several of his versions place the scene of the murder at Balwearie Castle, in Fyfe.  But, this is not the only place suggested by Child.  There is, he says, a 'Lambirkyns Wod' near Duppin in Perthshire which could be named after Lamkin.  Then there is a similar story set at Nafferton Castle (sometimes 'Tower' or 'Old Hall') in the Parish of Ovingham, Northumberland.  The story, 'obtained from an old man in Newcastle', states that 'Long Lonkin is no mason but a gentleman, who kills the lady and her one child because the Lord of Nafferton had been preferred to him.  The husband, abandoning his journey to London on account of a misgiving that all was not right at home, after finding his wife and child dead, hunts down the murderer, who drops from a tree in which he had concealed himself into a pool, thence called Long Lonkin's pool, and is drowned.'3. The Nafferton version of Lamkin is also included, in the form of a folk-tale, in Katharine M Briggs' A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales Volume 2, Part B, London, 1971, pp.253 -54. Miss Briggs says that 'In all the Child versions Lamkin is a mason who had built the Lord a castle, and could not get his fee. The motif of disappointed love seems more convincing.'3  James Reed, in his The Border Ballads (Stocksfield, 1991.  pp.  151 - 54), also mentions the Nafferton story, together with another setting of Lamkin, this time set at Whittle Dene, which is also near to Ovingham.  'The scene of the occurrence it describes is a ruined tower seated on the corner of an extensive embankment, and surrounded by a moat, on the western side of Whittle Dene, near Ovingham.  From the evidence of popular tradition (for the ballad is so imperfect as to be of itself hardly explanatory enough) it appears to relate the circumstances of a murder committed by a freebooter named Long Lonkin, through the treachery of a servant maid.  A deep pool in the dene which runs hard by is called 'Long Lonkin's hole' and is stated to have been the death place of the freebooter.'  Although these two Northumbrian versions of the tale are set at different locations (albeit near to each other), it would seem that there are sufficient points of similarity to suggest that they are basically the same story, which has become locally displaced from one point to another.

I can now add that there is another version of Lamkin, one unknown to Professor Child, which, this time, is set in the Berwickshire countryside at Bunkle Castle.4. My thanks to Dr Chris Shaw, of Berwick-upon-Tweed, who first directed me to the 'Bunkle' version of Lamkin.4  According to a local rhyme:

Bunkle, Billie and Blanairne,
Three castles strong as airn,
Built when Davy was a bairn,
They'll a gang doon
Wi Scotland's Croon,
An ilka ane sall be a cairn.
It seems likely that 'Davy' is a reference to David I (1084 - 1153), which suggests that Bunkle Castle is of considerable age.  The earliest known owners of the lands around the Castle were a family named Bonkil (sometimes spelt Bonkyl or Boncle), probably Norman, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Subsequent owners included Sir John Stewart (in the 13th century) and Archibald Douglas, the sixth earl, who married Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, and widow of James IV of Scotland, in 1514, a year after her first husband was killed at the Battle of Flodden.  Local tradition has it that the story of Lamkin occurred at Bunkle Castle, although, as with Balwearie and the other supposed sites of the story, there seems to be little by way of actual evidence to support these various claims.

The Bunkle version of Lamkin was printed in 1954, in the History of the Berwickshire Naturalists' Club, volume XXXIII, part 1, pp.  56 -62, and contains the following information from one R G Johnston, OBE:

'I was aware that such a legend had existed, but had not been able to lay hands upon it until recently, when it was unearthed from old papers in the office of what was once Robson and Ferguson, Writers, Duns, in which I served my Indentures.  Ferguson (John) was a President of the Club, and a valued contributor to its Proceedings, e.g. notably with an article on 'The Pre-Reformation Churches of Berwickshire'.  The legend is written on process paper, now no longer in use.  It is backed up, but not within written, in Ferguson's handwriting; unfortunately he had not, as was the practice, added the date of copying.  I feel pretty sure from his handwriting that the copy was made prior to 1894, when I entered the office.'
A 'Writer', by the way, is a lawyer in Scotland.  R G Johnston's text comprises 32 stanzas:

1.  “Bold Lankin was a mason guid,
As ever laid a stone,
He biggit Bunkle Castle,
But payment he gat nane.

2.  He sent a message to the Laird,
Wi' a bonnie milk white doo,
It bore the weird o' muckle skaith,
A weird he sune wad rue.

3.  The Laird unto his ladie said,
When he mounted to ride forth,
Tak' care o' reivin Lankin,
He's comin' frae the north.

4.  I'm not afraid, the ladie said,
O' ony o' his kin,
When a' the portals o' the place,
Are barred baith oot an' in.

5.  Gae, nurse, an' see the gates are fast,
Gae bar them ilka yin,
Leave no' an inlet open,
Tae let bold Lankin in.

6.  The nurse she went tae shut the gates,
Nor made she muckle din,
But she left yin open,
Tae let bold Lankin in.

7.  When Lankin rode tae the castle gates,
Far in the deid o' nicht,
There was neither coal nor candle,
Tae gie him ony licht.

8.  A lunar bow shone i' the lift,
As white as ony swan,
An' by its licht the gate he spied,
Syne through the court he ran.

9.  Where is the master o' the keep,
Cried Lankin bold and grim,
He's ower the hills a' huntin',
Said the false nurse tae him.

10.  Where is the lady o' the house,
Cried Lankin bold and grim,
She's in her chamber sleepin',
Said the false nurse tae him.

11.  If she be soundly sleepin',
She'll sleep and hear nae din,
And, nurse, we'll stab the baby,
Wi' a poisoned siller pin.

12.  And ever as she stabbit,
And aye as she sang,
Ran aye the baby's life bluid,
The cradle claes amang.

13.  And aye as the baby grat,
The nurse the louder sang,
The sounds had brak the ladie's sleep,
And she had listened lang.

14.  Oh, please my bonnie baby, nurse,
Go please it wi' the keys,
It will na' please fer me, madam,
Let me try as I please.

15.  Oh, please my bonnie baby, nurse,
Go please it wi' the bell,
It will na' please fer me, madam,
Till ye come doon yersel'.

16.  The first step that she stepit,
It was upon a stane,
The next yin that she stepit,
Met Lankin there alane.
17.  What weird did guide ye here the nicht?
Spare us, oh Lankin, spare,
I'll give you as mony guineas,
As there's birds in the air.

18.  I'll give you as mony guineas,
As there's stanes aneath oor feet,
Gin ye but spare my life tae me,
For oh! It is fou sweet.

19.  Come hither, young Lord William,
The blade is lang and keen,
An' kep yer mother's heart's bluid,
Ere it runs o'er the green.

20.  Tae kep my mother's heart's bluid,
Was mak my heart fou wae,
Oh! Tak my ain life, Lankin,
But let my mother gae.

21.  Come hither, young Lady Margaret,
The blade is lang and keen,
An' kep yer mother's heart's bluid,
Ere it runs o'er the green.

22.  Tae kep my mother's heart's bluid,
Wad mak' oor hearts fou wae,
Oh! Tak oor ain life, Lankin,
But let my mother gae.

23.  Come servants, men an' maidens,
The blade is lang an' keen,
An' kep yer ladie's heart's bluid,
Ere it runs o'er the green.

24.  Tae keep oor ladie's heart's bluid,
Wad mak' oor hearts fou wae,
Oh! Tak' oor ain lives, Lankin,
But let oor ladie gae.

25.  Come, nurse, that kept the baby's bluid,
An' scoored the bason clean,
Now kep yer ladie's heart's bluid,
Ere it runs o'er the green.

26.  Tae kep my ladie's heart's bluid,
Wad mak' my heart fou glad,
Plunge deep yer blade, sae lang an' keen,
An' let her bluid be shed.

27.  She never did me ony guid,
Or ony o' my kin,
Plunge deep yer blade, sae lang an' keen,
An' let her heart's bluid rin.

28.  The deed was dune, an' on the green,
Twa lifeless forms there lay,
'The debt is paid in bluid', he cried,
An' mounting road (sic) away.

29.  'There's something ails my wife, I fear,
An' bairnies three at home';
Sae mused the Laird as ower the hill,
In hasty speed he came.

30.  The e'es o' morn just gan' tae peep,
Oot frae the howe o' nicht,
When near the spot whaur rode the Laird,
Bold Lankin cam' in sicht.

31.  As Lankin rode the Laird pursued,
By mony a howe an' cairn,
But Lankin sunk in Bonkyl Bog,
At the fit o' Lamskin Burn.

32.  An' Lankin he was burnt that nicht,
On Bonkle High Hill Heid,
An' the nurse was boilt the same dreid hoor,
In a cauldron o' molten lead.”
 
Glossary:   biggit: built   doo: dove   weird: fate/fortune/destiny   skaith: damage   muckle: large/great   ilka: every   yin: one   licht: light   lift: sky   syne: next   siller: silver   claes: clothes   grat: cried   fou: full   bason  basin   e'es: eyes   howe: a hollow   dreid hoor: dread hour.

The 'Bunkle' version of the ballad begins with a standard opening verse and follows the usual story-line.  It is, in part, closest to Child's D version, although many stanzas are similar to ones found in other versions.  Take the following, for example:

1.  Bold Lankin was a mason guid,
As ever laid a stone,
He biggit Bunkle Castle,
But payment he gat nane.
Bunkle
1.  O Lammikin was as good a mason
as ever bigget stane;
He's bigget Lord Earley's castle,
But money he got nane.
Child J
 
5.  Gae, nurse, an' see the gates are fast,
Gae bar them ilka yin,
Leave no' an inlet open,
Tae let bold Lankin in.
Bunkle
3.  'Go bar all the windows'
Both outside and in;
Don't leave a window open,
To let Bold Rankin in.
Child D
 
10.  Where is the ladie o' the house,
Cried Lankin bold and grim,
She's in her chamber sleepin',
Said the false nurse tae him.
Bunkle
8.  'O where is your lady?'
said Lambert Linkin;
'She's in her bower sleeping,'
Said the false nurse to him.
Child B
 
16.  The first step that she stepit,
It was upon a stane,
The next yin that she stepit,
Met Lankin there alane.
Bunkle
12.  The first she steppit,
She steppit on a stane;
The next step she steppit,
She met the Bould Rankin.
Child H
 
32.  An Lankin he was burnt that nicht,
On Bonkle High Hill Heid,
An the nurse was boilt the same dreid hoor,
In a cauldron o' molten lead.
Bunkle
14.  *   *   *   *   *   *
Lankin was hangit hie,
And the fause nourice burnt
In the cauldron was she.
Child I

Verses 28 - 31 of the Bunkle text would appear to be unique, and are probably a later, local, addition; although verse 29 does seem to show a connection with the Nafferton set from Northumberland, where the Lord abandons his journey and returns home fearing that harm has come to his family.  Interestingly, lines 3 & 4 in verse 7 (There was neither coal nor candle / Tae gie him ony licht) are similar to lines found in the ballad The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie (The lassie raise an let him in / Was neither coal nor candle licht-o).5. For The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie see my article Two Problematical Scottish Ballad Texts in Musical Traditions www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/prob_bal.htm5  Today, there is hardly any trace left of Bunkle Castle.  Thanks, however, to R G Johnston we do have a 'new' version of the ballad of Lamkin, together with the story linking the ballad to the Border castle.

At some point in history the ballad of Lamkin originated, almost certainly, in Scotland.6. There is an English broadside of Lamkin, printed in the first quarter of the 19th century by John Pitts of London. The Pitts text is distinct from the Scottish texts in a number of ways, although it is probably based on the Scottish ballad.6  It may, or may not, have been based on either (a) an actual event, possibly one that occurred at Balwearie Castle, or (b) an earlier folk belief.  As the ballad spread throughout Scotland and the north of England the story became attached to several different castles.  And, to many local people, these attachments became 'true'.  In some versions we have a clear motif for the murders.  Sometimes there is no motive given at all.  And this, in a sense, is why the ballad has proven to be so popular.  John DeWitt Niles again:

Everyone loves a good killing.  The more bloody and cruel the killing, the more interesting it is likely to be, especially when the victims are helpless: a woman alone, an infant child.  But the most fascinating murder of all, to the popular mind, is a bloody killing of helpless persons with no plausible motive.

Mike Yates - 11.11.04
Berwick-upon-Tweed

Notes:

  1. My thanks to Sheila who sent me a copy of her, as yet, unpublished paper.
  2. Anne Geddes Gilchrist Lambkin, a study in evolution Folk Song Journal, 1932.
  3. The Nafferton version of Lamkin is also included, in the form of a folk-tale, in Katharine M Briggs' A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales Volume 2, Part B, London, 1971, pp.253 -54.  Miss Briggs says that 'In all the Child versions Lamkin is a mason who had built the Lord a castle, and could not get his fee.  The motif of disappointed love seems more convincing.'
  4. My thanks to Dr Chris Shaw, of Berwick-upon-Tweed, who first directed me to the 'Bunkle' version of Lamkin.
  5. For The Young, Young Laird o Gilnockie see my article Two Problematical Scottish Ballad Texts in Musical Traditions www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/prob_bal.htm
  6. There is an English broadside of Lamkin, printed in the first quarter of the 19th century by John Pitts of London.  The Pitts text is distinct from the Scottish texts in a number of ways, although it is probably based on the Scottish ballad.

Article MT147

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