I loved chemistry at school, despite how difficult I found it to remember. Part of that was, of course, the teacher I had; Dr Kenneth McLeod Mitchell or Doc Jock, as he was universally known. He told me about his favourite traditional Scottish ballad: The Twa Corbies (translated as The Two Ravens) and it became a favourite of mine too. I went on to read and enjoy hundreds of others and collect volumes of traditional Scottish Ballads (starting with Sir Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border). Cycling back from seeing the Puffins at dawn at the Castle o’ Burrian, I’m thrilled to see twa corbies on the chimneys of Einar.
Here on Westray ravens are in abundance and their magnificent black forms rest lightly on ruinous houses. The ballad of The Twa Corbies still resonates today because it takes life and death as its subjects and paints a picture of the fragility of existence.
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t’other say,
‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll, theek our nest when it grows bare.
Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.
Many people have studied the ballad and all its close cousins – there are comedy music hall versions, serious Christian versions and children’s songs all based upon the basic concept. For me, it’s simple: When you’re dead life goes on without you, and you’re dead for an eternity.
Strangely I don’t find it morbid or gruesome at all, but more an encouragement to live life to the full while you have it. We’re a long time dead, so let’s party with the lady, the hawk and the hounds!