Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Cain en-Abeling

History is always a fickle beast, told by the victors one way, then revised by the victims and then revised again when it suits some future generation. I recorded a version of The Bonnie Hoose o’ Airlie, sung with the same lyrics as those Kate Rusby uses.

While looking at the Wikipedia entry for this song, I noticed that the last two verses in one version detail a rape of the Lady of Airlie and subsequent hunting down and burning of the perpetrators:

But poor Lady Margaret was forced to come doun
And O but she sighed sairly
For their in front o’ all his men
She was ravished on the bowlin’ green o’ Airlie.

“Draw your dirks, draw your dirks,” cried the brave Locheil.
“Unsheath your sword,” cried Chairlie,
“We’ll kindle sic a lowe roond the false Argyle,
And licht it wi’ a spark oot o’ Airlie.”

On this, and other, historical websites, it seems that the song relates to the 1640 sacking of Airlie Castle by Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll. The sacking occurred in the context of a power struggle within Scotland between the King and power brokers within the gentry. Theoretically a religious struggle between Presbyterians and the Catholic King, Charles I, it was much more about power within Scotland.

While the newly made Earl of Airlie, James Ogilvy, was away aiding the king, Archibald procured a Commission of fire and sword from the parliament and raised a small army to sack Airlie Castle. Importantly, the historical sources show that James’ son, Lord Ogilvy was present at the time and that Lady Ogilvy was turn out of her castle, but not raped in the way described in the version above.

The Electric Scotland page on this story goes into detail of the subsequent retaliation by the Ogilvy family. It would seem that this particular incident was part of an ongoing feud between the Campbells and the Ogilvys.

The Wikipedia page for the song implies that the song may have been re-written in part around the 1745 Jacobite rebellion as a propaganda piece. Certainly, the numerous versions of this ballad collected by Child, don’t seem to include the inflammatory verses above.

This tactic of dredging up a past wrong and re-painting it in the colours necessary for fanning the flames of a new conflict is not uncommon. One could wonder whether Cain ever really killed Abel in a jealous rage over his inadequate vegetables, or if some of Abel’s descendants later re-framed a minor conflict in order to justify brutality against some of Cain’s descendants for their own personal gain.

Personally, I find it repulsive that fanciful horrors from the past are used to birth real horrors in the future. It seems as though the human race is in an escalating spiral of brutality driven by carefully constructed propaganda.

Here in Australia, we are witnessing precisely this type of manufactured outrage against Muslims and, more generally, immigrants. It is also a key foundation of the Trump campaign in the US. I guess the philosophical lesson is that if you read, see or listen to something and start to feel outrage rather than compassion, then look beneath the surface to see who is pushing your button and ask why.

2 thoughts on “Cain en-Abeling

  1. This is a very interesting and intriguing dissertation. I especially like the concept of our “escalating spiral of brutality driven by Carefully constructed propaganda”.
    Sadly, I can’t see any solution for this on a global scale – it’s estimated that over the past 5,000 years there has been less than a century of relative peace (no major wars in progress) and we have become seriously adept at killing each other (even without using nuclear weapons). At the same time we are breeding like microbes to ensure that there will always be more than enough perpetrators and victims to continue this escalating spiral. Perhaps the answer is to unleash the nuclear dogs of war which will very quickly blow the planet back to the Middle Ages, in terms of population and technology, and give the survivors a chance to start again. The planet might also have a chance to recover.

    1. Hi Bernie, Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I also feel despair at the prospect of humanity evolving into a sharing, cooperative race, with respect for animals and the environment. I’m concerned that if we did start again with a handful of people in a nuclear wasteland, we would be back at the same place in a few thousand years. On the small level, I try to write songs that combat bigotry and share knowledge, in the hope that the perpetrators of propaganda might be countered with wisdom. Though even relatively ‘famous’ people like Bill Bragg, Alistair Hullett and Phil Ochs had trouble cutting through the foghorn of materialistic nonsense.

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