Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Ossian’s Cave Mystery

Anne Murray Keith

This month I have been digging through the Bodleian Library archive of Broadside ballads. While looking for songs with a Halloween theme, I found this one called Oscar’s Ghost.

This ballad only appears once in the archive, on a sheet of several Scottish songs. The lyrics that appear on the sheet are:


OSCAR'S GHOST A favourite Scottish song.

O see that form that faintly gleams!
Tis  Oscar come to cheer my dreams;
On wings of wind he flies away,
O stay my lovely Oscar, stay!

Wake Ossian, last of Fingal’s line,
And mix thy sighs and tears with mine. 
Awake the Harp to doleful lays, 
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The Shell is ceas'd in Oscar's hall.
Since gloomy Cairbar wrought thy fall:
The roe on Morven lightly bounds,
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

The broadsheet gives no author or context to the song.

A google search for parts of the lyrics led to the 1843, slightly pretentiously titled, book, ‘The Book of Scottish Song’ by Alexander Whitelaw. In this book the song is attributed to Anne Murray Keith. And the lyrics are given as:


O, SEE that form that faintly gleams! 
'Tis Oscar come to cheer my dreams! 
On wings of wind he files away;
O stay, my lovely Oscar, stay !

Wake, Ossian, last of Fingal's line. 
And mix thy tears and sighs with mine;
Awake the harp to doleful lays.
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall. 
Since gloomy Kerbar wrought his fall; 
The roe on Morven lightly bounds, 
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.


The only difference from the broadside is the spelling of ‘Kerbar’ and some minor grammatical changes. The description of the song links Anne Keith to Sir Walter Scott and says that she lived from 1736 until 1818.

William Gilpin, a priest, published a tourist guide which included a visit to Dunkeld in Scotland that took place in 1776 (published in 1789). Gilpin describes a visit to Ossian’s cave (which he calls a Hermitage), where he found the following inscription:


Oh! see the form, which faintly gleams:
Tis Oscar, come to cheer my dreams, 
On wreaths of mist it glides away:
Oh! Stay, my lovely Oscar, stay.

Awake the harp to doleful lays,
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise. 
Wake, Oscian, last of Fingal's line;
And mix thy sighs, and tears with mine.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall,
Since gloomy Cairbar saw thee fall.
The roe o'er Morven playful bounds,
Nor fears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

Thy four grey stones the hunter spies, 
Peace to the hero's ghost he cries.


These are the lyrics I used for my recording.

Modern tourist guides to Ossians Cave indicate that the existence of the inscription is known, but that it is no longer there. The addition of a final half-stanza and (to my mind) more poetic language in the inscription may suggest that the version in the 1843 was an attempt to recall something heard or read before and the inscription is the original.

The song is undoubtedly about the Poems of Ossian, by James Macpherson. With the characters of Oscar, Ossian and Fingal all parts of what is now mostly accepted as a work of re-imagined Celtic mythology. The entry at the top of this page clearly inspires the final half-stanza about grey stones and hunters:

If fall I must in the field, raise high my grave, Vinvela. Grey stones, and heaped-up earth,
shall mark me to future times. When the hunter shall sit by the mound, and produce his food at noon,
“Some warrior rests here,” he will say ; and my fame shall live in his praise. Remember me, Vinvela, when low on earth I lie.

– (Fingal, James Macpherson, 1762)

The controversy around Fingal and James Macpherson is a whole different subject, but it appears that he presented the 1762 publication as a work of scholarly translation from Gaelic, rather than a work of pure invention.

There is a tantalizing inference here (no longer online, but cached by Google) in a summary of the Keith ancestry, that Anne had converted much more of Ossian into verse.

Sir Walter Scott told me that Miss Anne Keith amused herself in the latter years of her life by translating Macpherson’s "Ossian" into verse.’ 
She was the authoress also of a song entitled ‘Oscar’s Ghost,’ inserted in Johnson’s ‘Scots’ Musical Museum.’

Anne would have been 40 by 1776 and would have been able to read Fingal when she was 26. Had she began composing poems inspired by Ossian and at some point and graffitied one of them during a pilgrimage to Ossian’s Cave?

The Keith family record also suggests that Walter Scott based his story ‘The Highland Window’ on stories he had been told by Anne and that she was the model for Bethune Baliol.

One of the interesting aspects of these multiple versions is that the spellings of Cairbrie are so different.  Macpherson was clearly using known Gaelic historical/mythical figures, but ‘Kerbar’ suggests an attempt to write an unfamiliar word phonetically and ‘Cairbar’ suggests someone who has read Cairbre in Fingal, but forgotten how to spell it.

Here is a portrait of Anne, etched by Samuel Freeman based on a miniature by Anne Mee.

There is a good chance that other poems and songs by Anne, based on Ossian exist somewhere.

Blog Post · Folk Music

Dawning of the Donald

Two things prompted this post, one is the behaviour of Donald Trump and the other was a search for an early ballad to record. I have written before about my own journey out of misogyny and also about the topic of misogyny in folk ballads.

In searching for a ballad, I found a version of The Dawning of the Day printed in broadside and probably published in 1853. I have found two versions from this era, the lyrics are largely the same except one includes an additional final verse. The full lyrics are available here, along with an image of the broadside. The shorter (by one verse) version is available here.

I had originally only been exposed to the shorter version on the Wikipedia page cited above, which includes a Gaelic version and English translation of a song about a man besotted by a young beauty who tells him to “sod off”. Most folk-revival performers have recorded this shorter version, examples being Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy and a much earlier recording by John McCormack.

My recording of the full version goes for 10 minutes!

The Trump connection here is that in the full version of the ballad, after being refused the man rapes the young milkmaid and continues on his way. When he comes back seven months later he spurns her because she is dropsical (swollen, i.e. pregnant). She is, of course, expecting him to marry her but he tells her that he has married someone else for 300 pounds and that she shouldn’t have left her father’s house so early in the morning.

It is easy to feel outrage at the sentiment expressed in this ballad, but possibly understand that the world was a different place in the 1800s and a woman had few rights in the society. If you don’t believe that, be sure to watch the 2015 film Suffragette.

What is far more outrageous is that the man running for President of the United States has been caught on numerous occasions expressing the same attitude towards women as presented in this ballad. I’m not barracking for Hilary Clinton here, in my opinion her and her family, with their sense of elitist entitlement and complete dislocation from the common people, are not much better. If I, or the American people, had any say, I would prefer four more years of Mr Obama or Bernie Sanders, as expressed in this song.

I would be interested to know if the Irish origins of this ballad only ever included the first verses, and that the broadside printed in England grew from a translation of the initial verses and then later addition of some self-serving endorsement of rape-culture tied with victim shaming. It would be hard to know whether the initial collector of the Gaelic ballad truncated the verses for fear of censorship, especially if the ballad only existed in memory. Fortunately, the complete text of Edward Walsh’s Irish Popular Songs published in 1847 is available here and the fact that it predates the broadside and only has the initial verses would support my initial hypothesis (blame the English).

In any case, Mr Trump, a locker-room is not a justification for any objectionable behaviour and I would expect the leader of the free world to be a gentlemen both in public and behind closed doors. I despair at Donald’s example and despair more at the many people trying to justify it.