Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (I) [Child 201]

DESCRIPTION: "O Bessie Bell and Mary Gray, They war twa bonnie lasses; They biggit a bower on yon burn brae, And theekit it o'er wi' rashes." Despite these precautions, they die of the plague. They had hoped to be buried in Methven kirk yard, but this was not allowed
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1688 (reference according to Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes); 1824 (Sharpe); 1842 (Halliwell: nursery rhyme) [see notes]
KEYWORDS: disease death burial
FOUND IN: US(Ap,NE,SE,So) Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (23 citations):
Child 201, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text: Sharpe's four verses)
Bronson 201, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (5 versions: Bronson's #1,2,5,6; #7 is a nursery rhyme and #3-#4 are "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (II)")
Bronson-SingingTraditionOfChildsPopularBallads 201, "Bessy Bell and Mry Gray" (2 versions: #4, #5, of which #5 is probably this although very brief)
Chambers-ScottishBallads, pp. 129-130, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text)
Baring-Gould-AnnotatedMotherGoose #293, pp. 169-170, "(Bessy Bell and Mary Gray)" (1 text: nursery rhyme)
Barry/Eckstorm/Smyth-BritishBalladsFromMaine pp. 278-279, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 fragment plus a printed version that may have been the source: nursery rhyme, 1 tune) {Bronson's #7}
Cox-FolkSongsSouth 22, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text, of only two verses: the first goes here but the second appears to be floating material[see notes])
Davis-TraditionalBalladsOfVirginia 38B, 38C, 38D, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (3 text fragments: all first verse only); 38A, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text: nursery rhyme)
Moore/Moore-BalladsAndFolkSongsOfTheSouthwest 39, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gainer-FolkSongsFromTheWestVirginiaHills, p. 74, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scarborough-ASongCatcherInSouthernMountains, pp. 190-191, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 fragment: close to first verse and half the second of Sharpe's version)
Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes 39, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (3 texts: nursery rhyme, Sharpe, two line "squib" [see notes])
Friedman-Viking/PenguinBookOfFolkBallads, p. 302, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text: same text as Sharpe)
Quiller-Couch-OxfordBookOfBallads 176, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text: same text as Sharpe)
Gummere-OldEnglishBallads, pp. 163+336, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text: same text as Sharpe)
Greig/Duncan6 1256Aa, "Bessie Bell I Lued Yestreen" (close to Sharpe's first verse); 1257, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (close to Sharpe's first two verses)
Jack-PopGoesTheWeasel, p. 11, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 short text)
DT BESSBELL (same text as Sharpe), BESSBEL2 (nursery rhyme)
ADDITIONAL: James Johnson, Editor, _The Scots Musical Museum_ [1853 edition], volume II, #128, p. 134, "Bessy Bell, and Mary Gray" (1 text, 1 tune)
Thomas Lyle, Ancient Ballads and Songs (London, 1827 ("Digitized by Google")), pp. 160-161, "Bessy Bell an' Mary Gray" (1 text: four verses similar to Sharpe's)
T.F. Henderson, editor, Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (New York, 1902 ("Digitized by Google")), Vol I, p. 26 fn, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" [added 1830: close to Sharpe's first and third verse].
James Orchard Halliwell, The Nursery Rhymes of England (London, 1842 ("Digitized by Google")), #56 pp. 36-37, ("Bessy Bell and Mary Gray") (1 text: nursery rhyme)
Walter de la Mare, Come Hither, revised edition, 1928; notes to #62 (no title) (1 text: same text as Sharpe)

Roud #237
cf. "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (II)" (subject)
NOTES [679 words]: This ballad is sometimes associated with a plague which struck Perth, Scotland in 1645. Few versions of this ballad, which is usually found only in fragmentary form, explain why the two women were denied burial in the town churchyard; homosexuality has been offered as a possible explanation. - PJS, RBW
Iona and Peter Opie write, "The local tradition (first written down c. 1773) about these two girls is that Mary Gray was the daughter of the Laird of Lednock and Bessy Bell of the Laird of Kinvaid, a place near by. They were both very handsome and an intimate friendship subsisted between them. While Bessy was on a visit to Mary the plague broke out at Perth (seven miles distant), and in order to escape it they built themselves a bower.... Here they lived for some time; but... they caught the infection from a young man who was in love with both of them and used to bring them provisions. They died in the bower, and since, according to the rule in case of plague, they could not be buried in a churchyard ... they were interred in the Dranoch-haugh."
The earliest "complete" 16-line text I have seen is Sharpe, Child's source (Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, A Ballad Book (Edinburgh, 1891, reprint of 1824 edition), Vol I, #20 p. 50, "The Twa Lasses").
Lyle: "The above fragment is here collated from the singing of two aged persons, one of them a native of Perthshire. It is to be regretted, that none of the intermediate stanzas of this fine old Ballad are upon record; neither Bannatyne nor Maitland, have the Ballad entered into their MSS ...."
Cox has the usual first verse and the following second verse: "They would n't have their shoes of red, Nor would they have them yellow; But they would have a bonny green, To walk the streets of Yarrow." That seems to have floated here but I can't see where it has floated from. It reminds Cox of the Child 200 (e.g., 200K.vs7) verse "They took off my high-heeled shoes, That were made of Spanish leather, And I have put on coarse Lowland brogues, To trip it oer the heather."
Aside from the reference to shoes I don't see the similiarity. I do see a parallel with verses that have two negative lines followed by a positive line and a conclusion (for example, Child 64A.vs19, "Some put on the gat green robes, And some put on the brown; But Janet put on the scarlet robes, To shine foremost throw the town" ). The verse fits the story in that green is usually associated with death (and/or witchcraft) in the ballads (see Lowry Charles Wimberly, Folklore in the Englsih & Scottish Ballads (Dover, New York, 1965 reprint of 1928 edition), especially pp. 176, 178, 240, 241).
Opie/Opie-OxfordDictionaryOfNurseryRhymes has two lines of "a squib on the birth of the Old Pretender (1688), beginning: Bessy Bell and Mary Grey, Those famous bonny lasses," that establishes a latest date for the creation of the ballad.
Besides the ballad form there is a nursery rhyme on the subject that has been collected in North America and Scotland: "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, They were two bonnie lasses, They built their house upon the lea, And covered it with rashes. Bessy kept the garden gate And Mary kept the pantry; Bessy always had to wait While Mary she had plenty"
There is another song beginning with the same first verse as Child 201, indexed here as "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray (II)," written by Ramsay around 1720. Scott would have that be Ramsay's attempt to fill in the romantic part of the story. - BS
While we're mentioning hypotheses about the women in this song, Albert Jack had a truly wild one about his nursery rhyme version which has as its second verse, "Bessy kept the garden gate, And Mary kept the pantry; Bessy always had to wait, While Mary lived in plenty": That Bessie Bell is Elizabeth I Tudor and Mary Gray is Mary I Tudor, the latter set aside as Henry VIII's heir when the Bluff King married Anne Boleyn and then Elizabeth herself set aside when Jane Seymour came along. Both spent time in isolation from the court, but Elizabeth was in some fear for her life when Mary became queen in 1553. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
File: C201

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