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11 November 2021

The Battle of Otterbourne


Late one afternoon during this past week, I spent a few hours searching for a poem that I’d used for inspiration whilst writing THE GHOST. The primary source materials and Writer’s Notes for that fictional work had long since been shredded and tossed into the fire, quite literally, of the hearth at my former house on Peach Lane in Newcastle. I therefore had to rely on my auditory memory to bring to me certain phrases and images of this melodious bit of historic literature — without a title.


I could not, for the life of me, or the life of the poesy, remember the title.


I’d conjectured that the lines of verse might have been written by Sir Walter Scott or by Robert Burns. I scanned online sources, but a part of me, most likely My Muse, knew that these hauntingly beautiful words had not been penned by either illustrious Scots author. I then thumbed through my hardcover books of Gaelic literatures, and found nothing relating to this unknown verse.

The online exploration resumed. I laptop-journeyed from one ghastly politically-correct website to another — looking for a ghostly Battle Poem!


Whew, the images that a spectral hunt can conjure from the ether-sphere!


I ate dinner and then casually typed into my Ducky search engine, I dreamed I saw a man tonight.


Those exact words could, and did, bring all kinds of intriguing, and grim, digital outcomes. Somewhere around the fifth linear result, I found The Poem, entitled The Battle of Otterbourne.


Oh, what joy!

One Scottish version of this ballad was first printed in the first edition of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by Thomas Percy in 1765; another version appeared in 1794, in the fourth edition of this book. Yet a third version is that of Sir Walter Scott, printed in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1803. That composition is a composite of four redactions, into which were added other phrases of Scott’s own device.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow crafted his own take on this Scots ballad, sometime during 1876-1879, and kept the title, The Battle of Otterburn.


Are ye sufficiently confused and lookin’ a bit peely wally? No need to get pale as a ghost and ill. Even ma heid’s mince, my head’s a bit mixed up, just by reading ‘bout all of this creative pinching of the prose. And the pinching was done merely to rhythmically relate yet another tale of yet another famous battle royal of the fearsome Scots wielding their broadswords for the glory and gore of victorious evisceration!

I still recall conducting the somewhat dizzying online research of this poem. I’d considered using its original form in THE GHOST. The ever-increasing number of literary adaptations throughout British history put a quick halt to that idea! Tis quite a fine and convoluted kettle of fish, this lyrical ballad from the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.


Obviously, if I owned a reliable reprint of this hundred-plus dollar book, I’d have the original source in my hands. The key words are “reliable reprint”. Many’s the copy of an olde and out-of-print text that has been bludgeoned and butchered by the likes of digital potentates who care not one jot or tittle about venerated literature.


The Scots in me, moreover, forbids me fork over any money for the confiscatory cost of a book that, in all reality, ought to be available at a modest price for historical literary works of civilizational esteem.

I thus contented myself in 2013 with fictional usage of the other-worldly ambiance redolent in this archetypal medieval legend from days of yore.


The original Scottish ballad is, of course, the most historically accurate telling of the tale of this victory for the Scots. The Battle of Otterbourne was fought near Northumberland on the moonlit night of 19 August 1388. This engagement was but one of many that took place during the Anglo-Scottish Wars, waged between 1296 and 1346. Those battles are also known as the War of Scottish Independence.


The commanders of the battle were, for the English, Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland; and, for the Scots, James, 2nd Earl of Douglas, who was mortally wounded on the battlefield. This ballad is woven around the final words of the warrior chief, James Douglas:


“My wound is deep, I fain would sleep.”


Even as the 2nd Earl of Douglas succumbed to his death blow, poetry flowed from his lips. A standing stone marks the spot where the fatal blow struck the body of the Scots commander, known now as Sir James Douglas.

The Battle of Otterbourne
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The Battle of Otterbourne

Anonymous, Olde English


It feel about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound him to ride
Into England, to drive a prey.


He chose the Gordons and the Graemes,
With them the Lindesays, light and gay;
But the Jardines wald not with him ride,
And they rue it to this day.


And he has burned the dales of Tyne,
And part of Bambrough shire,
And three good towers on Reidswire fells,
He left them all on fire.

And he marched up to Newcastle,
And rode it round about:
'O wha's the lord of this castle?
Or wha's the lady o't?'
But up spake proud Lord Percy then,
And O but he spake hie!
I am the lord of this castle,
My wife's the lady gay.

'If thou'rt the lord of this castle,
Sae weel it pleases me,
For, ere I cross the Border fells,
The tane of us shall die.'

He took a lang spear in his hand,
Shod with the metal free,
And for to meet the Douglas there
He rode right furiouslie.

But O how pale his lady looked,
Frae aff the castle-wa,
When down before the Scottish spear
She saw proud Percy fa.

'Had we twa been upon the green,
And never an eye to see,
I wad hae had you, flesh and fell;
But your sword sall gae wi me.'
'The Otterbourne's a bonnie burn;
'Tis pleasant there to be;
But there is nought at Otterbourne
To feed my men and me.

'The deer rins wild on hill and dale,
The birds fly wild frae tree to tree;
But there is neither bread nor kale
To fend my men and me.

'Yet I will stay at Otterbourne,
Where you shall welcome be;
And, if ye come not at three dayis end,
A fause lord I'll ca thee.

'Thither will I come,' proud Percy said,
'By the might of Our Ladye';
'There will I bide thee' said the Douglas,
'My troth I plight to thee.'

They lighted high on Otterbourne,
Upon the bent sae brown;
They lighted high on Otterbourne,
And threw their pallions down.
And he that had a bonnie boy
Sent out his horse to grass;
And he that had not a bonnie boy
His ain servant he was.

But up then spake a little page,
Before the peep of dawn:
'O waken ye, waken ye, my good lord,
For Percy's hard at hand.'

'Ye lie, ye lie, ye liar loud!
Sae loud I hear ye lie:
For Percy had not men yestreen
To dight my men and me.

'But I have dreamed a dreary dream,
Beyond the Isle of Skye;
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I think that man was I.'

He belted on his guid braid sword,
And to the field he ran,
But he forgot the helmet good,
That should have kept his brain.
When Percy with the Douglas met,
I wat he was fu fain;
They swakked their swords, till sair they swat,
And the blood ran down like rain.

But Percy with his good broad sword,
That could so sharply wound,
has wounded Douglas on the brow,
Till he fel to the ground.

Then he call'd on his little foot-page,
And said, Run speedilie,
And fetch my ain dear sister's son,
Sir Hugh Montgomery.

'My nephew's good,' the Douglas said,
'What recks the death of ane!
Last night I dreamed a dreary dream,
And I ken the day's thy ain.

'My wound is deep; I fain would sleep;
Take thou the vanguard of the three,
And hide me by the braken-bush,
That grows on yonder lilye lee.
'O bury me by the braken-bush,
Beneath the blooming brier,
Let never a living mortal ken
That ere a kindly Scot lies here.'

He lifted up that noble lord,
Wi the saut tear in his ee;
He hid him in the braken-bush,
That his merrie men might not see.

The moon was clear, the day drew near,
The spears in flinders flew,
But mony a gallant Englishman
Ere day the Scotsmen slew.

The Gordons good, in English blood
They steepd their hose and shoon;
The Lindsays flew like fire about,
Till all the fray was done.

The Percy and Montgomery met,
That either of other were fain;
They swapped swords, and they twa swat,
And aye the blood ran down between.

'Now yield thee, yield thee, Percy,' he said,
'Or else I vow I'll lay thee low!'
'To whom must I yield,' quoth Earl Percy,
'Now that I see it must be so?'


'Thou shalt not yield to lord nor loun,
Nor shalt thou yield to me;
But yeild to the braken-bush,
That grows upon yon lilye lee.'


'I will not yield to a braken-bush,
Nor yet will I yield to a brier;
But I would yield to Earl Douglas,
Or Sir Hugh Montgomery, if he were here.'


As soon as he knew it was Montgomery,
He struck his sword's point in the gronde;
The Montgomery was a courteous knight,
And quickly took him by the honde.


This deed was done at the Otterbourne,
About the breaking of the day;
Earl Douglas was buried at the braken-bush,
And the Percy led captive away.