Eighteenth century popular ballads

In this week’s blog we will discuss eighteenth century popular ballads. When someone says ‘ballad’, we automatically think of love songs, such as the classical “Everything I do, I do it for you,”. In the twenty-first century we conceptualise ballads as prototypical romantic, often involving and accompanied by glorified romantic scenery. Yet, if we look at ballads in the 18th century, this is not very much so.


The ballad, which has its origins in the late Middle Ages, ‘is a song that tells a story in popular style, which traditionally, relied on oral tradition for transmission. In the middle ages, ballads were generally composed to accompany a dance’. (Broadview Anthology of British Literature, 610) Mostly they were sung by minstrels, who moved from town to castle to sing. The function of the ballad could have been on the one hand pure amusement, singing and dancing, with the stress on the musical. On the other hand, its function could have been narrative, with the focus on the storytelling. Though the ballad became highly formulaic later on, the early ballads were very loose in terms of meter, theme and song.  Love as the most important theme in ballads is only a recent development, which dates from the twentieth century. Literary ballads developed at the end of the eighteenth century (think of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge). Under the influence of Romanticism, ballads became an international phenomenon.

In the eighteenth century ballads, especially broadsheet ballads, were very popular. Often these broadsheets were used as wallpapers and decoration. As a part of a musical piece, they were mostly sung while sold. In general, these ballads deal with a whole range of topics within the romantic and the traditional. The function of the ballad was to recollect pieces of a decaying past; authors trying to conserve a social heritage. These fading popular traditions of a forlorn past were captured within these ballads. The revival of these traditions in everyday life was very popular in 18th century Scotland and consequently popular broadsheet ballads (which were quite cheap) were sold like hotcakes. Nonetheless, a great number of ballads do have social and political implications. These ballads are of course the ones that matter up to today, and consequently the ones we will discuss. In this blog, we will henceforth try to describe the difference in the reception of these ballads.

Jacobite Uprisings in ballad: Lady Nairne

Eighteenth-century writers engaged political issues in their ballads and songs. Many writers of the 18th century aimed at conveying sympathy and support for a political cause through their ballads. In other words, their songs and ballads stirred up feelings of shared pride by commemorating and lamenting, for instance, acts of bravery during a past upheaval. As mentioned in class, many of these ballads were part of ‘fan writing.’ Furthermore, it seems that, over time, these political ballads served different functions. In what follows, we compare how the Jacobite Uprisings are commemorated in two different ballads. The first ballad, “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” retells the 1719 Uprising whereas the second song, “The 100 Pipers” retells part of the history of the 1745 Uprising. You can take a look at the website of the BBC for a brief history of the Jacobite Uprisings:


In 1719, the Uprising was a very serious issue. As a result, the ballads written immediately after this riot differ in tone compared to ballads which recount parts of the history a century later. One of the Broadside ballads written in this period is “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” which recounts the Jacobite Uprising at Glen Shiel. Take a look at the transcription of this ballad:


This song is the English reaction to the Glenn Shiel battle and mocks the Scottish and Spanish Jacobite army who claimed that all of the men escape from the hands of the government alive. The ballad contrasts this claim by describing the violence during this battle that lasted for hours:

Because none of their men were slew / And, which our reason most has shaken / Not one poor single Rebel taken: / Three hours beaten and none die / Yet no man knows the reason why / Tis very strange tween you and I

Even though the ballad is quite similar to “The 100 Pipers” in its laudatory aspects, the mocking tone and the vivid description of the battle differentiates it from the latter. “The Hundred Pipers” is probably one of the best known ballads of the 18th century that depicts part of the history of the last big Uprising of 1745. The song was written by the Scottish Lady Nairne, about 50 years after the ’45 Rebellion.

Lady Nairne Lady Nairne (1799 – 1845)

It retells how, in the early days of the Uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie entered the defeated city of Carlisle with a hundred pipers leading the way. You can listen to the recording here:


By the time Lady Nairne wrote “The hundred Pipers,” the riots were not as big of an issue anymore. Therefore, the undertone of this ballad is much more nostalgic than “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland.” In the lines ‘the Esk was swollen sae red and sae deep / But shouther to shouther the brave lads keep[…],’ it is clear that the song praises the bravery of the Scottish soldiers, yet in contrast to “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland,” the song remains very subtle about the blood-shedding that preceded this victorious moment. Thus, we see that, even though these ballads narrate parts of the same history, they differ in perspective and function: “A hymn, to the Victory in Scotland” gives an English perspective of the facts and, following the immediate events, it is more mocking in its tone than “The hundred Pipers” which is a nostalgic recounting of Scottish bravery.

Scottish for literary purpose: Allan Ramsay

In 1603, after the death of Elizabeth I of England, the Crowns of Scotland, England and Ireland were united under the reign of King James VI of Scotland, who from that point onwards is referred to as King James I of England. Scotland did not just lose its crown and separate parliament, but the unification also had a negative impact on Scottish culture as a whole. Cultural life became more and more centralized and Scots a as literary language was sidelined in favour of English. Although Scots was their native tongue, Scottish writers were now obliged to write in English in order to acquire some literary significance. Scots obtained a dialectal status and became a less valued form of language for literary purposes.

In the 18th century, in response to this situation, several Scottish writers, including Allan Ramsay, made use of the literary ballad form to discuss their concerns regarding the loss of their native tongue as a literary language. From a regional/nationalistic perspective they proved that it was still possible to write (elevated) poetry in the Scottish vernacular. By drawing upon a sense of national culture, they excavate old traditions and reshape them. Their ballads picture a bygone time, used by the poet to collect the country’s cultural heritage.


Allan Ramsay’s (1686-1758) poetry is closely linked to the oral tradition. The inferior status of the Scots language in the 18th century made it quite difficult to write in Scots, in particular because the language had been neglected for almost a century and predominantly possessed an oral status.  In Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass, Ramsay constantly switches back and forth between Scots and Standard English. One may think that Ramsay in a way adheres to the dominant tradition of writing Standard English, but seemingly “normal” lines or phrases are can be made Scots by vocalizing them in a Scots pronunciation. In this way, Ramsay revives old Lowland Scots and makes reference to the heyday of Scottish literature in bygone times, before the unification with England. He wants his readers to have a look at Scottish literary heritage as a source of inspiration. Ramsay turns very local interests into elevated poetry, simply because he believed that these local interests were important enough to be expressed. Ramsay’s Up in the Air for example represents a drinking song, written for his contemporaries to use during their regular everyday actions. Other poetry like Give Me a Lass With a Lump of Grass and Polwart on the Green are written to celebrate specific social events (e.g. a wedding), producing a very practical kind of culture that perfectly reflects the poet’s intentions: re-establish Scots as a literary language (for poetical expression).

Scots nationalism: Robert Burns

As this week’s blog deals with popular romantic poetry of the 18th century, in particular ballads, one cannot omit the very famous Robert Burns, who has only recently been nominated as The Greatest Scot of all time according to STV:

‘The Greatest Scot of all time is Robert Burns. STV viewers and online users around the world voted in their thousands for the Ayrshire Ploughman who narrowly outscored William Wallace, the great independence campaigner. The winner was announced on STV on St Andrew’s night’. (http://scotland.stv.tv/greatest-scot/)

The reason why Robert Burns has been elected, is immediately linked to our view on popular ballads in the 18th century. The Heaven-taught Ploughman did not always write prototypical ballads, instead most of his poetry dwells within Scots nationalism. His poetry is marked by a return to earlier oral traditions of the folklore and the traditional Scots poetry, written in the Scots dialect of England. His poetry and his ballads are therefore not old fashioned and traditional without social and political significance. No, he was inspired by the democratic and ‘an outspoken admirer of the republic revolutions in America and France.’ (Norton Anthology 130). His nationalism and patriotism are exemplified by his literary activities in his last years. Burns was the editor of various collections of Scottish folks, and he devoted ‘all his free time to collecting, editing, restoring, and imitating traditions songs’ (130).


In his time, Robert Burns was hailed as a natural genius. His poetry and ballads sought to evoke traditions of a bygone past. These traditions are linked with the Scots nationalism. Through the conservation of old traditions, the Scots clung to their own past, to something they could call theirs. In that time, the Scottish nation itself lost its crown, but tried to hold on to their traditions to maintain a sense of difference with the English. In that sense, these ballads have a national and political significance.

Up until this day, Burn is still seen as a ‘container’ of Scots nationalism. The reason he has been nominated as The Great Scot is exemplary. The way in which Burns has entered Scottish culture nowadays is exemplary as well for the modern reception of Burns and his ballads. Even now the Scottish try to maintain a sense of self by looking at old traditions and putting them back into practice: Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, Burns night on 25th of January.


Black, F., et.al. (2006). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Volume 3. P. 610, 855, 872, 873, 893. United Kingdom: Broadview Press.

Greenblatt, S., et.al. (2006). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2: The Romantic Period through the Twentieth Century. P 129-131. New York: ww Norton & Company.


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