Handed Down

Bessy Bell - Old Ghosts and Theatrical Frolics

June 02, 2022 Season 2 Episode 9
Handed Down
Bessy Bell - Old Ghosts and Theatrical Frolics
Show Notes Transcript

Bessy (or Betsy) Bell and Mary Gray were two bonny lasses, and they may even have been historical figures, but the plague came from yon borough town and slew them both regardless. And thus was created a most romantic and picturesque place of pilgrimage.

Bessy Bell is also a tune and we take a look at it's surprising history, from being scrawled in a book of sermons to the part it played in the heyday of a theatrical phenomenon.

The tune we sing today isn't the traditional one; a quite different tune accompanied this song for a couple of hundred years. And yet there's a far better tune lurking in an old broadside, and I'm giving it a world premiere as the tune for Bessy Bell and Mary Gray.

Instrumental version of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray (trad)
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray in the style of Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy
Harp improvisation
Bessy Bell tune (trad)
Go To Bed Sweet Muse (Robert Jones)
Bessy Bell to the tune of A Health To Betty (trad)
Beggar's Opera Overture (Johann Christoph Pepusch)
'Twas Within A Furlong of Edinburgh Town (tune from Playford but sometimes attributed to Henry Purcell; words quite possibly by D'Urfey, arranged by Jayne Morrison)
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray - full song (trad)

FX from Freesound contributors djangoaltona, inchadney, boodabomb and bruno-auzet


Francis James Child (1904) English and Scottish Popular Ballads https://archive.org/details/englishscottishp1904chil/page/n13/mode/1up 

Letter written by Major Barry: http://journals.socantscot.org/index.php/arch-scot/article/view/168/166 

Highland Notebook, Robert Carruthers: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CZsHAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false 

Bertrand Harris Bronson (1976) The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads: https://archive.org/details/singingtradition0000bron 

Fourpence Halfpenny farthing, from A Pepysian garland : black-letter broadside ballads of the years 1595-1639, chiefly from the collection of Samuel Pepys (1922) https://archive.org/details/pepysiangarlandb00pepyuoft/page/322/mode/2up 

Bessy Bell from Orpheus Caledonius https://digital.nls.uk/special-collections-of-printed-music/archive/91483447 

Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes: https://archive.org/details/oxforddictionary0000opie/page/n9/mode/2up

Julie Bumpus (2010) BALLAD OPERA IN ENGLAND: ITS SONGS, CONTRIBUTORS, AND INFLUENCE: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=bgsu1276055885&disposition=inline

Miscellaneous works of that celebrated Scotch poet Allan Ramsay: https://deriv.nls.uk/dcn23/1056/7480/105674805.23.pdf

Edinburgh Literary Journal, 1829 https://www.proquest.com/openview/f7929bf2f574263f/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2773 

What would you do if you heard rumours of a mystery illness. A deadly disease, carving a swathe through towns and cities. Just over two years ago this was a situation most of us were facing for the first time in our lives. I’m sure you can still remember the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the preparations you made. Sitting there watching the briefing every night, wondering what was coming next.

Three hundred and seventy five years earlier, a far more deadly plague was ravaging its way through Scotland. Two young ladies, seeing how things were, made their plans to withdraw from society, make a rural sanctuary for themselves and ride it out together. It was a good plan, but sadly it didn’t work. The plague came for them anyway.

[Music – instrumental cut of the song]

My name’s Jenny Shaw, and welcome to the handed down podcast. Each episode celebrates a different traditional song, either through storytelling or an interview.

In today’s episode we’re on the trail of a song and a tune that share the same name

I’ve recently learned that the idea that tunes and words have a permanent bond is quite new. It sounds strange to us now, but it turns out that in the past, tunes were more interchangeable. A singer might draw on their repertoire of tunes when attempting a new broadside ballad. And broadsides were often produced as just a set of words, with a suggestion as to which well known tune would fit them best.

Today we have two intertwined stories, one about a tune and the other about a ballad – a set of words. While they undoubtedly travelled along together for a good couple of hundred years, they most likely had different origins, and they’re rarely paired together today.

The song and the tune are both known as Bessy Bell.

As always, both give rise to tall tales and colourful characters and they’re going to take us from Scotland to the heyday of popular London theatre, which is further back than you might think. There’s also a treat for old manuscript lovers, and we’ve got lots of links to all those things in the shownotes.

But our story begins in Perthshire.

[Parallel fifths first verse]

It’s quite a simple song of two young ladies – bonnie lasses – who sought to escape the plague but failed. 

I grew up with the Steeleye Span version of this song, so I know it as Betsy Bell and Mary Gray. But most of the original sources have it as Bessy Bell.

What makes this song stand out is that there’s evidence that rather than being just characters, they were real women.

In the introduction to 1904 book English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child quotes from a letter written in 1781 by Major Barry of Lednoch, Perthshire.


“When I came first to Lednock, I was shewn in a part of my ground (called the Dranoch-haugh) an heap of stones almost covered with briers, thorns and fern, which they assured me was the burial place of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray. The tradition of the country relating to these ladys is, that Mary Gray’s father was laird of Lednock and Bessie Bell’s of Kinvaid, a place in this neighbourhood; that they were both very handsome, and an intimate friendship subsisted between them; that while Miss Bell was on a visit to Miss Gray, the plague broke out, in the year 1666; in order to avoid which they built themselves a bower about three quarters of a mile west from Lednock House, in a very retired and romantic place called Burn-braes, on the side of Beauchieburn. Here they lived for some time; but the plague raging with great fury, they caught the infection, it is said, from a young gentleman who was in love with them both. He used to bring them their provision. They died in this bower, and were buried in the Dranoch-haugh, at the food of a brae of the same name, and near to the bank of the river Almond. The burial-place lies about half a mile west from the present house of Lednock.”

**End FX**

A transcript of this letter can still be found in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Scotland. Major Barry goes on to relate, rather touchingly, how he cleared the grave, planted it with flowers and fixed a memorial stone in the wall to the two women.

Child points out that the date of 1666 was almost certainly wrong, as the plague was not in Scotland that year. So even in Major Barry’s time we are definitely in the realm of hearsay and legend.

In fact, although they’re clearly believed to be real people, I’ve had real trouble finding any hard evidence of this. What we know seems to have been based on local oral tradition.

A good summary of what was known, or believed to be known, can be found in The Highland Notebook, or Sketches and Anecdotes, a 1843 book by Robert Carruthers.

Talking of the plague in Perthshire, and the attempts made to avoid it by escaping to the country, he had this to say:

“and thither, among others, according to the tradition of the country, went Bessy Bell, daughter of the Laird of Kinvaid, and Mary Gray, daughter of the Laird of Lynedoch. 

They were both eminent beauties – the flowers of Almond Water. The infection was accidentally carried to their bower by some young gentleman, who came to visit them in their solitude, and both died, and were interred on the spot. The dread of contagion had, no doubt, prevented their interment “among their noble kin”. Lord Lynedoch has put an iron railing round the grave and planted some yew trees beside it. The peasantry had long decorated it with flowers, and all the lads and lasses made annual pilgrimages to a spot consecrated by so many tender and affecting associations. The scene is well calculated to deepen such impressions. It is at the foot of a high bank, completely sheltered and concealed by a wood, but in front of the place where the fair friends “biggit their bower” is a plot of delicious greensward, visited by the setting sun and the river murmurs past with a ceaseless but gentle flow that gives a feeling of something like life and animation to the secluded scene. 

Many of our old ballads and airs have a melancholy character, but there is none more touching than this of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray. It is a romance of the heard, and on such a subject a few rude verses have a secure foundation. Even Queen Victoria’s progress in Perthshire will be sooner forgotten than this simple country story, and the grave of the unfortunate maidens will be visited when the royal footsteps have ceased to be remembered.”

[end FX}

A compelling account and, as far as I can tell, that’s all we know of the historical pair.



The grave and can still be found to this day on the bank of the River Almond, surrounded by iron railings put up by Thomas Graham in the early 1800s. I’ve not been there, but there are photographs. Who is buried there – if anyone – we can’t know, but over the years it has become a place of pilgrimage. At one time the site was covered by a pile of stones, brought there one by one by travellers. There was even a poem about it in the Edinburgh Literary Journal of 1829.

[Harp Music – a health to betty]

‘Tis hallow’d ground! Hush’d be my breath!

Uncover’d be my head!

Let me the shadowy Court of Death

With softest footstep tread!

The spirit of the place I feel, 

And on its sacred dust I kneel-

For here all lowly laid

As ancient legends smoothly say, 

Rest Bessy Bell and Mary Gray. [fade]


[Harp Music]

[fade up]

Thrice hallow’d is this lonely dell,

Three Spirits, all divine-

Love, Innocence, and Friendship - dwell

Here, in one common shrine:

Here youth and virgin fair may meet

May plight their vows by moonlight sweet,

May heart and hand entwine:-

No faithless foot this turf may tread,

For here they reign – The Sacred Dead!


[**end FX**]

The poem was written at the very height of the Romantic movement. Two beautiful young ladies, a tragic end and a picturesque rural setting was nothing less than 19th Century catnip, and there’s no wonder that the grave attracted a constant stream of gloomy artistic types. No doubt I’d have been one of them if I’d had the means.

[More harp music]

But despite all this oral tradition and local legend, the song itself is surprisingly light on details.

We don’t hear how, after taking so much trouble to self-isolate, they ended up catching the plague. You’d think that might be of interest. We do, however, learn a few other strange details about things which took place after their deaths. 

[*FX* cart – market sounds]

[Droning acapella voice] They would not have their boots of red, they would not have them yellow. But they would have their boots of green to ride through the streets of Yarrow.


Why though? 

[*FX* whistling wind]

[Droning acapella voice] They thought to lie in Methren Kirk yard, Among their noble kin. But they must lye in Stronach haugh all art beneath the sun.


Again, why? Is it an infection control measure, or does it signify something else.

I’m intrigued as to why they decided not to isolate themselves with other family members in the house they were staying at – presumably belonging to one of their fathers. Why did they flee together like that?

There are theories that they were a couple – which they might well have been - and that it was this transgression that prevented them being buried in the churchyard. To me this seems unlikely, given how much the local oral tradition celebrates their friendship. If they were a couple, it would have been relatively easy to hide behind a romantic devotion that wouldn’t have seemed out of place for women of their time and class.

Others suggest they were practicing witchcraft, which is sometimes associated with the colour green, the colour of their shoes. But there is nothing in the local tradition about witchcraft, and you’d think that would be quite newsworthy.

So the song is actually a bit of an enigma, quite different from the legend – mysterious and dark, rather than tragic and romantic.

[spooky music that cuts off suddenly]

Unless, that is, you are the Scottish poet Alan Ramsey. His version of Bessie Bell was first printed in a pamphlet in Edinburgh in 1719. Later, in 1725 it appeared in the book Orpheus Caledonius, to a tune by W Thompson, and then a few years later in Ramsey’s own book The Tea Table Miscellany. The version of Bessy Bell in this book starts with the usual four lines, and then it goes into a series of verse in praise the beauty of both ladies. It’s a textbook example of the male gaze. The narrator declares he cannot choose between the two of them. It’s rather contrived and there are allusions here and there to Greek mythology; it certainly doesn’t resemble what we’d consider a folk song today. He finishes: “Then I’ll draw Cuts and take my Fate, And be with ane contented.” 


Iona Opie, author of the Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes traces the roots of the song almost to the time of the plague itself, saying “the ballad was known in the late seventeenth century since there was a squib on the birth of the Old Pretender (1688) beginning: “Bessy Bell and Mary Grey, Those famous bonny lasses”. A squib is a short, satirical poem, usually about a public figure.

But there do seem to be several versions of this song during the 18th Century. Iona Opie has a suggestion here - Bessie Bell might have been a traditional name used in many songs. 

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray also appear in a nursery rhyme, versions of which can be found in both the UK and United States, and it goes like this:

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 lived in plenty

There’s even a theory that in this version Bessy Bell and Mary Gray were the two daughters of Henry the Eighth. It’s true that while Mary Tudor was on the English throne Elizabeth’s position was often precarious. Elizabeth was put under house arrest for almost a year, and came very close to being executed. So in that sense, Bessy did have to wait while Mary lived in plenty. But charming as this theory might be, it does sound like a bit of a stretch for a simple children’s rhyme.

The traditional tune for Bessy Bell is not the one we sing today. For most of the ballad’s life it has been accompanied by a jaunty little Scottish tune that seems to have been very popular. Several versions of it can be found in Playford, and it was often used as a stock tune for new ballads.

[Recorder version of tune]

The tune also pops up in a rather unexpected place. Let me tell you about James Guthrie.


James Guthrie was a Scottish Presbyterian minister. He was also a Covenanter, a campaigner for a Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and was part of the separate church formed briefly under Cromwell. When Charles the second was restored to the throne in 1660, he was betrayed, arrested, tried and executed for treason, and his head decorated Edinburgh’s city walls like a grisly monument for twenty eight years.

In the early 1800s a book of his sermons was discovered, likely written by a clerk during Guthrie’s lifetime. But what makes this manuscript so interesting is the fiddle tunes that adorn some of the pages. Now these were written by someone else, but not long after. They’re written in an unusual tablature, and there are 62 of them – and only half of them known elsewhere.

Some of them have very unclerical titles indeed. Once I lov’d another mans wife, for example, Katie thinks not long to play wt Peter at even, and My ladies *** yrs hair upond.

But interesting as this is, there’s an even earlier reference to this tune. Because as it turns out, the tune is older than the song’s characters.

It’s first known appearance was a broadside dated 22 June 1629, when it’s given to as the tune for a cheeky ballad called Fourpence Halfpenny Farthing – that being the price of the lady’s virtue. 

One morning bright for my delight, into the fields I walked

There I did see a lad and he with a fair maiden talked

It seem’d to me they could not agree about some pretty bargaine

He offer’d a groat, but still her note was fourpence half penny farthing


It’s the work of a seventeenth century professional ballad writer century, Martin Parker. He wrote numerous ballads and was incredibly popular, both during his lifetime and in the hundred years after his death. I’m sure we’ll come back to him in another episode.

It should be said that there’s more than one tune in circulation today called Fourpence Halfpenny Farthing. But Martin Parker’s broadside clearly gives the tune as “Bessy Bell, or A Health to Betty”.

These are two quite different tunes, but they both fit the song. The tune of Bessy Bell that can be found in Playford - the same one used by Allan Ramsey - fits the words for Fourpence Halfpenny Farthing very well. It’s almost certainly the same tune in 1629 as it is in Ramsey’s book.

So the tune, and the name Bessy Bell, came before the characters themselves. I found this a bit disappointing because it suggests Bessy Bell and Mary Gray are fictional after all, or at best that some local tragedy was retrofitted to an existing name and tune.

One thing I have taken away from this, though, is that the tune A Health To Betty is the most perfect fit for the song Bessy Bell. In fact I’d go so far to say that we’ve been robbed of the song’s rightful tune.

[Betsy Bell to the tune of A Health to Betty]

Ok, maybe it’s a bit too baroque for a folk song of today, but if anyone wants to have a go at a more traditional sounding version then I’d love to hear it.


But if the original tune pre-dates the story itself, it also goes on to have a life of its. In fact in the 18th Century it became a huge hit, wrapped up in the phenomenon that was The Ballad Opera.

[Beggar’s opera overture]

In 1728 a new show called The Beggar’s Opera launched at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London. Written by John Gay and with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch, it sparked a hugely popular, though short lived, form of entertainment.

In contrast to the rather stuffy Italian Opera, it was racy and satirical and edgy. It had tunes you already knew and could whistle along with. And it’s characters were very familiar to Londoners – beggars and thieves and prostitutes.

Ballad opera was hugely popular in London bourgeois society for perhaps 30 or 40 years. The Beggar’s Opera, and the many similar shows that came after it, often used folk tunes such as those published in Allan Ramsey’s collections. The tune Bessy Bell appeared in at least 18 Ballad Operas, including the Beggar’s Opera itself, and subsequent shows with such intriguing titles as Lord Blunder’s Confession, and The Wanton Jesuit.

In those days musicians had a lot of creative control over the songs, arranging them in some cases deciding which popular songs to use, and writing additional material as needed. One of the most successful theatre musicians from those times was one Mr Seedo, a German musician who made London his home and worked for many years at the famous Drury Lane theatre – the world’s oldest theatre in continuous use. 

We know that he arranged Bessy Bell for at least one of the Ballad Operas it appeared in – The Mock Doctor. He was also the genius behind the hugely successful show The Devil To Pay, and all in all he was a bit of a one man hit factory. His strength as a musician was in his adaptability, and he could turn out music in whatever style was popular at the time. Some of his songs were still in print in the 19th Century.

He might be the most popular composer you’ve never heard of!

But then during second half of the seventeenth century, the public lost their appetite for these cheeky, satirical shows, and started to develop a taste for a more wholesome and serious version with pastoral themes, and a blend of original music and folk tunes.

And just like that, the ballad opera disappeared as quickly as it arrived.

[Twas within a Furlong]


It’s no surprise to me that the song Bessy Bell and Mary Gray has survived into modern times. It has all the qualities of a popular contemporary folk song. It’s short, vivid and a little bit mysterious.

But unlike some of the other songs that have featured on the show, it’s not a remnant of a longer ballad. It rather seems to me that a local legend and some floating verses came together in a short song – perhaps a children’s song.

It does have a child-like quality. It pops up as a nursery rhyme, and the tune we use today has a simple, childish quality. It could easily be a skipping rhyme, and it’s not a million miles away from Ring a Ring a Roses – a song which probably isn’t about the plague as it turns out.

I’ve been chasing old ghosts all the way through this episode, and I’d love to know who lies in that romantic grave in Perthshire. 

One possibility is that the women lived and died as per the local legend, but earlier. The Black Death was in Scotland from the 14th Century, so perhaps an earlier outbreak put them in their grave.

Or perhaps the grave is filled with nothing more than several centuries of romantic dreams.


Stay tuned after the song for bit of 18th Century fun.

[Song – Betsy Bell and Mary Gray]

Allan Ramsey was born in Lanarkshire in the late 17th Century. He became a poet, writing in both English and Scots, and had an interest in old songs. It’s sometimes difficult to see in his work where the editing of older manuscripts stops and the original writing begins. 

In a collection of his poems and songs, published in Dublin in 1724, there is a most wonderful dedication that I wanted to share with you; and it goes like this:

To the most beautiful the British Ladies.

Fair patronesses,

For your innocent diversion and to invite those engaging Smiles which heighten your other Beauties, the most part of my poems were wrote, having had the pleasure to be sometimes approved of by you, which was the Mark I chiefly aim’d at. Allow me then to lay the following Collection at your Feet, accept of it as a grateful Return of every Thought happily express’d by me, they being less owing to my natural Genius, than to the Inspiration of your Charms.


Very smooth, Mr Ramsey! I imagined him as Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice when I read that introduction.

But all joking aside, Allan Ramsey had a distinguished career and contributed a great deal to the Scottish literary tradition. If you’d like to take a peek at him, his face can be found on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.


Thank you for listening to Handed Down. As well as story episodes like this one, I also interview folk musicians about their favourite traditional songs. If you like the show you can support us by telling others about it, and do subscribe on your favourite podcast app.

We’ll be back again soon with more folky stories, but until next time – take care.