Song Lyrics

The Dowie Dens of Yarrow


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There was a lady in the north
I ne're did see her mare o
She was courted by nine gentlemen
And a poor plowboy frae Yarrow

These nine sat drinking at the wine
Sat drinking wine in Yarrow
And they did 'cide bemongst themselves
To fight for her on Yarrow

Now she washed his face and she caned her hair
As she had done before o
She made him like the handsome lord
To fight for her on Yarrow

And he did fight them one a time
Yay he did fight most fairly
Till from behind one false young man
Did pierce his heart most squarely

O father did I dreamed the dream
I know it does mean sorrow
I dreamed I pulled the heather and the rue
On the Dowie Dens of Yarrow

So she walked out on yon high, high hill
As she had done before o
And there she found her lover gone
Lyin' pale and cold on Yarrow

Now her hair it bein' three yards long
And the color it was yellow
She wrapped it 'round his middle sae small
And she bore him down frae Yarrow

Soon nine they came to call on her
Cryin which one will she mare o
She said I'll not marry a one aye ye
For ye slew me love on Yarrow
And you left me to sing sorrow


This song is closely associated with the geographical area of the valley of the Yarrow Water that extends through the Scottish borders towards Selkirk. Almost all of the many versions refer to this location, perhaps because the rhyming scheme for multiple verses, in most versions, relies on words which more or less rhyme with "Yarrow": "marrow", "morrow", "sorrow", "thorough", "narrow", "arrow" and "yellow" for example.

The song is believed to be based on an actual incident. The hero of the ballad was a knight of great bravery, popularly believed to be John Scott, sixth son of the Laird of Harden. According to history, he met a treacherous and untimely death in Ettrick Forest at the hands of his kin, the Scotts of Gilmanscleugh in the seventeenth century. However, recent scholars are skeptical about this story as the origin of the song.

Joni may have heard this from Ewan MacColl's recording in 1956, or Carolyn Hester's version from 1961.


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