“Bessy Bell and Mary Gray”


"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


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 NLScotland broadside consists solely of an ode to the two pretty young women, and is likely a rewrite; it is credited in the notes on the site (though not on the broadside itself that I can see) to Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). - RBW


  • NLScotland, Ry.III.a.10(114), "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray," unknown, after 1720


  1. Child 201, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text)
  2. Bronson 201, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (7 versions)
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 278-279, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 fragment plus a printed version that may have been the source, 1 tune) {Bronson's #7}
  4. JHCox 22, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (2 texts, of only two verses; the first goes here but the second appears to be floating material)
  5. Davis-Ballads 38, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (4 text, of which only "A" contains more than the first stanza, and the extra stanza seems to be an intrusion)
  6. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 190-191, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 fragment)
  7. Opie-Oxford2 39, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (3 texts)
  8. Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #293, pp. 169-170, "(Bessy Bell and Mary Gray)"
  9. Friedman, p. 302, "Bessy Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text)
  10. OBB 176, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text)
  11. Gummere, pp. 163+336, "Bessie Bell and Mary Gray" (1 text)
  13. ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; notes to #62 (no title) (1 text)
  14. Roud #237
  15. BI, C201


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1720 (Ramsay, according to Opie-Oxford2)
Keywords: disease death burial
Found in: US(NE,SE) Britain(Scotland)