“Captain Wedderburn's Courtship”


(Captain Wedderburn) sees a fair lady, and wishes to sleep with her. She takes an instant dislike to him, and will consent only if he can answer her riddles. He answers them, and the two are wed.


Many versions of this song tell a rather confused story, with the following plot outline:

1. Captain Wedderburn sees the Laird o' Roslin's daughter and says, more or less, "Gotta have her"

2. He asks her to marry him; she says, "No; it's time for supper."

3. Immediately upon turning him down, she gets on his horse, goes to his lodging-house, and prepares to go to bed with him.

4. Pause: The lady says, "Before I do this, you have to answer my questions." She proceeds with the riddle game.

5. Captain Wedderburn answers the riddles, and they are married.

It will be evident that steps 4 and 5, as they are found in these texts, should precede step 3.

It's also worth noting that the lady's riddles seem to be older than the song itself (the riddles are found in "I Gave My Love a Cherry," which as "I Have a Yong Suster" dates to 1430 or earlier).

My suggestion was that steps 4 and 5 were a later addition to the song. Alternately, the song has become disordered. Don Duncan counter-proposes that the song is a rape ballad -- she is forced on the horse, and to the lodging-house, and the riddles are her last attempt at a defense. The happy ending is a later touch-up.

None of this can be proved, and none of the suggestions is altogether convincing. But it is not unlikely that the song has changed its form somewhere along the line.

Because scholars so often confound this with "I Gave My Love a Cherry," one should see that song also for the complete list of songs sometimes associated with this ballad.

Another curiosity concerns the name "Wedderburn." This is an old Scottish name (consider the author of the _Complaynt of Scotland_) -- but the _Oxford Companion to British History_, in its thousand large pages of biographies, lists only one Wedderburn, that being Alexander Wedderburn 1733-1805).

Don Cook, in _The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785_, sketches him on pages 183-184: he "had a quick mind and was known as one of the most intelligent, formidable debaters in Parliament.... At the same time, he was one of the nastiest, most unscrupulous, most ambitious politicians of the time.... He grew up in Edinburgh and began his career in the Scottish law. Handling a case in court at age twenty-four, he became so abusive of the court president... that an apology was demanded by the entire bench. Instead, Wedderburn withdrew from the Scots bar and decamped for London.... Lord North decided politically that it would be better if Wedderburn... were inside the government rather than in opposition. For his part, Wedderburn was not inhibited by principles and could readily lend his debating talents to any side of any question. He was appointed solicitor general.?

That was in 1771. In 1778, he became attorney-general. Eventually, tempted by Pitt, he joined the government as Lord Chancellor, finally retiring with an earldom in 1801. He wasn't very nicer, either -- Stanley Weintraub, _Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783_, Free Press, 2005, p. 35, tells of him questioning Benjamin Franklin for an hour and a half -- and keeping the 68-year-old Franklin standing for an hour and a half. Weintraub, p. 126, also mentions that he nearly fought a duel over a simple remark about politics.

Unscrupulous enough for this song, obviously, but he was never a captain, and since ?Captain Wedderburn" was circulating by 1783, he can't have been the original subject, right?

Well, sure, but there is one other thing. To what earldom did George III appoint him in 1801? The earldom of -- Rosslyn. (So, at least, the _Oxford Companion_, which in general I have found to be reliable; Weintraub, p. 345, says he became "1st Earl Loughborough in 1801"). - RBW

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Harding B 25(1143), "Lord Roslin's Daughter's Courtship," Stephenson (Gateshead), 1821-1850


  • Willy Clancy, "The Song of the the Riddles" (on Voice01)
  • Logan English, "Bold Robington's Courtship" (on LEnglish01)
  • Seamus Ennis, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (on FSB4)
  • Warde Ford, "Many Questions/Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (AFS 4196B, 1938; in AMMEM/Cowell) {Bronson's #26}
  • Pat MacNamara, "Mr Woodburren's Courtship" (on IRClare01)
  • Thomas Moran, "Captain Woodburn (Wedderburn's Courtship)" (on FSBBAL1)


  1. Child 46, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (3 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #8}
  2. Bronson 46, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (26 versions)
  3. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 93-99, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (2 texts plus 2 fragments, one of which might be "Riddles Wisely Expounded" or something else, 2 tunes; all the texts are rather damaged and even the full ones consist mostly of the riddles); p. 451 (1 tune) {B.II=Bronson's #12, C=#9; the tune on p. 451 is #17}
  4. Flanders/Olney, pp. 43-46, "A Strange Proposal" (1 text)
  5. Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 299-315, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (3 texts plus two fragments, 5 tunes; the "A" text and the F fragment and tune are mixed with "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child 1) and the "I" and II" texts and tunes are "I Gave My Love a Cherry")
  6. Creighton/Senior, pp. 21-25, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (3 texts, 3 tunes) {Bronson's #19, #20, #21}
  7. Creighton-Maritime, p. 6, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Gardner/Chickering 48, "Mr. Woodburn's Courtship" (2 texts, 2 tunes; the "B" text is short and in the first person; it shows signs of deliberate modification) {Bronson's #24, #15}
  9. Leach, pp. 158-162, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (3 texts)
  10. Leach-Labrador 3, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Karpeles-Newfoundland 6, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  12. Creighton-NovaScotia 3, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #22}
  13. Mackenzie 4, "Six Questions" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #13}
  14. Friedman, p. 137, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (2 texts, but the second is "I Gave My Love a Cherry")
  15. FSCatskills 124, "The Rich Merchant's Daughter" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. Ord, pp. 416-420, "The Laird o' Roslin's Daugher, or, Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #6}
  17. DBuchan 48, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text)
  18. TBB 1, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text)
  19. SHenry H681, p. 490, "The Keeper of the Game" (1 text, 1 tune)
  20. Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan 44, "Mister Woodburren" (1 text, 1 tune)
  21. Meredith/Covell/Brown, pp. 152-153, "The Chicken and the Bone" (1 text, 1 tune)
  22. Abrahams/Foss, pp. 53-55, "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #17}
  24. Roud #36
  25. BI, C046


Alternate titles: “The Devil and the Blessed Virgin Mary”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1783 (New British Songster)
Found in: Britain(Scotland) US(Ap,MA,MW,NE,NW,SE) Canada(Mar,Newf) Ireland Australia