“Sir Patrick Spens”


The King, needing a good sailor, calls upon Sir Patrick Spens to sail (to Norway?) in the dead of winter. Though both Captain and crew fear the trip, they undertake it, and are drowned

Supplemental text

Sir Patrick Spens [Child 58]
  Complete text(s)

          *** A ***

Sir Patrick Spence
A Scottish Ballad

From Percy/Wheatley, I.i.vii, pp. 100-102

"[G]iven from two manuscript copies transmitted from Scotland"

The king sits in Dumferling toune,
  Drinking the blude-reid wine:
O quhar will I get guid sailor
  To sail this schip of mine?

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
  Sat at the kingsr richt kne:
Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor,
  That sails upon the se.

The king has written a braid letter,
  And signd it wi' his hand;
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
  Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick red,
  A loud lauch lauched he:
The next line that Sir Patrick red,
  The teir blinded his ee.

O quha is this has don this deid,
  This ill deid don to me;
To send me out this time o'the yeir,
  To sail upon the se?

Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all,
  Our guid schip sails the morne.
O say na sae, my master deir,
For I feir a deadlie storme.

Late late yestreen I saw the new moone
  Wi' the auld moone in hir arme;
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
  That we will com to harme.

O our Scots nobles wer richt laith
  To weet their cork-heild schoone;
Bot lang owre a' the play were playd,
  Their hats they swam aboone.

O lang, lang, may thair ladies sit
  Wi' thair fans into their hand,
Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence
  Cum sailing to the land.

O lang, lang, may the ladies stand
  Wi' thair gold kembs in their hair
Waiting for their ain deir lords,
  For they'll se thame na mair.

Have owre, have owre to Aberdour,
  It's fiftie fadom deip:
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
  Wi' the Scots lords at his feit.


Whether this song is historical is disputed. If it *is* historical, it is based on one of the oldest incidents known to balladry: The succession of Scotland in the thirteenth century.

Alexander III of Scotland came to the throne in 1249, a boy not yet ten years old (see Magnusson, pp. 96-97. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note). Two years later, he went to England to be knighted and to marry Margaret, the daughter of the English King Henry III and the sister of the future Edward I (Magnusson, p. 97).

Alexander came of age in 1259. Within a couple of years, he was sending embassies to Norway, trying to gain control of the Western Isles and Orkney -- which for many centuries had given their allegiance, such as it was, to Norway (Magnusson, p. 97). Eventually negotiations gave way to war: Alexander wanted the Hebrides, while Norwegian king Haakon wanted to keep them and strengthen his control.

Fry/Fry, p. 74, report that one of Alexander's vassals attacked Skye in 1262. Our sources are all Norwegian, so we don't know whether Alexander was really involved, or how extensive the attack was. What is clear is that both sides sent forces to the western isles, though the ensuing Battle of Largs (1263) was more a series of meeting engagements than a full-scale battle. More damage was done to the combatants by a storm, and king Haakon, having seen his fleet badly damaged, headed for home and died soon after in the Orkneys (Mitchison, p. 33).

With Haakon dead, the Norwegians decided to negotiate once again. A treaty was concluded in 1266, by the terms of which Scotland in effect bought the Hebrides (and at a surprisingly low price; Magnusson, p. 103, thinks the Norwegians demanded the cash only so they could justify giving away land they were no longer willing to fight for).

In practice, the result didn't matter; the folk of the Islaes "paid no more heed to their Scottish than they had to their Norwegian overlords" (MacLean, p. 33). But at least it ended the war. The countries became friendly enough that Alexander's daughter Margaret, by then 19 years old, was married to the 14-year-old grandson of King Haakon in 1281. Margaret's young husband was already Norway's King Eric II; he had ascended in 1280 (Mitchison, p. 37). Margaret didn't see much of his reign, though; she died in 1283, probably in childbirth; the baby girl would come to be known as "Margaret Maid of Norway" (Magnusson, p. 104).

At the time of the elder Margaret's betrothal, the Norwegian connection seemed minor; although Alexander III was a widower (his wife Margaret having died in 1275), he had two living sons. But the younger son, David, died in 1281, and then the heir, who would have been Alexander IV, died in 1284 (Magnusson, p. 105).

Alexander finally decided he had to marry again; he married Yolande (or Yolette) de Dreux in 1285. But it was too late for him. Indeed, the marriage brought his downfall, and led to the end of one of the few relatively peaceful period in Scottish history. On a dark night, on his way to visit his wife after a feast, he somehow fell from his horse and died in 1286 (Magnusson, pp. 106-107; Cook, p. 65). This, incidentally, led to one of Thomas of Ercildoune's most famous prophecies; see the notes to "Thomas Rymer" [Child 37].

When Alexander died in 1286, the only heir of his body was his granddaughter Margaret, daughter of the King of Norway by Alexander's daughter. She was four years old, but was made queen (not without some concern, since Scotland till then had never had a ruling queen; Cook, p. 65). Naturally with a guardian council. And with Edward I of England very interested. For one thing, she was a girl who could potentially be married to his son; for another, Margaret of Norway was not too distantly related to Edward himself, and a potential claimant to the English throne. Edward firmly interjected himself into the process of trying to bring the girl back to Scotland (Cook, p. 69). The negotiations were involved (Magnusson, pp. 110-111), since Norway, England, and Scotland were interested in her dynasty (because stood fairly high in the succession for each), and England, Scotland, and the Papacy were involved in negotiations for her marriage (since she and her proposed husband, the future Edward II, were within the prohibited degrees, being first cousins once removed. A dispensation was eventually obtained; Cook, p. 70).

Poor little Margaret! So much rested on her fate that the histories give us no idea of what she was like; on paper a queen, she was in fact a pawn. One can only feel sorry for her. She lost her mother at birth, she became queen of Scotland at three, her marriage was decided upon by the time she was seven, she left her childhood home at eight, and died at sea without even viewing the land of which she was titular queen! It was the forceful Edward I, not the Scots, who conducted most of the negotiations with the Norwegians. And one can't help but wonder if Edward's bluster didn't cause the Norwegians to drag things out. Eric II delayed Margaret's return for years.

Edward had theoretically agreed to leave Scotland an independent state after the marriage, and it was agreed that, if Margaret's marriage produced no heirs, Scotland would remain independent (Magnusson, p. 111). But it was quite clear that Edward had every expectation of running things (MacLean, p. 34).

Finally Edward fitted out a well-provisioned ship to carry the Queen, and perhaps her father (Cook, p. 71). Eric didn't like that; he preferred to use one of his own ships. It didn't help the poor girl; she died on the trip -- surrounded by the usual rumours of poisoning and murder. And now Scotland *really* had a succession problem. But that is an issue for another song.

Thus the texts of the ballad match some of the facts (fetching home "the king's daughter of Norrowa'"), but ignore the fact that the old king was long dead when the Scottish ship sailed to bring home the princess.

Some have proposed emending the text to describe sending Alexander's daughter *to* Norway, noting that a ship containing several Scottish lords sank on the way home. This is ingenious, but does not seem to fit the rest of the ballad; I would regard this emendation as highly suspect. (Of course, I don't like emendation.)

Just about every recording I've heard of this song seems to use the highly majestic tune sung by Ewan MacColl, but Bronson admits only one other traditional version with a tune akin to MacColl's; nine of his twelve versions are of a different type, and the twelfth (from Johnson) he believes inauthentic.


Cook: E. Thornton Cook, _Their Majesties of Scotland_, John Murray, 1928

Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _The History of Scotland_, 1982 (I use the 1995 Barnes & Noble edition)

MacLean: Fitzroy MacLean, _A Concise History of Scotland_, Beekman House, 1970

Magnusson: Magnus Magnusson, _Scotland: The Story of a Nation_, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000

Mitchison: Rosalind Mitchison, _A History of Scotland_, second edition, Methuen, 1982


Historical references

  • 1286 - Death of Alexander III of Scotland
  • 1290 - Death of his granddaughter Margaret "Maid of Norway"

Cross references


  1. Child 58, "Sir Patrick Spens" (18 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #5}
  2. Bronson 58, "Sir Patrick Spens" (12 versions+1 in addenda)
  3. Percy/Wheatley I, pp. 98-102, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text)
  4. BrownII 16, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  5. Leach, pp. 179-184, "Sir Patrick Spens" (3 texts)
  6. Friedman, p. 297, "Sir Patrick Spens (Spence)" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  7. OBB 75, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  8. PBB 66, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  9. Niles 25, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Gummere, pp. 144-1445+331-332, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  11. Scott-BoA, pp. 25-27, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. Hodgart, p. 121, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  13. DBuchan 50, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  14. Creighton-SNewBrunswick 2, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text, a recited version)
  15. TBB 20, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  16. Darling-NAS, pp. 60-63, "Sir Patrick Spens" (1 text)
  17. HarvClass-EP1, pp. 74-76, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text)
  18. DT 58, PATSPENS*
  19. ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #418, "Sir Patrick Spence" (1 text, with several variants in the notes)
  20. ST C058 (Full)
  21. Roud #41
  22. BI, C058


Alternate titles: “Patrick Spenser”; “Sir Patrick Spence”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1765 (Percy)
Keywords: sea storm wreck death
Found in: Britain(Scotland(Aber)) US(Ap,MA,SE) Canada(Mar)