Friday, September 29, 2017

Goings-on in the Kirkconnel Lea

Kirkconnel church and graveyard
Dùn Phrìs is Gall-Ghaidhealaibh, or Dumfries and Galloway as its called in English, is the southernmost district of Scotland. Row eastwardly across the Irish Sea or drive down the road to Carlisle and you’re in County Cumbria, in England. As a border district, it has a colorful history of 300 years of antagonism and border reivers (the Scottish word for plunderers) from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 17th centuries, during the age of the Stuarts in Scotland and the Tudors in England. Colorful being a euphemism for bloody, of course. Dumfries, a onetime Royal Burgh, is remembered as the place where Scotland’s hero Robert the Bruce murdered Comyn the Red, son of Comyn the Black, at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Details are somewhat fuzzy. It took place in 1306.

Up in the northern part of the shire is a village called Kirkconnel, sometimes written with two l’s and without the second k, and associated with Sir Walter Scott’s “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.” One of the ballads contained in this work, published in 1802 or 3, is the Ballad of Fair Helen.   

The story goes like this. Fair Helen belonged to the prominent Irving family. They wanted her to
graves of Fair Helen and her Adam
marry within her station and decided that among her many suitors the most suitable was Robert Bell. Helen had other plans, having fallen in love with Adam Fleming, of a not so prominent family. Coming across Helen and Adam in an embrace one day, Robert pulled a gun and fired, intending to kill Adam. But Helen saw what was coming and threw herself in front of Adam, taking the shot. Adam, crazed with grief, set upon Robert and hacked him to pieces with his sword. He then fled the country, only to return some years later, where he was discovered, by a servant of the Bell family, lying dead across Helen’s grave. The Irvings had come around by then and allowed them to be buried together.

countertenor with absolutely
no connection with this
story whatsoever
If you grew up in a Protestant tradition, you may be familiar with the lovely and eminently singable hymn, “Alas! did my Savior bleed,” - which derives from a popular tune based on Scott’s ballad of Fair Helen. Or perhaps you remember it without the blood reference as “As Pants the Hart (sic) for cooling streams,” not to be confused with the more ponderous tune of the same name by Georg Friedrich Händel, sung here by the Tölzer Boys’ Choir (with how’bout them apples countertenor and handsome Sudanese Superdude, Magid El-Bushra, at left).

On a very different plain, but still very much to my taste these days is Scottish folksinger Archie Fisher’s version of the ballad, available on YouTube.

Here is Scott’s original ballad, if you’d like to follow along.  A ‘lea,’ by the by, is another word for pasture or grazing land that goes back to the 12th century and possibly earlier. I trust the Scottish words are not stumbling blocks – “meikle” for “much,” “nae mair” for “no more,” and “burd,” which normally means “flattering” but I take here to mean “fair.”

You’ll note that Archie takes some liberties with the text and leaves out some verses, as I’ve indicated with italics and double indentation:

I wish I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirconnell Lea!

Curst be the heart, that thought the thought,
And curst the hand, that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair,
When my love dropt down and spak nae mair!
There did she swoon wi' meikle care,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

As I went down the water side,
Kirkconnel Lea today
None but my foe to be my guide.
None but my foe to be my guide,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I lighted down, my sword did draw,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
I hacked him in pieces sma,
For her sake that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!
I'll make a garland of thy hair,
Shall bind my heart for evermair,
Untill the day I die.

O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
Out of my bed she bids me rise,
Says, "haste, and come to me!"

O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!
If I were with thee I were blest,
Where thou lies low, and takes thy rest,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I wish my grave were growing green,
A winding sheet drawn ower my een,
And I in Helen's arms lying,
On fair Kirconnell Lea.

I wish I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
And I am weary of the skies,
For her sake that died for me.

That was in the 1600s, three hundred years after Comyn the Red met his maker at the altar of the Church of the Greyfriars. Hacking somebody into little pieces - I hacked him in pieces sma, - isn’t quite as dastardly as the blasphemous slaying before a church altar, and is of course mitigated by la passion d’amour. But there’s still blood and death involved, lest you think the peaceful “land of lochs and legends” Scotland has become today happened overnight.

Wikipedia’s Kirkconnel page tells me not to confuse this Kirkconnel the ballads of Fair Helen of Kirconnell (sic – no second k), but I suspect Wiki’s left hand may not know what Wiki’s right hand is doing, since when one clicks on the Helen of Kirconnell site, one is informed that Scott’s ballad
concerns one Helen Irving, who lies in a grave with her lover, Adam Fleming, in “the burial ground of Kirkconnell, near the Border.”

Further corroboration that Scott’s Kirkconnell and modern day Kirkconnel are one and the same is provided here in an alternative take on this tale of the Romeo and Juliet of the Scottish borderlands.

And if that’s not convincing, try this one.

Kirkconnel today is a town of some two thousand souls, in the Strath of Nith, strath being the Scottish word for river valley and Nith being the River Nith, not far from its origins, before it makes its way past Dumfries to the Irish Sea. As best I can determine, the town has maybe a dozen named streets, including a Main Street and the A76 trunk road which runs for sixty miles between Kilmarnock and Dumfries, right through Kirkconnel. Kirkconnel Church remains the town’s most notable landmark. It ceased to be a place of worship in 1640 and what ruins remain today are but a shadow of its original glory. A sign posted outside tells us that the church was probably the family vault of the Maxwell family and includes a cross memorializing the 8th Lord Maxwell, a Scottish Catholic nobleman who was once found guilty of treason, in 1588, for participating on the Spanish side in the organization of the Spanish Armada, but was somehow freed a year later on a bond of £100,000 and reinstated three years after that as “Warden of the West Marches.”  

A brief discursion here… March, you may know, is a medieval geographical term for borderlands: march, in English, margo, in Latin (from whence “margin” is derived), marz in Persian and Armenian, mörk in Old Norse, mark in German and Danish (thus Denmark, and Ostmark to signify Austria after the Anschluss). And the guy who runs the mark?  Why, the marquis, of course, (or the English marquess, if you prefer (the Scots use marquis), along with his good lady, the marquise, sometimes marchioness.

But back to business.  John Maxwell, 8th Lord Maxwell, was  “slain (we are told) unarmed (stress mine) by the Johnstones in 1592.”  More bloody violence, a marquisicide this time, to saddle on the history of Dumfries and Galloway.

It's possible, of course, that it was this bloody history of his birthplace that drove my grandfather to leave Kirkconnel for America in 1902. Another, more likely, explanation is the fact that the town probably had only one single road at that time.  I’ll never know. Anybody who might tell me is long gone.

Thomas McCornick sailed at the age of 22 from Glasgow to Boston, where he met Mabel Johnston (no e at the end and no relation that I know of to the Johnstone fellow who did in the 8th Lord Maxwell) of Nova Scotia, where they both settled in their senior years and are buried. But not till after raising three boys in Connecticut: Thomas, John and William, each of whom, in their turn, raised two children of their own. I was the firstborn of the six. My father was the middle son.

Like most young people, I had little interest in the origins of my elders when grandpa was still in my life, before I rode off into the California sunset, and knew of my grandfather’s Scottish roots because they were highlighted by the time we spent in Nova Scotia, where you could still hear bagpipe music on the radio everyday when I was a kid, and the catholic descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots, still kept Gaelic alive.

I wonder what he would make of this internet age, when one can call up photos online of the kirk in the town of his birth. And have instant access to the poetry of Walter Scott and Rabbie Burns (who died at Dumfries at age 37, by the way) at whim, without having to find a library or bookstore. And find one’s name on a ship’s manifest and learn that the ship would end its days off the coast of Newfoundland a few years and ocean crossings later, miraculously with no casualties. And discover that there is another person carrying your name on the UK census of 1891 two years older than you.

Brave new world, this world of the internet. Wish he had lived to see it.

Or that I had known enough to google his brain for answers to so many questions now coming to mind about who he was and where he came from, now that I’ve lived long enough to understand why one might want to ground one’s identity with more and more specifics.

We had Irvings and Flemings and Maxwells among our circle of family friends, I remember, as a kid. Did he ever make connections with the ancestors of those folks, the Fair Helen Irving who took a bullet for Adam Fleming, for example? Or the Maxwell House coffee can I cut my hand on in Nova Scotia at the age of 16 which put me in the hospital in Antigonish where the priests of St. Mary’s would come and teach me Gaelic? The same Maxwell House the eight Lords (and more) of the Scottish Westmarch belonged to, they who once actually owned the land where my grandfather was born?

I think not, somehow. He was a man who moved forward, not back, as illustrated by the fact that he never went back to Scotland in all the 77 years he lived in the U.S. and Canada.*

But maybe if we could get together and talk today, I might find some interesting missing bits of history. He’d be 131, so it might be slow going.

I still hear his voice.  “Go on!” he used to say when you’d say something he found hard to believe.  

Did you know, pa (we all called him pa), that you and Fair Helen of Kirkconnel fame share a birthplace in common?

“Go on!” he'd say.

"Go on!"

Photo Credits:

Graves of Helen and Adam in the Kirkconnel churchyard 

Kirkconnel Church 

Kirkconnel Lea today

*Correction: Cousin Betty reminds me they did make a trip back one time. I was too young to appreciate the significance and failed to pick his brain for impressions. I stand corrected.

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