Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Ballad of Loch Lomond: Steeped in ‘Mist’ery

Yesterday I was in my Colombian mood; today, I've been thinking of Scotland. This is an article I wrote for a travel magazine awhile back. I researched it, and sent it off (but haven't heard anything back yet). Hope you enjoy it and learn something in the process! Any feedback is appreciated!:)

The Ballad of Loch Lomond: Steeped in 'Mist'ery

O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

A drizzly mist often prevents visitors from seeing those "bonnie, bonnie banks" of Scotland's Loch Lomond clearly. In the same way, a number of different stories purported to explain the famous folksong's origin maykeep the truth shrouded in mystery forever.

You probably think you’ve never heard of lyrics of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” some of which are shown above. But no doubt, you’re familiar with at least the chorus. However, if you don’t know what the song’s about, you’re probably not alone. That may be because of the unfamiliar Gaelic words thrown in or perhaps it’s that people have different interpretations of it.

In order to better grasp the meaning, it’s important to understand some basic facts about the Scottish. They revel in tales of their rich history, romanticize their beautiful landscapes, brood over their unyielding fates and rejoice over love.

It’s said this song was written by, about, or to a captured soldier during the failed Jacobite Rebellion in 1745.

Some believe an unknown soldier imprisoned in Carlisle, across the border in England, for his part in the alleged uprising wrote the song to his sweetheart. Sentenced to hang the next morning, he supposedly sang it to bid farewell to his beloved whom he would never see again. The song embraces the youthful pastimes they shared along the lake bank, and where they parted ways.

In my mind’s eye, I could picture the pair – she, fair-skinned with flowing red hair and a crown of flowers gracing it, wearing a loose-fitting dress and running barefoot. He would have a sand-tousled head of hair, a home-spun button-down shirt and pants, also barefoot. He’d be chasing her to the water’s edge and catch her in an embrace. The sun would shine down on them as they fell together in the shade of the highland trees near the edge of the lake. I imagined his regret as he recalled those lost moments while facing his certain fate the next morning. Wouldn’t the song tug at your heart?

Others believe the song came about as words probably sung by the Jacabean prisoner’s sweetheart, “Moira” back in Scotland. The belief is that the prisoner’s ghost had visited Moira in a dream and they had wandered along the moors of Loch Lomond as they used to do as young lovers. It’s said that through this dream, Moira realized she would never see the soldier again.

Along similar lines, some believe that upon his death, the warrior’s spirit was released and would be waiting for her on Loch Lomond, where they first fell in love.

The suggestion of ghosts is popular in Scotland, where whole tours take place to visit “haunts.” Wandering spirits lend credence to the idea that messages are carried to people whom they would not see again in their lifetime. So, the belief that the prisoner’s fate is relayed through the dream is readily accepted. Likewise, the idea that a spirit will go to where he / she felt happiest during their lifetime is a popular concept in Scotland.

Still others believe the lyrics suggest the sweetheart of the Jacobean prisoner had traveled all the way to Carlisle on foot to say good-bye to her lover, catch a final glimpse of his face, and beg in the slim hope of securing his release. If not, she would stay to witness his death. The “low” road is said to mean the grave for the prisoner while the “high” road refers to the girl’s return home to Scotland over land.

If you ask other Scots, they will tell you it’s commonly believed that the song represents the friendship between two soldiers. According to the story, one of the soldiers was to be executed and the other, released. As legend has it, the spirit of the dead soldier traveling by the “low” would reach Scotland before his comrade, who would be making his way back over the rough Scottish highland on foot. Spirits apparently travel faster than those in the physical world, hence, the line “I’ll be in Scotland a’fore ye.’”

When you first hear this song, it seems it’s just a very popular, romantic love song set in the midst of a beautiful Scottish landscape. But the song gives us clues there’s more to it than lochs, high and low roads, getting someplace before someone else. Something larger than that is happening. The lyrics bring out deeper themes embedded within —death, parting, loss, principles, courage, friendship, loyalty, ghosts and spirits.

Which story is the real one? No one is any wiser today than centuries earlier. Myths and legends continue to surround this tale like the misty waters that gather around Loch Lomond. Historians can make their predictions, do their research, but the interpretation is still up to the listener and to the many Scots who proudly sing its lyrics and embrace it with their strong cultural heritage.

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