Folk Songs

Folk songs: Sir James the Rose

Our new folk songs series continues with a look at a tragic story between Sir James the Rose and a lady named Matilda

Was Sir James a real person and, if so, when and where did he live?

You may know the very fine song Sir James the Rose. If not, this would be a good time to search out and listen to the Steeleye Span version.

The best-known version was collected at Sir Walter Scott’s library at Abbotsford by the great Harvard philologist Francis James Child (1825-1896) and published in his multi-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads from 1882 to 1898. I have, over the years, heard a few people tell the story contained in the ballad, attest to its historical veracity and even claim descent from Sir James. So let’s examine song and story versus history.

The first puzzle is: who is Sir James the Rose? Is Rose his surname, or just an epithet, like ‘Sir James the Good’? Rose is a surname of  the northeast, principally found around Kilravock (pronounced Kil-rock), anciently in Nairnshire. 

In the Abbey of Deer, some 10 miles from Peterhead, Aberdeenshire (but a good distance from Kilravock), there is a “trysting thorn” – a tree where Sir James and Matilda, Lord Buchan’s daughter, “were wont to meet to tell their tender tales” as the local account has it. Buchan is, of course, a name local to that area.

The second puzzle is: Sir James is the “young heir [or possibly Younger] of Loch Laggan”,
so where is that? There are two main candidates in Scotland. The best-known one in the Lochy basin, east of Fort William, is in the Laggan parish in the far west of Strathspey, but there’s also a parish called Laggan, near Laggan Hill.

Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

Other places called Laggan exist in Galloway and on Mull, among others. In fact, it’s amazing that there aren’t more Laggan place-names, as the word derives from the Scots Gaelic lagan – a diminutive of lag, meaning ‘hollow’.

There is no Rose or Ross (different families, often confused) on record with a landholding called Laggan or its variants. The closest places called Laggan to Aberdeenshire are in Perthshire. This also makes sense, in that Sir James is said to have killed Donald Graeme, brother of Sir John Graeme. Although the surname Graeme/Graham/Grahame originated around Dalkeith in Midlothian, most Graham lands were around Stirlingshire, Menteith and Angus. 

 These are not near traditional Buchan lands, although it does very much depend on the time period – was Lord Buchan a Comyn, a Stewart, a Douglas or an Erskine? 

An earlier and fully Scottish version of the ballad, which refers to “Margaret on the Scottish throne”, adds more confusion. Is this Margaret, Queen of Malcolm III in the 11th century; Henry III’s daughter Margaret who married Alexander III in 1251; Margaret, Maid of Norway who never saw Scotland as she died aged 7 at Kirkwall on Orkney in 1290; Margaret of Denmark who married James III; or Margaret Tudor, queen of their son James IV, until his death at Flodden in 1513. 

In the two versions, ‘Old’ and ‘New’, published by Peter Buchan, there are further clues – Sir James is Chief of Clan Rose, his brothers live on Skye, Lord Buchan’s lands are a horse-ride from Edinburgh and there is mention of the Heights of Lundie (near Dundee). In other words, he’s all over the place. Yet another version of the prose places Sir James in the parish of Crimond (between Peterhead and Fraserburgh) and claims his grave is at Battle Fauld, near the Mill of Haddo. 

Sir James claims to have fought at “Flowden Field” (Flodden, 1513). That would make Lord Bohan/Buchan, Matilda’s father, John Stewart, 3rd Earl of Buchan. He had two sons, but no daughter Matilda. 

The ballad The Battle o’ Harlaw recounts John Heilanman in conversation with Sir James the Rose and Sir John the Gryme (Graeme). This was in 1411, 100 years before Flodden Field. 

The “House of Mar(r)” reference doesn’t work either, as John Stewart, Earl of Mar, youngest son of James III of Scotland and Margaret of Denmark, died in 1503 and there wasn’t another until James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, the illegitimate son of James V, was created Earl of Mar in 1560. It cannot refer to the Earl of Mar and Kellie, as these titles weren’t joined until 1835.

So it would seem that the story of Sir James the Rose has no historical basis. Scholarly opinion agrees that it was composed, or at least written down, by Michael Bruce, ‘the Loch Leven poet’, published as an ‘Ancient Historical Ballad’ in The Weekly Magazine and Edinburgh Amusement in 1770, possibly edited from a version found amongst Bruce’s papers after his death. 

There we are, then. It’s just a poem – possibly composed by Michael Bruce, perhaps deriving from an older, oral version – which became a song. Sir James the Rose never existed. Shame, really.

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