Bessie Bell and Mary Gray
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Lesley Nelson-Burns

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This ballad is reportedly based on the death of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray who died of the plague in 1645. They caught the plague from a mutual admirer. The words, except the first verse, are by Allan Ramsay.

This ballad is Child Ballad #201 (Bessy Bell and Mary Gray).

The tune is an old air. According to Child the tune was well known in the "last years of the 17th century." It appears in Orpheus Caledonius #25 (1725) and is in the first edition of The Dancing Master (1651) as A Health to Betty.* John Gay used the air and adapted the lyrics for The Beggar's Opera in 1728.

According to a letter printed in 1781 in the Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland, Mary Gray's father was the Laird of Lednock and Bessie Bell's of Kinvaid. They were close friends and while Bessie was visiting Mary Gray (1666 according to this account) the plague broke out. They built a bower not far from Lednock house and retired there to avoid the plague. They lived there until they caught the plague from a gentleman who was in love with them both. They died in their bower and were buried in the Dranoch-haugh near the bank of the river Almond.

Child notes that the suggested date of the event in the 1781 letter should be earlier. Perth (which is 7 miles from Lednock) was struck by the plague in 1645. The epidemic lasted a year or two from that date. An estimated three thousand died. During 1665-6 there was no plague in Scotland.

The first verse of the old ballad is listed following the Ramsay version.

For a complete list of Child Ballads at this site see Francis J. Child Ballads.

Oh, Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lassies!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes,
Fair Bessie Bell I lo'ed yestreen,
And thocht I ne'er could alter;
But Mary Gray's twa pawkie een
Gar'd a' my fancy falter!
Oh, Bessie Bell... and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes.

Bessie's hair's like a lint-tap,
She smiles like a May mornin',
When Phoebus starts frae Thetis' lap,
The hills wi' rays adornin';
White is her neck, soft is her hand,
Her waist and feet fu' gently,
Wi' ilka grace she can command;
Her lips, O vow! they're dainty.
Oh, Bessie Bell... and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes.

Mary's locks are like the craw,
Her een like diamond's glances;
She's aye sae clean, redd-up, and braw;
She kills whene'er she dances.
Blythe as a kid, wi' wit and will,
She's blooming, tight, and tall is,
And guides her airs sae gracefu' still;
O Jove, she's like thy Pallas!
Oh, Bessie Bell... and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes.

Young Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
Ye unco' sair oppress us;
Our fancies jee between ye twa,
Ye are sic bonnie lasses.
Wae's me! for baith, I cannot get;
To ane by law we're stinted;
Then I'll draw cuts, and tak' my fate,
And be wi' ane contented.
Oh, Bessie Bell... and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi' rashes.

First Verse of Original Ballad

They theekit it ower wi' rashes green,
They theekit ower wi' heather;
But the pest came from the burrows-town,
And slew them baith thegither.

They thocht to lie in Methven kirk
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lie in Lynedoch Brae
To beek forment the sun.
Related Links
From Songs of Scotland
The Royal Edition, Volume II and
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
See Bibliography for full information.
*And the Ballad List Archives