The Celtic Literature Collective

Child Rowland and Burd Ellen
Jamieson's Illustrations of Northern Antiquities

Told from the editor's [Jamieson's] memory:

["KING Arthur's sons o' merry Carlisle]1
Were playing at the ba';
And there was their sister Burd Ellen,
I' the mids amang them a'.

"Child Rowland kick'd it wi' his foot,
And keppit it wi' his knee;
And ay, as he play'd out o'er them a',
O'er the kirk he gar'd it flee.

"Burd Ellen round about the isle
To seek the ba' is gane;
But they bade lang and ay langer,
And she camena back again.

"They sought her east, they sought her west,
They sought her up and down;
And wae were the hearts [in merry Carlisle,] is
For she was nae gait found!"

At last her eldest brother went to the Warluck Merlin, (Myrddin Wyldt,)2 and asked if he knew where his sister, the fair Burd Ellen, was. "The fair Burd Ellen," said the Warluck Merlin, "is carried away by the fairies, and is now in the castle of the king of Elfland;3 and it were too bold an undertaking for the stoutest knight in Christendom to bring her back." "Is it possible to bring her back?" said her brother, "and I will do it, or perish in the attempt." "Possible indeed it is," said the Warluck Merlin; "but woe to the man or mother's son who attempts it, if he is not well instructed beforehand of what he is to do."

Influenced no less by the glory of such an enterprise, than by the desire of rescuing his sister, the brother of the fair Burd Ellen resolved to undertake the adventure; and after proper instructions from Merlin, (which he failed in observing,) he set out on his perilous expedition.

"But they bade lang and ay langer,
Wi' dout and mickle maen;
And wae were the hearts [in merry Carlisle,]
For he camena back again."

The second brother in like manner set out; but failed in observing the instructions of the Warluck Merlin; and

"They bade lang and ay langer,
Wi' mickle dout and maen;
And wae were the hearts [in merry Carlisle,]
For he camena back again."

Child Rowland, the youngest brother of the fair Burd Ellen, then resolved to go; but was strenuously opposed by the good queen, [Gwenevra,] who was afraid of losing all her children.

At last the good queen [Gwenevra] gave him her consent and her blessing; he girt on (in great form, and with all due solemnity of sacerdotal consecration,) his father's good claymore, [Excalibar,] that never struck in vain, and repaired to the cave of the Warluck Merlin. The Warluck Merlin gave him all necessary instructions for his journey and conduct, the most important of which were, that he should kill every person he met with after entering the land of Fairy, and should neither eat nor drink of what was offered him in that country, whatever his hunger or thirst might be; for if he tasted or touched in Elfland, he must remain in the power of the Elves, and never see middle eard again.

So Child Rowland set out on his journey, and travelled "on and ay farther on," till he came to where (as he had been forewarned by the Warluck Merlin,) he found the king of Elfland's horse-herd feeding his horses. "Canst thou tell me," said Child Rowland to the horse-herd, "where the king of Elfland's castle is?" — "I cannot tell thee," said the horse-herd; "but go on a little farther, and thou wilt come to the cow-herd, and he, perhaps, may tell thee." So Child Rowland drew the good claymore, [Excalibar,] that never struck in vain, and hewed off the head of the horse-herd. Child Rowland then went on a little farther, till he came to the king of Elfland's cow-herd, who was feeding his cows. "Canst thou tell me," said Child Rowland to the cow-herd, "where the king of Elfland's castle is?" — "I cannot tell thee," said the cow-herd; "but go on a little farther, and thou wilt come to the sheep-herd, and he perhaps may tell thee." So Child Rowland drew the good claymore, [Excalibar,] that never struck in vain, and hewed off the head of the cow-herd. He then went on a little farther, till he came to the sheep-herd. * * * * [The sheep-herd, goat-herd, and swine-herd are all, each in his turn, served in the same manner; and lastly he is referred to the hen-wife.-]

"Go on yet a little farther," said the hen-wife, till thou come to a round green hill surrounded with rings (terraces) from the bottom to the top; go round it three times wider shins4, and every time say, " Open, door! open, door! and let me come in; and the third time the door will open, and you may go in." So Child Rowland drew the good claymore, [Excalibar,] that never struck in vain, and hewed off the head of the hen-wife. Then went he three times widershins round the green hill, crying, "Open, door! open, door! and let me come in;" and the third time the door opened, and he went in.5 Agreeably warm like a May evening, as is all the air of Elfland. The light was a sort of twilight or gloaming; but there were neither windows nor candles, and he knew not whence it came, if it was not from the walls and roof, which were rough, and arched like a grotto, and composed of a clear transparent rock, in-crusted with sheeps-silver and spar, and various bright stones. At last he came to two wide and lofty folding-doors, which stood a-jar. He opened them, and entered a large and spacious hall, whose richness and brilliance no tongue can tell. It seemed to extend the whole length and height of the hill. The superb Gothic pillars by which the roof was supported, were so large and so lofty, (said my seannachy6,) that the pillars of the Chanry Kirk, or of Pluscardin Abbey, are no more to be compared to them, than the Knock of Alves is to be compared to Balrinnes or Ben-a-chi. They were of gold and silver, and were fretted like the west window of the Chanry Kirk, with wreaths of flowers composed of diamonds and precious stones of all manner of beautiful colors. The key-stones of the arches above, instead of coats of arms and other devices, were ornamented with clusters of diamonds in the same manner. And from the middle of the roof, where the principal arches met, was hung by a gold chain, an immense lamp of one hollowed pearl, perfectly transparent, in the midst of which was suspended a large carbuncle, that by the power of magic continually turned round, and shed over all the hall a clear and mild light like the setting sun; but the hall was so large, and these dazzling objects so far removed, that their blended radiance cast no more than a pleasing lustre, and excited no more than agreeable sensations in the eyes of Child Rowland.

The furniture of the hall was suitable to its architecture; and at the farther end, under a splendid canopy, seated on a gorgeous sofa of velvet, silk, and gold, and "kembing her yellow hair wi' a silver kemb,"

"There was his sister burd Ellen;
She stood up him before."


"'God rue on thee, poor luckless fode!
What has thou to do here?

"And hear ye this, my youngest brither,
Why badena ye at hame? so
Had ye a hunder and thousand lives,
Ye canna brook ane o' them."

And sit thou down; and wae, O wae
That ever thou was born;
For come the King o' Elfland in, sa
Thy leccam is forlorn!'"

A long conversation then takes place; Child Rowland tells her the news [of merry Carlisle,] and of his own expedition; and concludes with the observation, that, after this long and fatiguing journey to the castle of the king of Elfland, he is very hungry. Burd Ellen looked wistfully and mournfully at him, and shook her head, but said nothing. Acting under the influence of a magic which she could not resist, she arose, and brought him a golden bowl full of bread and milk, which she presented to him with the same timid, tender, and anxious expression of solicitude. Remembering the instructions of the Warluck Merlin, "Burd Ellen," said Child Rowland, "I will neither taste nor touch till I have set thee free!"7 Immediately the folding-doors burst open with tremendous violence, and in came the king of Elfland,

"With 'fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi' my brand
I'll clash his harns frae his harn-pan!'"8

"Strike, then, Bogle of Hell, if thou darest!" exclaimed the undaunted Child Rowland, starting up, and drawing the good claymore, [Excalibar,] that never struck in vain.

A furious combat ensued, and the king of Elfland was felled to the ground; but Child Rowland spared him on condition that he should restore to him his two brothers, who lay in a trance in a corner of the hall, and his sister, the fair burd Ellen. The king of Elfland then produced a small crystal phial, containing a bright red liquor, with which he anointed the lips, nostrils, eye-lids, ears, and finger-ends of the two young men, who immediately awoke as from a profound sleep, during which their souls had quitted their bodies, and they had seen, &c., &c., &c. So they all four returned in triumph to [merry Carlisle.]

Such was the rude outline of the romance of Child Rowland, as it was told to me when I was about seven or eight years old, by a country tailor then at work in my father's house. He was an ignorant and dull good sort of honest man, who seemed never to have questioned the truth of what he related. Where the etcceteras are put down, many curious particulars have been omitted, because I was afraid of being deceived by my memory, and substituting one thing for another. It is right also to admonish the reader, that the Warluck Merlin, Child Rowland, and Burd Ellen, were the only names introduced in his recitation; and that the others, inclosed within brackets, are assumed upon the authority of the locality given to the story by the mention of Merlin. In every other respect I have been as faithful as possible.

1. King Arthur ... Carlisle: While the identification of Carlisle may be authentic, making the king Arthur is Jamieson's invention, based on the appearance of Merlin.

2. Merlin (Myrddin Wyldt): Merlin here may refer not to Merlin himself, but just a name given to the wizard because he is the best-known wizard in British myth. Also, Merlin was not always attached to the Arthur story, and so all Arthurian connections made by Jamieson are to be taken with caution.

3. The abduction of Burd Ellen has parallels elsewhere in Celtic literature: the abduction of Gwenhefer by Melwas, the abduction of Rhiannon by Llwyd, and the (rather complicated) story of Etain. The rescue of a sister by her brothers also has analogues, such as the rescue of Branwen by her brothers.

4. wider shinns: counter-clockwise, that is, "against the sun"

5. That "Elfland" is under a hill is a common element in Celtic mythology; the name of those hills--sídhe--even gave their name to the fairies themselves: daone sídhe.

6. seannachy: seanache is Irish/Gaelic for "storyteller"

7. Merlin's instructions are never explicitly explained, but probably include him beheading anyone he talks to--to keep them from reporting his presence?--and the prohibition gainst consuming food. The food prohibition is well-known from Greek mythology, wherein Persephone's consuming six pomegranate seeds means she is relegated to the underworld for six months of the year; this, of course, is the basis of the Elusinian Mysteries.

8. Fi Fi Fo Fum: we now know this from "Jack and the Beanstalk", but it also appears rather early in Shakespeare's King Lear--which, of course, refers to Child Rowland:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came;
His word was still
Fie, foh, and fum!
I smell the blood of a British man.

I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the Child Rowland of Shakespeare derrives from an earlier version of the present ballad, now lost to us.

Jamieson. Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, p. 397;. excerpted in English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis J Child. 245-252