Sangstories
Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional
and newer songs 
sung by Sangschule 
of Linlithgow

Kirkconnel Lea

I wish I were whaur Helen lies for night and day on me she cries
I wish I were whaur Helen lies on fair Kirkconnel Lea

Cursed be the hert that thought the thought, cursed be the hand that fired the shot
When in my airms poor Helen dropped an died for sake o me

As I went doon the waterside, none but my foe to be my guide
None but my foe to be my guide on fair Kirkconnel Lea

I lighted down, my sword did draw, I hackit him in pieces sma
I hackit him in pieces sma on fair Kirkconnel Lea

O Helen fair beyond compare, I'll weave a garland o thy hair
Tae bind my hert for evermair until the day I dee

I wish my grave was growin green, a winding cloth hung ower my een
And me in Helen's airms a-lying, on fair Kirkconnel Lea

I wish I were whaur Helen lies, for night and day on me she cries
I wish I were whaur Helen lies on fair Kirkconnel Lea

Words:
Lea: grassland, untilled land 
Lighted down: alighted
Winding cloth: shroud

Anne and Scott Murray of Sangsters brought this ballad to Sangschule. They told us about the event which gave rise to the ballad, and that its location could still be found.

Robert Burns produced a version of the song and his editors in The Canongate Burns (2003) say that it is largely a traditional song, reworked by Burns and that the story is printed in Thomas Penant’s A Tour in Scotland published in 1774. A version can be seen in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border issued in 1802 - 1803 by Sir Walter Scott, who, like Burns, gives the spelling “Kirconnell” – except in his contents page, where the song is listed as “Fair Helen of Kirkconnell”.

Scott says that a lady of the name of Helen, “daughter of the laird of Kirconnell, in Annandale, and celebrated for her beauty, was beloved by two gentlemen in the neighbourhood. The name of the favoured suitor was Adam Fleming of Kirkpatrick; the name of the other has escaped tradition” but he was preferred by her family.

Helen and Fleming “were therefore obliged to meet in secret, and by night, in the churchyard of Kirconnell, a romantic spot, almost surrounded by the river Kirtle. During one of these private interviews, the jealous and despised lover suddenly appeared on the opposite bank of the stream, and levelled his carabine at the breast of his rival. Helen threw herself before her lover, received in her bosom the bullet, and died in his arms. A desperate and mortal combat ensued between Fleming and the murderer, in which the latter was cut to pieces. Other accounts say, that Fleming pursued his enemy to Spain, and slew him in the streets of Madrid.” (Burns’s editors for The Canongate Burns say that Fleming “fled to Spain in panic. He eventually returned to Scotland and was interred with his lover.”)

Scott continues: “The grave of the lovers is yet shown in the churchyard of Kirconnell, near Springkell. Upon the tombstone can still be read – Hic Jacet Adamus Fleming;”(Here lies Adam Fleming) “a cross and sword are sculptured on the stone. The former is called by the country people, the gun with which Helen was murdered; and the latter, the avenging sword of her lover.” Scott indicates his doubt on this interpretation. “ A heap of stones is raised on the spot where the murder was committed; a token of abhorrence common to most nations.” Scott adds in a postscript that this practice had only lately become obsolete in Scotland.

So poor Helen or Ellen is not remembered on the stone allegedly marking her grave. There is uncertainty over her “sirname” thought to be either Irving or Bell according to Scott. The last proprietors of Kirconnell were Irvings in 1600, but in “old chronicles” it is called “The Bell’s Tower” and a stone with the Bell family arms had been found in its ruins.

Walter Scott quotes four more verses, only one of which is added here:
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 Lee.

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