(Binnorie, The Twa Sisters, Minorie, The Drowned Lady, The Bonnie Bows O London, Sister, Dear Sister, The Miller and the King’s Daughter, The Swan it Swims Sae Bonnie O etc.)
There were twa sisters sat in a boo’er,
There cam a knicht tae be their wooer.
By the bonnie mill dams o Binnourie-o
He courted the elder wi knife an wi glove,
But the younger sister was his true love.
The elder sister was vexed sair,
And sairly she envied her sister fair.
“O sister, dear sister, will you walk wi me,
Doon by the river strand oor faither’s ships tae see?”
At length tae the waterside they cam,
And the elder o the twain pushed the ither in the dam.
“O sister, dear sister but reach me your hand,
And ye shall hae half o a my land.”
“O sister, dear sister but reach me your glove,
And my sweet William shall be your love.”
“Twas not for that I pushed ye in,”
“But ye was fair and I was din
”And you’ll droon in the dams o Binnourie-o”
Boo’er: bower, chamber, room; pleasant shady place to sit outdoors
Sairly: sorely, badly
Din: dun, sallow-skinned
Gordeanna McCulloch taught this ballad to Sangschule, choosing for the group a shortened version of the old story, which nevertheless lacks nothing in drama.
The first published versions of this ballad go back to the middle of the seventeenth century, according to The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, where there are 22 entries recorded in vol. 2, song no. 213, showing how popular it remained in the North East of Scotland in the early 20th Century.
Here a knight replaces the miller who is often the lover in the North East versions and the women go to see their father’s ships coming in where sometimes they go to hear the blackbird ‘whistle o’er his sang.’ Our version ends dramatically with a verse remembered in all the main Greig-Duncan entries: ‘Twas not for that that I pushed ye in/ But ye was fair and I was din’.
In longer versions, the story goes on after the drowning where the miller at the dam may see in the water “either a maid or a milk-white swan”. Sometimes the murder is magically revealed when a harp or a fiddle is made of the fair girl’s bones, strung with her hair. As soon as it is played, her spirit speaks, accusing her sister.
According to The Ballad Book edited by MacEdward Leach, " The ending may tell of the punishing of the elder sister; it may focus on the miller and his actions; it may concern itself with a minstrel who makes a harp out of the tree that grows from the girl’s grave; it may develop fantastically the story of the musical instrument made from various parts of the girl’s body.”
MacColl and Seeger comment in Travellers’ Songs From England And Scotland that the ballad is of Norwegian extraction, “full of vestigial primitive beliefs, ritual and superstition……It is found in Great Britain, North America, the Scandinavian countries, the Balkans and throughout Western Europe.”
Francis J Child, an American academic, is famous for his vast 19th century work, The Popular English and Scottish Ballads, of which this is number 10. Child has printed 27 versions, drawn from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland – the largest number he obtained for any ballad, except one, according to Greig-Duncan.