Yestreen the Queen had four Maries
The nicht she'll hae but three
There was Mary Seton, and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael and me
Oh, often hae I dressed my Queen,
And pit gowd in her hair
But noo ah've gotten for my reward
The gallows tae be my share
Oh little did my mither ken
The day she cradled me
The lands I wis tae traivel in
Or the death I was tae dee
Oh, happy, happy is the lass
That's born o beauty free
It wis ma dimplin, rosy cheeks
That's been the dule o me
Maries: originally Mary Queen of Scots’ four attendants and later a general term for ladies in waiting and female attendants.
Two possible historical events have been claimed for the background of this ballad - which is a short version of “Mary Hamilton” - but neither backs up the song’s claim for the heroine being one of the four attendants of Mary, Queen of Scots who were Mary Fleming, Mary Livingstone, Mary Seton and Mary Beaton. “No accusation of infanticide was made against any of the Maries but a Frenchwoman in the queen’s service and her lover, a royal apothecary, were hanged for murdering their child in 1563 and this incident could be the germ of the ballad” according to scholar Emily Lyle, the editor of Scottish Ballads.
She continues: “However, the ballad is not known before 1790 and could have had its starting point in a later incident that took place in Russia at the court of Peter the Great in 1719, when Mary Hamilton, a beautiful young woman who was maid-of-honour to the Empress Catherine, was beheaded for infanticide in the Czar’s presence. It is not improbable that there are reminiscences of both these historical events in the ballad narrative.”
The infanticide in Queen Mary’s court was reported by John Knox in his History Of The Reformation pp.373-4.
“In the very time of the General Assembly, there comes to public knowledge a haynous murther, committed in the court; yea, not far from the queen’s lap; for a French woman, that served in the queen’s chamber, had played the whore with the queen’s own apothecary. The woman conceived and bare a childe, whom, with common consent, the father and mother murthered; yet were the cries of a newborne child hearde, searche was made, the childe and the mother were both apprehended, and so were the man and the woman condemned to be hanged in the publicke street of Edinburgh. ……This was the beginning of the regiment (rule) of Mary, queen of Scots, and these were the fruits that she brought forth of France. – Lord! Look on our miseries! and deliver us from the wickedness of this corrupt court!”
Versions of the ballad are recorded in the Greig-Duncan Collection and Duncan said that there was an extraordinary amount of coincidence even in detail between the long ballad story of Mary Hamilton and the event at the court of Tsar Peter the Great although the Scottish origin is now generally accepted.
The ballad called “Mary Hamilton” is no.173 in the collection of Child, the great American ballad collector. He printed twenty-eight versions of “Mary Hamilton”, including fragments, – the largest number he obtained for any one ballad – according to the Greig-Duncan Collection Vol.2, no. 195.
James Duncan also commented that while there are many versions of the ballad’s words, no tune had been published for it until 1884 in The Thistle by a Mr Colin Brown, who said that this air was long associated with the ballad and sung in the Highlands of Perthshire. Other airs were known, but Duncan says this “seems to have been the first printing of the air that was used when some verses of the ballad were recently (late 19th century) revived and became popular.” This is the tune we use for our version.