Friday, October 06, 2017

bale-fires and football

The Lay of the Last Minstrel. A page from the 1922 Kings Treasuries of Literature edition, intended for school use. This is the book I was reading on our van travels around Europe (though I've almost destroyed the cover).

[Re the illustration, the falchion is the curved sword, not the one "giving the stab" (in Marlowe's expression).]

In Canto 3, when Branksome Tower is threatened by an approaching host from England, beacons (variously called bale-fires or need-fires) are lit to summon aid from Scottish allies.


The Seneschal, whose silver hair
Was redden'd by the torches' glare,
Stood in the midst with gesture proud,
And issued forth his mandates loud:
"On Penchryst glows a bale of fire,
And three are kindling on Priest-haughswire;
        Ride out, ride out,
        The foe to scout!
Mount, mount for Branksome, every man!
Thou, Todrig, warn the Johnstone clan
        That ever are true and stout;
Ye need not send to Liddesdale,
For when they see the blazing bale,
Elliots and Armstrongs never fail.
Ride, Alton, ride, for death and life!
And warn the Warder of the strife.
Young Gilbert, let our beacon blaze,
Our kin, and clan, and friends to raise."


Fair Margaret from the turret head
Heard, far below, the coursers' tread,
While loud the harness rung
As to their seats, with clamor dread,
The ready horsemen sprung:
And trampling hoofs, and iron coat,
And leaders' voices mingled notes,
        And out! and out!
        In hasty route,
The horsemen gallop'd forth;
Dispersing to the south to scout,
And east, and west, and north,
To view their coming enemies,
And warn their vassals and allies.

The ready page, with hurried hand,
Awaked the need-fire's slumbering brand,
And ruddy blush'd the heaven:
For a sheet of flame from the turret high
Wav'd like a blood-flag on the sky,
All flaring and uneven;
And soon a score of fires, I ween,
From height, and hill, and cliff, were seen;
Each with warlike tidings fraught,
Each from each the signal caught;
Each after each they glanc'd to sight
As stars arise upon the night.
They gleamd on many a dusky tarn,
Haunted by the lonely earn;
On many a cairn's grey pyramid,
Where urns of mighty chiefs lie hid;
Till high Dunedin the blazes saw
From Soltra and Dumpender Law,
And Lothian heard the Regent's order
That all should bowne them for the Border.

(Canto III)

In his later poem The Lady of the Lake Scott has another summoning scene, this time describing the use of the Gaelic crann-tara . This was a wooden cross, scorched by fire and quenched in blood. It was a summons that could not be refused; fire and blood awaited those who did. This tradition has analogies with the bidding sticks of Scandinavia, which were likewise charred.

[I sometimes wonder if Scott's thrilling scenes might lie behind Hagen's summoning of the vassals in Wagner's Götterdammerung.]

Possibly, too, Thomas Dixon remembered them when he wrote The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan in 1905. His book, adapted as a play, and later as  D.W. Griffiths' film Birth of a Nation, seems to have instigated the later Klan practice of  burning crosses.  These became part of bonding rituals and intimidations, visible from a long way off (a bit like beacons). However the original crann-tara involved delivering a summons to hand, in the form of a charred bit of wood.



Now, noble Dame, perchance you ask
How these two hostile armies met?
Deeming it were no easy task
To keep the truce which here was set;
Where martial spirits, all on fire,
Breathed only blood and mortal ire.
By mutual inroads, mutual blows,
By habit, and by nation, foes,
They met on Teviot's strand;
They met and sate them mingled down,
Without a threat, without a frown,
As brothers meet in foreign land:
The hands the spear that lately grasp'd,
Still in the mailed gauntlet clasp'd,
Were interchang'd in greeting dear;
Visors were raised, and faces shown,
And many a friend, to friend made known,
Partook of social cheer.
Some drove the jolly bowl about;
With dice and draughts some chas'd the day;
And some, with many a merry shout,
In riot revelry, and rout,
Pursued the foot-ball play.

(Canto V)

This passage describes what went on during a truce between two armies of inveterate foes.  The tales of football matches between British and German troops during the Christmas Truce in 1914 may have been founded on true events, but Scott's 1805 poem had already supplied a literary analogue.


A little earlier, Scott's flexible tetrameter, rippling into anapaests, incorporates a marching tune whose title sounds a bit like a football chant.

To back and guard the archer band,
Lord Dacre's bill-men were at hand:
A hardy race on Irthing bred,
With kirtles white, and crosses red,
Array'd beneath the banner tall,
That stream'd o'er Acre's conquer'd wall;
And minstrels, as they march'd in order,
Play'd "Noble Lord Dacre, he dwells on the Border."

(Canto IV, Stanza 17)

Scott knew the impressive march tune, "Noble Squire Dacre", played on the pipes at Dacre family funerals. If there were any lyrics to it originally, they don't survive.

Sheet music: 
More info:

"Noble Squire Dacre" performed by the Twaggers in Chiddingly:

Noble Squire Dacre/Biddlestone Hornpipe from Will Fly on Vimeo.

A map of the border region referenced in the poem.



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