Jon admits “I think this is the only song I’ve learnt from Harrry Cox – off The Bonny Labouring Boy double CD. Much as I enjoyed listening to it, this was the only one that demanded to be learnt. Evidently John Kirkpatrick thought the same as he recorded it with Brass Monkey shortly after I learnt it. It feels like it’s a very old song – makes me think of Border Reivers.”
One from the Child collection #188 in fact and a very near relative of #187 Jock O The Side, which shares the same plot line with different protagonists and location. There are also distinct similarities to #186 Kinmont Willie. This one does indeed seem to be about the Border Raiders or Reivers and there are numerous title and name variants, which suggests the singers changing the details to suit their circumstances. I found this…
This ballad was communicated to Bishop Percy in 1780 and appeared in Scot’s Minstrelsy in 1791.
According to one tradition Archie was Archibald Armstrong. Child relates the tune to Jock o the Side. In some of the variants the brothers are referred to as Halls, sometimes Jock, Archie and Dick. The Halls of Scotland were often complained of for stealing oxen and appear in the records of 1579. They occupied the area of Cafield, just west of Langholm in Wauchopedale.
The History of Dumfries tells of the feud between the Halls or Armstrongs and the Maxwells. There is a Dumfries ballad which relates a battle between the Maxwells and Johnstones. It began when the Maxwells took Johnstone’s chief and confined him in jail. At night a band of Johnstones marched into Dumfries, surprised the jailers and rescued their manacled leader. Maxwells, hearing the alarm overtook them near the banks of the Locher. The river was flooded but they managed to cross in pursuit. However, the Johnstones doubled back and surprised them by appearing on the bank of the river the Maxwells had just left! So the “bloodthirsty warriors raged and shook their weapons at each other across the stream; but the flood rolled on as if in mockery of their threatenings, and the one part at length galloped off in triumph while the other was compelled to return in disgrace.”
You may also like a look at this link that has more on the lawless border region. Quite why the borders so anarchic isn’t made clear, although I suppose the most obvious explanation may well be their remoteness form the English throne and a reluctance to throw the resources that Hadrian had at the region. Add simmering racial tensions between Scots and English and a bit of cross-border-plunder was probably par for the course.