The Water is Wide, and Windsong

In the continuing series of Scottish music in Scottish locations, here is The Water is Wide.  I'm playing on the shore not far from St. Ninian's Cave, in the southwest of Scotland.  This is either in or very near Carrick, the lands that once formed the earldom of Robert the Bruce.  It is four miles from Whithorn Abbey, to which Bruce traveled in March of 1329, only three months before his death, to pray for healing from the skin condition that has often been called leprosy.  (Other evidence suggests it was not what we call leprosy.)

St. Ninian, or Ninian of Whithorn, was a 4th-century saint, who preached to and converted the southern Picts.  Stories say he lived in this cave, about four miles from Whithorn Abbey.  His miracles are recounted in the Miracula Nyniae Episcopi,  an anonymous 8th-century work, which was later used as a reference by Ailred of Rievaulx for his Vita Sancti Niniani in the 1100s.  He is believed to be buried at Whithorn.

Although I have read nothing to suggest it, it is easy enough to believe that Robert the Bruce, in seeking a miracle healing at Whithorn Abbey, might have also traveled the four miles to St. Ninian's Cave, where the great saint, to whom miracles were attributed, had once lived.  It is easy to imagine that that great man, who gave all for his country and his people, walked across the very same shore, and climbed the very same stones to look into the cave where St. Ninian once lived and prayed.

Yes--it is a wonderful thing to stand on the shore where such people walked, to follow in their footsteps, to climb up the stones that lead to the cave.  The cave was not what we expected.  It was quite small--really more a big indent in the rocky cliff, just deep enough that St. Ninian certainly could have stayed dry and out of the wind there.

We--and by 'we' I really mean Chris, although in my defense I offered repeatedly to help--hiked the 40 pound harp in a full mile, up and down forest paths and crossing over a stream, in which we had to carefully get our footing, one at a time, on the stones that crossed a shallow run, and pass the harp between us, until we and the harp were across.  We crossed 400 yards (and that's an incredibly rough guess) of a shore of rugged, large stones, before climbing an ascent of even larger rocks to St. Ninian's Cave.  The best way I can describe this ascent is to say that it would be rugged walking, but still relatively easy for anyone in good health, but quite awkward with a 40-pound harp.  Once again, we had some very cautious moments of assuring our footing and passing the harp between us, ever so carefully!

We had hoped for amazing acoustics in a cave, but as I said, we found out, it wasn't a cave, so much as a deep crevice.  I played a few pieces on harp and flute, but we didn't find the acoustics we'd hoped to.  It was as we hiked back, and decided to play The Water is Wide,  that I think we really got the best music.  (We enjoyed both the apropros and the irony of playing that song at a stream that was not actually that wide at all--an elementary student could probably do the long jump over it.)

Not only did I actually manage to play from memory here, while making up the left hand accompaniment on the spot, but I loved the way the wind played in the strings.  It's one of the things I love about harp--this ethereal natural music that is created when you take a harp out into a breeze. We let it sound before I started playing, and again after.  You can also hear it happening as I play.

The Water is Wide is a Scottish song that dates back to the 1600s.  It is associated with one of the Childs Ballads, Jamie Douglas,which is ostensibly about the not-so-happy marriage of the 2nd Marquis of Douglas to Barbara Erskine. The song is also known as Waly Waly and When Cockleshells Turn Silverbells.

The young Marquis was a man of profligate conduct--as one source says--who came to suspect his wife of infidelity.  (Is this another irony?)  One story says that it was Lowrie of Blackwood, a previous suitor of the Lady Barbara, who convinced him of this. cause to think bias and revenge there!  The erstwhile Jamie separated from Barbara after she gave birth to his first child, and the song describes her feelings of betrayal and love rejected.

These are just some of the verses of the song under its incarnation as Waly Waly:

‘O wherefore should I busk my head,
Or wherefore should I kaim my hair,
Since my true love has me forsook,
And says he‘ll never love me mair.
Now Arthur’s Seat shall be my bed,
The sheets shall ne’er be pressed by me,
St Anton’s Well shall be my drink,
Since my true love’s forsaken me.
O Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
And shake the green leaf aff the tree?
O gentle death, when wilt thou come,
And take a life that wearies me?’

To me, the moral of the story is, be careful how you treat others, for you may be memorialized in song for the next five centuries...or more.

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