Sir Patrick Spens

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Last Updated January 1, 2024.

The Scottish ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” offers a fascinating history written in an appealing form and diction. The ballad also provides thought-provoking content, nudging readers to reflect on the nature of duty, courage, and life itself.

Literary merits aside, the ballad’s historicity is highly debated, with scholars hotly contesting whether or not Sir Patrick’s story might have some basis in fact. While Sir Patrick Spens himself is unlikely to have ever existed, his story is familiar. Throughout history, innumerable courageous skippers braved the dangers of the sea and lost their lives in the attempt. Any of these brave souls might have provided a model for this long-lived ballad. 

Some scholars posit that the sea voyage described in the ballad may be an amalgam of three actual voyages. In 1281, Margaret, daughter of Scottish king Alexander III, sailed to Norway to marry Eric, the King of Norway. A few years later, Margaret’s daughter, young Princess Margaret, sailed home to Scotland to take over her dead grandfather’s throne but died on the voyage. Centuries later, a man named Sir Patrick Vans set out to sea in 1589 to bring home King James VI’s new bride. While stormy weather did not sink his ship, it did drive him onto the Norwegian coast. 

All of these historical incidents may very well have originated or otherwise influenced the ballad of “Sir Patrick Spens.” Combined with a steady tradition of brave sailors and an ever-present fear of the destructiveness of the sea, the ballad provides a lens through which listeners might honor their heritage, share beloved stories, and articulate their values and anxieties. The ballad form is well suited for this kind of expression, as their largely oral history required simple compositional, metrical, and rhythmic patterns to be used by singers who would memorize the lyrics. 

“Sir Patrick Spens” is composed of twenty-six four-line stanzas with four beats in the first and third lines of each stanza and three beats in the second and fourth lines. The first two lines of stanza six are a prime example of this iambic (unstressed-stressed) meter: 

“O wha is this has done this deed

And tauld the king ‘o me...” 

The bolded syllables receive the stress in these lines. This simple, rhythmic meter allows for both easy storytelling and singing, as most ballads were sung rather than merely recited.

The ballad also offers a flexible yet appealing rhyme scheme within each stanza, using an ABCB pattern. In the first stanza, for instance, lines 2 and 4 rhyme with “wine” and “mine,” while lines 1 and 3, “town” and “skippe,” are left free and unrhymed. The regular rhymes tickle the ear and help singers remember the lines that follow, while the unrhymed lines allow the story to flow more smoothly.

The original composer—and the singers who made the ballad their own over the years—made important choices in diction as well as in form. Most significantly, they sang in their own Scottish dialect. Modern readers may struggle to understand, but they should try reading the ballad aloud, using auditory cues to interpret the ballad’s Scottish bent. In stanza 21, for example, the line “O laith, laith, were our gude Scots lords / To weet their cork-heel’d shoon!” might seem inaccessible on the printed page. But read aloud and in context, “laith” is clearly “loath” while “gude” equals “good,” “weet” means “wet,” and “shoon” are simply “shoes.” While some versions modernized the original Scottish diction, the authentic dialect captures the ballad’s true sound, giving readers a sense of what audiences experienced generations ago. 

Readers should also notice the use of dialogue...

(This entire section contains 806 words.)

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in the song. This, too, is usual for the ballad form, as it allows the characters to come to life through their own speech and to interact with each other and, indirectly, with the audience. When Sir Patrick asks, “O where will I get a gude sailor, / To take my helm in hand,” more than one listener may have had the desire to jump up and volunteer.

Audience interaction with lyrics and experience of a ballad is very much intentional. By engaging audiences with simple rhymes and familiar scenarios, the composer nudges their audience into considering the complexities of duty and courage. 

Sir Patrick, for instance, is committed to his responsibilities, even though he realizes the journey could very well be his last voyage. His ominous foreshadowing ultimately comes true, and audiences must wonder why a king would order such a journey and, in doing so, risk the lives of his dutiful men. Listening to—or reading—the destruction of Sir Patrick’s ship and the loss of his men, audiences are left to wonder about their own lives, evaluating whether duty is, as it is to Sir Patrick and his sailors, truly more important than life itself.

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