century) In its various versions, "Bonnie George Campbell" reflects a relatively common theme of tragic folk ballads: the death of a handsome young hero and the resulting sadness for his loved ones. The concentrated power of this ballad is typical of the genre. Bonnie George—or Bonnie James—Campbell rides off boldly. His horse, still saddled and bridled, then returns without him, and his family must consider him dead. Poignantly, we feel their grief. Whether the "bonnie" (handsome) hero rode to war or not is subject to the version of the song being considered and its interpretation.
In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis Child includes four versions of the song (labeled A, B, C, and D), of which the C version of the ballad is the best known. It begins "Hie upon Hielands, / and laigh upon Tay, / Bonnie George Campbell / rode out on a day" (ll. 1-4). This version apparently grew out of the idea that Bonnie George was going to war. Later editors added the lines "A plume in his helmet, / a sword at his knee," (l. 10) leaving little doubt that Bonnie George is prepared for battle. In other versions, however, Bonnie George/James simply goes riding.
The opening of the song conjures up the rugged highlands and scenic rivers of Scotland. The ballad is written in an evocative Scots dialect. The archaic quality of the language is part of its appeal to later generations who are taken back to the feudal world of the Highland clans.
"Bonnie George Campbell" probably dates from the late 1500s. Some critics have suggested that it refers to the 1594 Battle of Glenlivet, in which cousins Alexander Campbell and John Campbell died fighting for the cause of Protestantism with 10,000 Highlanders against a well-trained army of 2,000 fighting for Catholicism; however, there is no hint of religion in the ballad.
The ballad also highlights the traditions of Scotland. The beauty of the Highlands is an appropriate background for the heroes produced by the land, supporting the English belief that the clans were medieval or feudal in their chivalry and martial virtue. The heroic sense is heightened when combined with the ballad's rich, plaintive minor-key melody, the most popular of the different musical versions. In various versions, we find the wife pregnant with the child Bonnie George will never see; a loving mother mourning her fine son; and the fields that bloom again every year ironically juxtaposed with the fact that Bonnie George Campbell will never, never return.
Eric P. Furuseth
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