The Female Homer


A Scottish Fragment

Elizabeth Wardlaw

This page is part of a larger effort at reclaiming and making available the many lost and unremembered epic poems by women, and is provided for educational and research purposes by Jeremy M. Downes, Department of English, Auburn University. Editing and commentary copyright © 2000. Suggestions and responses are welcomed.
The Text

Hardyknute is traditionally attributed to Lady Elizabeth Wardlaw, who produced it for the public in 1719, claiming she had found it in shreds destined for recycling as "the bottoms of clues" (basically, the starting spools for balls of yarn). Its authenticity as ancient heroic poetry was quickly questioned. Today it is generally accepted as Wardlaw's own composition, possibly based on her hearing of oral versions of the tale.

The Poem and its Background

The fragment we have here celebrates the victory of old Hardyknute over a force of Norse invaders ("reavers" in the text). The historical battle at Largs is usually dated 1263, when Haco (or Haakon IV Haakonson, Haakon the Old), King of Norway took arms against Alexander III of Scotland.

The Poet and Her Circle

From the notes to the New York edition: "The following particulars may be depended on. One Mrs. Wardlaw, whose maiden name was Halket (aunt to the late Sir Peter Halket, of Pitferran, in Scotland, who was killed in America, along with General Braddock, in 1755), pretended she had found this poem, written on shreds of paper, employed for what is called the bottoms of clues. A suspicion arose that it was her own composition. Some able judges asserted it to be modern. The lady did in a manner acknowledge it to be so. Being desired to show an additional stanza, as a proof of this, she produced the two last, beginning with "There's nae light," &c., which were not in the copy that was first printed. The late Lord President Forbes, and Sir Gilbert Elliot, of Minto (late Lord Justice Clerk for Scotland), who had believed it ancient, contributed to the expense of publishing the first edition, in folio, 1719. This account was transmitted from Scotland, by Sir David Dalrymple, the late Lord Hailes, who yet was of opinion that part of the ballad may be ancient but retouched and much enlarged by the lady above mentioned. Indeed, he had been informed that the late William Thompson, the Scottish musician, who published the Orpheus Caledonius, 1733, 2 vols. 8vo, declared he had heard fragments of it repeated in his infancy, before Mrs. Wardlaw's copy was heard of."

This Edition

The text which follows is taken from Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient Poetry. Originally published in 1765, this crucial and influential text in English literature has been reissued in many editions. The particular text I draw on here is the New York edition published by Thomas Y. Crowell in 1876. The poem itself has been subject to a number of emendations which I have tried to highlight effectively. By omitting the green stanzas, I think, you will come closest to Lady Wardlaw's "original" epic fragment. I have tried to preserve as much of the Scots dialect as possible, while still creating an easily readable edition for the Web and its diverse audiences. I have chosen to gloss some less familiar terms in the margins, to use apostrophes in twenty-first century fashion, and to correct potentially confusing spellings (I have changed "stead" to "steed," for example) when they did not bear the weight of rhyme or other important features.


Chambers, Robert. The Romantic Scottish Ballads: Their Epoch and Their Authorship. 1849.

Clyne, Norval. The Romantic Scottish Ballads and the Lady Wardlaw Heresy. Aberdeen, 1859. Reprinted Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. 1765. Thomas Y. Crowell: New York, 1876.

Todd, Janet. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1985.



STATELY stepped he east the wa',

  And stately stepped he west,

Full seventy years he now had seen,

  Wi' scarce seven years of rest.

He lived when Britons' breach of faith,                5

  Wrought Scotland mickle wae,               *much

And ay his sword tauld to their cost,

  He was their deadly fae.

High on a hill his castle stood,

  Wi' ha's and tow'rs a height,               10

And goodly chambers fair to see,

  Where he lodged many a knight.

His dame sae peerless anes and fair,              *unique

  For chast and beauty deem'd,                    *chastity

Nae marrow had in all the land,             *match

  Save ELENOR the queen.                16

Full thirteen sons to him she bare,

  All men of valour stout:

In bloody fight with sword in hand

  Nine lost their lives bot doubt;               *without

Four yet remain, lang may they live                21

  To stand by liege and land:

High was their fame, high was their might,

And high was their command.

Great love they bare to FAIRLY fair,

  Their sister soft and dear,               26

Her girdle showed her middle gimp,                   *neat, slender

  And gowden glist her hair.                    *golden; glistened

What waefu' wae her beauty bred,

  Waefu' to young and auld,               30

Waefu' I trow to kith and kin,

  As story every tauld.

The King of Norse in summer tyde,

  Puffed up with pow'r and might,

Landed in fair Scotland the isle               35

  With many a hardy knight.

The tydings to our good Scots king

  Came as he sat at dine

With noble chiefs in brave array,

  Drinking the blood-red wine.                40

"To horse, to horse, my royal liege,

  Your faes stand on the strand,

Full twenty thousand glittering spears

  The King of Norse commands."

"Bring me my steed, Mage dapple gray,"               45

  Our good king rose and cry'd,

"A trustier beast in a' the land

  A Scots king never try'd.

"Go, little page, tell Hardyknute,

  That lives on hill sae hie,               50

To draw his sword, the dread of faes,

  And haste and follow me."

The little page flew swift as dart

  Flung by his master's arm,

"Come down, come down, Lord Hardyknute,               55

  And rid your king frae harm."

Then red, red grew his dark-brown cheeks,

  Sae did his dark-brown brow;

His looks grew keen, as they were wont

  In dangers great to do;               60

He's ta'en a horn as green as glass,

  And gi'en five sounds sae shrill,

That trees in green wood shook thereat,

  Sae loud rang ilka hill.              *every

His sons in manly sport and glee               65

  Had passed that summer's morn,

When low down in a grassy dale

  They heard their father's horn.

"That horn," quo' they, "ne'er sounds in peace,

  We've other sport to bide."               70

And soon they hied them up the hill,

  And soon were at his side.

"Late, late the yestreen I ween'd in peace

  To end my lengthened life,

My age might well excuse my arm               75

  Frae manly feats of strife;

But now that Norse does proudly boast

  Fair Scotland to inthrall,

It's ne'er be said of Hardyknute

  He fear'd to fight or fall.               80

"Robin of Rothsay, bend thy bow;

  Thy arrows shoot sae leal,                *accurately

That many a comely countenance

  They've turned to deadly pale.

Brade Thomas, take you but your lance,               85

  You need nae weapons mair

If you fight wi't as you did anes               *once

  'Gainst Westmoreland's fierce heir.

"And Malcolm, light of foot as stag

  That runs in forest wild,               90

Get me my thousands three of men

  Well bred to sword and shield;

Bring me my horse and harnessing,

  My blade of metal clear:

If faes but ken'd the hand it bare               95

  They soon had fled for fear.

"Farewell, my dame, sae peerless good"

  (And took her by the hand),

Fairer to me in age you seem

  Than maids for beauty fam'd.               100

My youngest son shall here remain

  To guard these stately towers,

And shut the silver bolt that keeps

  Sae fast your painted bowers."

And first she wet her comely cheeks,

  And then her boddice green,               106

Her silken cords of twirtle twist,                        *thoroughly twisted

  Well plett with silver sheen;                          *plaited, braided; shining

And apron set with many a dice                        *pattern of squares

  Of needle-work sae rare,

Wove by nae hand, as ye may guess               110

  Save that of FAIRLY fair.

And he has ridden o'er muir and moss,

  O'er hills and many a glen,

When he came to a wounded knight                115

  Making a heavy mane;                        *moan

"Here maun I lye, here maun I dye              *must 

  By treacherie's false guiles

Witless I was that e'er ga faith

  To wicked woman's smiles."               120


"Sir Knight, gin you were in my bower,                     *if

  To lean on silken seat,

My lady's kindly care you'd prove,

  Who ne'er knew deadly hate;

Herself would watch you a' the day,

  Her maids a dead of night;               126

And FAIRLY fair your heart would cheer,

  As she stands in your sight.

"Arise, young Knight, and mount your steed,

  Full lowns the shynand day;               *grows calm ; shining

Choose frae my menzie whom ye please               *retinue

  To lead you on the way."                132

With smileless look and visage wan

  The wounded knight reply'd,

"Kind Chieftain, your intent pursue,

  For here I maun abyde.                136

"To me nae after day nor night

  Can e'er be sweet or fair,

But soon beneath some draping tree

  Cauld death shall end my care."                140

With him nae pleading might prevail;

  Brave Hardyknute to gain,

With fairest words and reason strong,

  Strave courteously in vain.

Syne he has gone far hynde out o'er                         *next

  Lord Chattan's land sae wide;               146

That lord a worthy wight was ay,

  When faes his courage sey'd;                         *tried, tested

Of Pictish race by mother's side,

  When Picts rul'd Caledon,               150

Lord Chattan claim'd the princely maid

  When he sav'd Pictish crown.

Now with his fierce and stalwart train

  He reach'd a rising height,                         154

Quhair braid encampit on the dale               *Where broadly encamped

  Norse's menzie lay in sicht.

"Yonder, my valiant sons and feirs,                         *companions

  Our raging reavers wait,

On the unconquered Scottish sward               *field, greensward              

  To try with us their fate.               160

"Make orisons to him that sav'd

  Our souls upon the rood;                *cross

Syne bravely show your veins are fill'd                *then

  With Caledonian blood."

Then furth he drew his trusty glaive,                *sword

  While thousands all around               166

Drawn frae their sheaths glanc'd in the sun;

  And loud the bugles sound.

To joyn his king adoun the hill

  In haste his march he made,               170

While, pleyand pibrochs, minstrels meet                    *playing martial airs

  Afore him stately strade.

"Thrice welcome, valiant stoup of weir,

  Thy nation's shield and pride;

Thy king nae reason has to fear               175

  When thou art by his side."

When bows were bent and darts were thrown,

  For throng scarce could they flee,

The darts clove arrows as they met,

  The arrows dart the tree.               180

Lang did they rage and fight fu' fierce

  With little skaith to mon,                   *harm to man

But bloody, bloody was the field,

  Ere that lang day was done.

The King of Scots, that sindle brook'd                    *little endured

  The war that looked like play,               186

Drew his braid sword and brake his bow,

  Since bows seemed but delay,

Quoth noble Rothsay, "Mine I'll keep,

  I wat it's bled a score."                   *know

"Haste up, my merry men," cried the king

  As he rode on before.

The King of Norse he sought to find

  With him to mense the faught,                    *do honor to the battle

But on his forehead there did light        195

  A sharp, unsonsie shaft;                   *usu. unsousie: unlucky, unfortunate

As he his hand put up to feel

  The wound, an arrow keen—

O waefu' chance! there pinn'd his hand   199

  In midst between his een.               *eyes

"Revenge, revenge," cried Rothsay's heir,

  "Your mailcoat sha' na bide                    *shall not

The strength and sharpness of my dart:"

  Then sent it through his side.

Another arrow well he marked,               205

  It pierced his neck in twa,

His hands then quit the silver reins,

  He low as earth did fa'.

"Sair bleids my liege, sair, sair he bleeds!"                   *sorely

  Again wi' might he drew,               210

And gesture dread his sturdy bow,

  Fast the braid arrow flew.

Wae to the knight he ettled at;                    *aimed

  Lament now Queen Elgreed;

High dames too wail your darling's fall                215

  His youth and comely meed.                    *merit, excellence

"Take off, take off his costly jupe                    *jacket

  (Of gold well was it twin'd,                    219

Knit like the fowler's net, through quhilk                   *which

  His seelly harness shin'd),                    *useless

Take, Norse, that gift frae me and bid

  Him venge the blood it bears;

Say, if he face my bended bow

  He sure nae weapon fears."

Proud Norse with giant body tall,               225

  Braid shoulders and arms strong,

Cried, "Where is Hardyknute sae famed

  And feared at Britain's throne;

Though Britons tremble at his name,

  I soon shall make him wail,               230

That e'er my sword was made sae sharp,

  Sae soft his coat of mail."

That brag his stout heart could na bide,

  It lent him youthfu' micht:                    *might

"I'm Hardyknute! this day," he cried               235

  "To Scotland's king I heght                    *promised

To lay thee low as horses hoof

  My word I mean to keep."

Syne with the first stroke e'er he strake,     239

  He garr'd his body bleed.                   *made

Norse's een like gray goshawk's stared wild,

  He sighed wi' shame and spite:

"Disgraced is now my far-famed arm

  That left thee power to strike:"

Then ga' his head a blow sae fell,               245

  It made him doun to stoup,

As laigh as he to ladies us'd

  In courtly guise to lout.

Fu' soon he rais'd his bent body,

  His bow he marvell'd sair,                250

Sin blows till then on him but darr'd

  As touch of FAIRLY fair;

Norse marvell'd too as sair as he

  To see his stately look;

Sae soon as e'er he strake a fae,               255

  Sae soon his life he took.

Where like a fire to heather set,

  Bauld Thomas did advance,

Ane sturdy fae with look enrag'd

  Up toward him did prance;               260

He spurr'd his steid through thickest ranks

  The hardy youth to quell,

Wha stood unmov'd at his approach

  His fury to repell.

"That short brown shaft sae meanly trimm'd               265

  Looks like poor Scotland's gear,

But dreadfull seems the rusty point!"

  And loud he leugh in jear.

"Oft Britons blood has dimm'd its shine;

  This point cut short their vaunt:"

Syne pierc'd the boaster's bearded cheek;               271

  Nae time he took to taunt.

Short while he in his saddle swang,

  His stirrup was nae stay,

Sae feeble hang his unbent knee;               275

  Sure taiken he was fey;

Swith on the harden't clay he fell,

  Right far was heard the thud;

But Thomas look't nae as he lay

  All waltering in his blud.               280

With careless gesture, mind unmov't,

  On rode he north the plain;

His seem in throng of fiercest strife,

  When winner aye the same;

Nor yet his heart dames dimplet cheek                285

  Could mease soft love to bruik

Till vengefu' Ann return'd his scorn,

  Then languid grew his luik.

In thraws of death with walowit cheek

  All panting on the plain,               290

The fainting corps of warriors lay,

  Ne'er to rise again;

Ne'er to return to native land,

  Nae mair with blithsome sounds

To boast the glories of the day               295

  And shaw their shining wounds.

On Norway's coast the widowit dame

  May wash the rocks with tears,

May lang luik ow'r the shipless seas

  Befor her mate appears.               300

Cease, Emma, cease to hope in vain;

  Thy lord lyes in the clay;

The valiant Scots nae reavers thole

  To carry life away!

Here on a lee, where stands a cross               305

  Set up for monument,

Thousands fu' fierce that summer's day

  Fill'd keen war's black intent.

Let Scots, while Scots, praise Hardyknute,

  Let Norse the name ay dread,               310

Ay how he faught, aft how he spar'd,

  Shall latest ages read!

Now loud and chill blew th' westlin wind,

  Sair beat the heavy shower,

Mirk grew the night ere Hardyknute

  Wan near his stately tower.               316

His tow'r, that us'd wi' torches blaze

  To shine sae far at night,

Seem'd now as black as mourning weed,

  Nae marvel sair he sigh'd.               320

"There's nae light in my lady's bower,

  There's nae light in my ha';

Nae blink shines round my FAIRLY fair,

  Nor ward stands on my wa'.

What bodes it? Robert, Thomas, say;"               325

  Nae answer fitts their dread.

"Stand back, my sons, I'le be your guide:"

  But by they past with speed.

"As fast I've sped owre Scotlands faes—;

  There ceas'd his brag of weir,               330

Sair sham'd to mind ought but his dame

  And maiden FAIRLY fair.

Black fear he felt, but what to fear

  He wist nae yet; wi' dread

Sair shook his body, sair his limbs,

  And a' the warrior fled.                 336

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The title of the first edition was, "Hardyknute, a fragment, Edinburgh, printed for James Watson, &c., 1719," folio, twelve pages.

Stanzas not in the first edition are Nos. 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 34, 35, 36, 37, 41, 42.