“O who is this has done this deed, Has told the King of me, To send us out at this time of the year, To sail upon the sea?

It’s probably the terrible weather that has me thinking of Sir Patrick Spens. Sir Patrick Spens is a literary-historical figure in the famous Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens. (I’ve found different versions over the years but this one seems pretty regular.) It also seems a shame to me that the semester is drawing to a close and as much as we’ve been able to read a lot of Celtic poetry there’s still so much we haven’t been able to cover and really couldn’t.

The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens has an interesting place in history. What it roughly covers is the sea voyage of various Scottish nobility to Norway either to collect the 7 year old heir to the Scottish throne Margaret so she could marry Edward I’s son, or to drop off her mother –also named Margaret—to marry the king. With the version I have linked to the first interpretation seems to support the first theory.

The death of the Scottish nobility and Sir Patrick Spens is the main force of the story. The “Maid of Norway” died in the Orkneys and was never married or crowned.

The historical novel Quest for a Maid tells the story from a more feminine perspective—which is probably why my mother chose it as one of our bed time books (The others: Scarlett, Gone with the Wind, Mara Daughter of the Nile and excerpts Nancy Drew all have what could be called a strong female characters.)

Quest for a Maid is one of the few books my family owns that stress our Scottish heritage. My mother’s family has always favored our Irish traditions, we have a lot of Yeats for example but I’d never heard of MacDiarmid. Part of this might be that the Scottish elements of my family don’t tend to give up beef stew recipes never mind anecdotes or memories of cultural heritage.

It’s purely a work of fiction. The Maid of Norway survives a ship wreck and ends up finding true love with a young Scots boy. There’s a freed slave/bondsman and witch trials. Still it’s a really excellent story and I’m happy I read it at that age.

It does do a terrific job also, of expanding the character of Sir Patrick Spens, who occupies an interesting space in the folk ballad.


“Make ready, make ready, my merry men all,
Our good ship sails the morn.”
“Now, ever alack, my master dear
I fear a deadly storm.

“I saw the new moon late yestreen
With the old moon in her arm;
And if we go to sea, master,
I fear we’ll come to harm.”

They had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.

The ankers brake and the top-masts lap,
It was such a deadly storm;
And the waves came o’er the broken ship
Till all her sides were torn.

One thought on ““O who is this has done this deed, Has told the King of me, To send us out at this time of the year, To sail upon the sea?

  1. The “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” is also, of course, the starting point for Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode:”

    Well! If the Bard was weather-wise, who made
    The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spence,
    This night, so tranquil now, will not go hence
    Unroused by winds, that ply a busier trade
    Than those which mould yon cloud in lazy flakes,
    Or the dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
    Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute,
    Which better far were mute.
    For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
    And overspread with phantom light,
    (With swimming phantom light o’erspread
    But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
    I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
    The coming-on of rain and squally blast.

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