Sir Patrick Spence

Original Text: 
Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London: J. Dodsley, 1763).
2    Drinking the blude-reid wine:
3"O whar will I get guid sailor,
4    To sail this schip of mine?"
5  Up and spak an eldern knicht,
6    Sat at the kings richt kne:
7"Sir Patrick Spence is the best sailor
8    That sails upon the se."
10    And signd it wi his hand,
11And sent it to Sir Patrick Spence,
12    Was walking on the sand.
13  The first line that Sir Patrick red,
15The next line that Sir Patrick red,
16    The teir blinded his ee.
17  "O wha is this has don this deid,
18    This ill deid don to me,
20    To sail upon the se!
21  "Mak hast, mak haste, my mirry men all,
22    Our guid schip sails the morne:"
23"O say na sae, my master deir,
24    For I feir a deadlie storme.
26    Wi the auld moone in hir arme,
27And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
28    That we will cum to harme."
30    To weet their cork-heild schoone;
33  O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
34    Wi thair fans into their hand,
35Or eir they se Sir Patrick Spence
36    Cum sailing to the land.
37  O lang, lang may the ladies stand,
39Waiting for thair ain deir lords,
40    For they'll se thame na mair.
42    It's fiftie fadom deip,
43And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spence,
44    Wi the Scots lords at his feit.


1] Thomas Percy obtained the poem from two manuscript copies from Scotland. There are eighteen versions, some of them fragments, and some more detailed, and in one group the voyage is to Norway, either to take the Scottish king's daughter there or to bring back the king of Norway's daughter. Owing to the discourtesy of certain Norwegians, Sir Patrick leaves abruptly and is wrecked on the return voyage. A possible historical basis is the marriage of Margaret, daughter of Alexander III of Scotland, to Eric of Norway in 1281, when many of her escort were drowned on their way home, or the death of Margaret's daughter, "the Maid of Norway," while she was being brought back to Scotland in 1290 to succeed her grandfather, who died in 1286. But there is insufficient evidence of the connection of the ballad with any historical events; and Sir Patrick Spens himself has never been identified.
Dumferling: Dumferline, a town in Fife, on the Firth of Forth. It is early a favourite residence of the Scottish kings. Back to Line
9] a braid letter: a full, long letter. Back to Line
14] lauch: laugh. Back to Line
19] Percy cites a law of James III of Scotland, forbidding ships to be freighted out of the realm with staple goods between October 28 and February 2. Back to Line
25] This saying is still quite common in Scotland; it is a popular belief that to see the crescent moon with the remainder of the disk faintly illuminated by reflected light from the earth is a sign of storm. Child suggests that the ill-omen was the sight of the new moon late yestreen. Back to Line
29] Loath to wet their cork-heeled shoes. Back to Line
31] Long before the whole game was over. Back to Line
32] Their hats were floating on the water; they were in over their heads. Back to Line
38] kems: combs. Back to Line
41] half over to Aberdour, half-way from Norway to Aberdour. There are two villages of Aberdour on the east coast of Scotland, one in Aberdeenshire, the other in Fife on the north shore of the Firth of Forth. Either may be meant.
John Simpson, who spent his childhood in Aberdour, Fife, writes that "it was folklore that the ship sank in "Mortimers Deep," the narrow channel on the north side of Inchcolm island. This would put the ship on a course to make port at St. Davids or Inverkeithing, the landings for Dunfermline, about 5 miles inland" (personal communication, April 9, 2001). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
N. J. Endicott
RPO Edition: 
2RP.1.70; RPO 1996-2001.