The Three Ravens

It didn’t take long for things to settle down once again, and soon most were dancing to an upbeat, out-of-tune rendition of The Twa Corbies.

The song in the story should really be called The Three Ravens as The Twa Corbies was a later Scottish version. The Three Ravens is an English folk ballad, printed in the song book Melismata compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611, but it is perhaps older than that.

The original version is about three ravenous ravens who have come across the body of a slain knight. They are prevented from feasting on the corpse by the knight’s two loyal hounds who are guarding their dead master. The knight’s hawk also circles above the body to drive off any carrion birds. The pregnant doe is a metaphor for his lover, who is carrying his child. She kisses his wounds and takes him away to be buried. She herself dies of woe not long afterwards. The song ends by wishing every gentleman such loyal hounds, hawk, and mistress. It is a song about fidelity and loyalty.

The lyrics to The Three Ravens are transcribed here using 1611 orthography, in which ‘v’ and ‘u’ were used interchangeably. There was no standardised spelling and words ending in a consonant were often written additional ‘e’ at the end e.g. ‘downe’ instead of ‘down’.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
They were as blacke as they might be.
with a downe,

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

Downe in yonder greene field,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,
with a downe,

His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well do they their Master keepe,
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There’s no fowle dare nie him come,
with a downe,

Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

She lift up his bloudy head,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
And kist the wounds that were so red,
with a downe,

She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

She buried him before the prime,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
She was dead herself ere euen-song time,
with a downe,

God send euery gentleman,
Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman,
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.


downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe and With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe – The refrain consists of nonsense words that create a vocal musical interlude between lines of the stanza.
fowle = carrion birds
nie = variant of nigh or near
bloudy = bloody
lake = pit
prime = Euen-song
Euen-song = Evensong or vespers, a church service traditionally held near sunset.
Leman = sweetheart or mistress

Source: Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary.

Here an enchanting version by Henry Bard:

The Twa Corbies is a Scottish version which came later. It was first published in Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy in 1803, but is probably older. In this version there are only two ravens (twa corbies). The lyrics are darker and more cynical than the English version. Rather than remaining loyal to their master, his hawk and hounds have forsaken him and his mistress has already taken another lover. Nobody knows that the knight is dead and the ravens can enjoy their meal undisturbed, which the two crows describe in gruesome detail. In contrast to The Three Raven, which is a song about undying loyalty, The Twa Corbies is much more pessimistic, dealing with the harsh reality of life and death, and describing how life goes on for others after the death of even the noblest of men.

The full lyrics to The Twa Corbies can be found on the website Rampant Scotland.

Here a version arranged and performed by singer-songwriter Alastair McDonald. The film was made and directed by David Kotrba and the Film Academy of Miroslav Ondříček in Písek, Czech Republic. It is a Scots Hoose production.

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