The Legend of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray

By Siobhan Ball

August 12, 2020

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Photo credit: istock/Ada Yokota

Scottish folk songs are wonderfully grim, and the song of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray is no different. It’s all that Calvinism and dreich (gloomy) weather seeping in around the edges, the sense that happiness is a dire sin that promises terrible things to come. The strange thing about Betsy Bell and Mary Gray is that it provides an almost perfect cautionary tale for dealing with the current plague as a young queer woman, leaping forward hundreds of years into the future to say that maybe you shouldn’t move in together right now— and if you do, you definitely shouldn’t be seeing anyone else outside of your little pandemic bubble.

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
They were bonny lasses
They bigot a bower in yon burn side
And they covered it o-er with rushes

It’s a deceptively promising start. Betsy and Mary, both beautiful, go out to the countryside and build themselves a little dwelling on the side of the hill. It sounds like a pastoral fantasy, the start of every heterosexual love song that isn’t about being done wrong by a sailor or soldier off on leave.

But it’s being sung in a minor key, so you know their story isn’t going to end well.

They theekit it o’er wi’ rashes green
They theekit it o’er wi’ heather
But the plague came from the burrows-town
And it slew them faith togither

And there it is. Even escaping to the countryside with your girlfriend won’t stop the plague from finding you. Betsy and Mary may have got to have their romantic rural holiday for a while, but they’re still dead at the end of it just like everyone else. You can’t fight predestination, or the wrath of God, no matter how rich or pretty you might be.

They though to lye in Methren Kirk yard,
Among their noble kin.
But they maun lye in Stronach haugh,
All art beneath the sun.

Despite sounding like the invention of a particularly grim moralist, the song and various explanatory stories floating around actually do have a basis in history, however distant from the romantic and sometimes ridiculous folk myths they may be. Betsy and Mary were the daughters of Scottish noblemen whose estates shared a border, and the two girls are remembered as having had an unusually close and devoted friendship. When the plague reached a nearby town, they moved into a converted farmhouse called Lynedoch Cottage on Mary’s father’s lands, a place considerably more durable than the little “wattle hut” some versions of the story fondly place them in. 

Eventually, they also caught the plague despite their precautions, possibly because they ran out of food and had to buy more provisions, and both died shortly after. Because of restrictions on travel in an attempt to control the spread of plague, they weren’t buried in their ancestral graveyards and may have been left at a waypoint between parishes in the open air for a few days before being buried together at Dronach Haugh, where you can still see their graves now.

The graves of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray, c. 1875 print
Oh, Betsy Ball and Mary Gray, ye unco saer oppress us,
Our fancies fee between ye two, ye are such bonnie lasses,
Woe’s me for both I cannot get, to one by law we’re stinted,
Then I’ll draw lots and take my fate and be with one contented.

Popular legend, and some versions of the song, have as their source of infection an unnamed boy who was in love with or even courting both of them. Said boy came from the town to bring them food and in some versions of the myth, either a handkerchief or a pearl necklace stolen from a plague victim. The end result was the girls dying in each other's arms, and being discovered there by their erstwhile boyfriend the next time he came to visit.

It bears noting here that we genuinely don’t know the nature of the girls’ relationship with each other. Their level of closeness would scream romance with a mixed-gender pairing, but unusually close friendships (of all gender combinations) do exist and it’s important not to erase that in favour of centralising romance as the highest and most important kind of chosen relationship. We genuinely don’t have enough information on the real women these songs and stories are based on to make a judgement about them either way. However, we’re also not really discussing the real women at this point, we’re talking about their fictionalised selves in the folklore that grew up around them. It’s clear the folk-Betsy and folk-Mary are very much in love with each other, even if straight people do miss that because they can’t see past heteronormative gender coding.

This doesn’t mean that the boy is a red herring of course, and perhaps if he’d asked them their opinion instead of angsting about having to choose between them they could have worked something out. Marrying one of them and having the other live in as the waif’s “beloved companion” was a tactic that seems to have worked quite well for various queer historical figures and it’s tempting to write a version of the song where he moves into the cottage with them instead.

Sadly, however, the song would likely still end the same way because that’s the real lesson of Betsy Bell and Mary Gray— if you’re going to social distance, then do it properly. Form a bubble. Form a household and stick to it, no mingling. If your whole polycule doesn’t live there, then you’re just going to have to distance-court throughout the pandemic— and you’re already ahead on our seventeenth-century forebears there because you have dirty zoom calls while all they had were fevered love letters, possible quite literally in some cases considering the impossibility of disinfecting paper back then. In fact, you should be disinfecting everything that comes into your house. And finally, if your boyfriend gives you a gift that he’s looted off a corpse, you should definitely break up with him instead of wearing it. That one’s just common sense though, something people in ballads frequently seem to be lacking.

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