Border Ballads – Fair Helen of Kirkconnel

| September 3, 2010 | 0 Comments

On the western edge of the village of Eaglesfield in the Scottish Borders lies the ancient church and churchyard of Kirkconnel. There one can find the remains of a medieval church. It is tiny; probably the remnants of a much larger building have long disappeared: the stone, fine and ready cut, having found a better future than to lie unused when the parish of Kirkconnel was amalgamated with that of Kirkpatrick Fleming in about the year of 1610.

Kirkconnel Church

In the 16th century a tragedy of particular poignancy is said to have taken place very near to the churchyard.

gravestones-kirkconnell-church

On the hill to the east of the churchyard once stood a fine example of the Border Keep or Pele Tower which, in the days of the Border Reiver , dominated the landscape of the lands to north and south of the English Scottish Border. Here stood Bell Tower, alas no longer to be seen as its stone has followed that of the church and its wall to a more prosaic use .

Here lived Helen Irving. By all accounts she was a beautiful girl, much admired by the local lads. There were many suitors for her hand yet she loved but one by the name of Adam Fleming. All who loved her reluctantly accepted that her heart belonged elsewhere – all but one. Robert Bell of Blacket House felt spurned by Helen’s rejections, especially as he was favoured by her family. They were hopeful that she would marry within her station: Robert Bell, from a family of prominence, heritage and financial security, fitted their aspirations of a worthy suitor for Helen’s hand.

But Helen loved another.

She would meet the man she loved, Adam Fleming, in the twilight on Kirkconnel Lea or in the churchyard. Their meetings were brief, infrequent and full of the pledge of undying love. Helen was torn between love of her parents and their desires for her future, and the love she could not restrain for her manly and beautiful Adam. Love supersedes all bounds and though Helen was heart sore at the subterfuge which she employed to meet with her heart’s desire, she knew that Adam was the only man she would ever love. Many were the times she headed home after the brief passionate encounters with Adam, dull of pace in her walk to the Bell Tower, sorry that she deceived her parents, yet dreaming of a future where their happiness would reign.

Unbeknown to the two young lovers, they were watched. Robert Bell of Blacket House was insane with jealousy and determined to rid the world of his competitor for Helen’s hand.

Accordingly one night he followed the two lovers to their secret assignation and waited, watched, profuse with an insane desire to confront his rival. He was armed with a gun which made his intentions clear. When he saw the young lovers embrace any caution he might have felt was thrown to the wind. He lost any reason and waited for the lovers to part so he could get a clear shot at Fleming. The opportunity eventually presented itself and he fired off the gun at his adversary.

The two lovers, Helen and Adam, instinct and that inherent make-up which warns of danger, were instantly aware of the ferocity of ill-feeling which confronted them. Helen threw herself in front of her lover and took the full volley of shot in her breast. She fell dead on the spot. The shot was meant for Adam.

Here is the place where Fair helen was reputedly murdered by Bell.

Here is the place where Fair helen was reputedly murdered by Bell.

Adam, riled beyond any reason, knowing that his dear Helen was dead, launched himself down the banks of the Kirtle Water where the murderer Bell was frantically trying to reload his gun. Before he had achieved this Adam was upon him, sword drawn. In his rage he cut Bell to pieces, hacked him to death. There was no sweetness in the insane revenge. All thoughts of Bell immediately dropped from his mind, the sight of his headless body meaningless in his grief, Adam ran back up the slope of the Kirtle’s bank, cradled the head of his loved one in his arms, and sobbed until it felt as if his heart would break. He nursed his dead lover throughout the hours of darkness.

With the light there came some reason. Adam knew he would hang for the murder, that he had little alternative but to leave his home before he was apprehended. The deaths of Helen and Bell would not be easy to explain should he stay and confront her parents. They were aware that Helen had feelings for Adam which superseded friendship. They had tried to discourage them, hoping their daughter would marry a man of better means to support her through life. Robert Bell was such a man, or so they thought. It would not take them long to reach the conclusion that Adam was responsible for such a heinous crime. The discovery of the corpse of their daughter and the mutilated body of Bell which had all the hall-marks of a fierce encounter with a man of strength and resolution born out of intense hatred, would immediately point to Adam Fleming, thought of initially as the spurned lover. Adam Fleming fled the spot, left the country and was not heard of again.

Initially accused of a double murder in his absence, the truth finally came out. Friends of Helen vouchsafed for the integrity of Adam, for his love for Helen. They told of the meetings in the churchyard and the jealousy of Bell.

A few years later a servant of the Bell Tower, visiting the churchyard, was shocked to find the prostrate body of a man lying atop Helen’s simple grave stone. A quick inspection verified what he had thought as he approached the grave. The man was dead; he recognised the still handsome features of Adam Fleming who had lived at the Bell Tower some years before. He ran as swiftly as his old legs would carry him and informed the aged parents of Helen.

In due course Adam was buried next to Helen, a sign that her parents had forgiven the girl for her love of a man who had never forgotten her; a man who had proved after years on the Continent of Europe he had not forgotten his first and only love.

The Graves of Fair Helen and Adam Fleming.

The Graves of Fair Helen and Adam Fleming.

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Afterword.

There is more than one version of the tragedy that led to the death of Fair Helen. In one Robert Bell escaped after he had murdered Helen and was pursued across Europe by Adam Fleming. He eventually caught up with Bell in the streets of Madrid and shot him dead. It was only then that he returned to Kirkconnel, and on seeing the grave of his lover, succumbed to grief at his loss, and died.

Sir Walter Scott, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, recorded the Ballad of Fair Helen in his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’.

It is a poignant reminder that the aggression and confrontation which was rife for centuries along the English Scottish Border did not erase the finer feelings of all who were trapped in its maelstrom of death and butchery.

I wish I were where Helen lies,

Night and day on me she cries;

O that I were where Helen lies,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

Curst be the heart that thought the thought,

And curst the hand that fired the shot,

When in my arms burd Helen dropt, (maid)

And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair (sore)

When my love dropt down and spak nae mair! (spoke no more)

There did she swoon wi’ meikle care, (with great care)

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

As I went down the water-side,

None but my foe to be my guide,

None but my foe to be my guide,

On fair Kirconnell Lee;

I lighted down my sword to draw,

I hacked him in pieces sma’ (small)

I hacked him in pieces sma’,

For her sake that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!

I’ll make a garland of thy hair,

Shall bind my heart for evermair (evermore)

Until the day I die.

O that I were where Helen lies!

Night and day on me she cries;

Out of my bed she bids me rise,

Says ‘Haste and come to me!’ –

O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!

If I were with thee, I were blest,

Where thou lies low, and takes thy rest,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

I wish my grave were growing green,

A winding-sheet drawn ower my e’en (eyes),

And I in Helen’s arms lying,

On fair Kirconnell Lee.

I wish I were where Helen lies!

Night and day on me she cries;

And I am weary of the skies,

For her sake that died for me.

A Personal Thought.

Until last weekend, it has been some years since I last visited Kirkconnel church yard. It is a wonderful place , replete with an ambience of former times, of centuries long past. To the romantic, with a knowledge of the story of Fair Helen, it is a place to stand, think and consider her fate and that of her lover, Adam Fleming, their love, and the rash impetuousness of a spurned lover.

Such feelings are naturally tempered with thoughts that the story, though based on fact, has clearly been embellished down the years. The romantic in me, whilst succumbing to the sadness of the story, still readily accepts that parts of it cannot be true.

Imagine my surprise then when I viewed the story board set in front of the graves that are the supposed resting places of Helen and Adam.

Story Board in Front of the Graves of Fair Helen and Adam.

Story Board in Front of the Graves of Fair Helen and Adam.

The last sentence runs as follows:-

‘The romantic story of the Ballad might be an 18th century invention, and the association of the monuments in the churchyard is questionable’.

Britain is awash with political correctness. Do we really need to take it to the realms of romance, poetry, folk-lore and legend?

Please think about it!

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Category: Bell, Irving, Scottish Clans, Scottish History

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