Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Alliance and Defiance in Scottish and American Outlaw-Hero Ballads

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Alliance and Defiance in Scottish and American Outlaw-Hero Ballads

Article excerpt

Interesting similarities in character construction can be detected in American and Scottish outlaw characters in ballads and similar contexts. Both take cues from legendary English outlaw-hero characters such as Robin Hood in their politicisation. However, more pronounced qualities of "alliance" (kinship) and "defiance" (reckless endeavour) might be found in American and Scottish outlaws owing to an even greater uncertainty about the geographical location they inhabit, reflecting complexities of colonial and postcolonial history.1

Keywords: Outlaw legends; Walter Scott; Robin Hood; "Railroad Bill" ballads; Joseph Ritson; Rob Roy; Highland character; border reivers; Jesse James; "Billy the Kid"; Mexican-American disputes; Border "debatable lands" in Scotland; rescue narratives.

As scholars of the "Anglo-American ballad" tradition have frequently observed, ballads have proved to be ideal carriers of cultural information. During periods of emigration from Scotland to North America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ballads that crossed the Atlantic - whether transmitted orally by singers or printed in broadsides and chapbooks - retained markers of their Scottish origins while also adapting to new circumstances, a process aided by the ballad's combination of compelling themes and formal strategies for containment and transmission.2 This chapter considers a particularly enduring strand of the tradition: the outlaw-hero ballad as developed in Scotland and the United States. Comparing Scottish and American outlaw-hero ballads reveals cultural factors that govern variation in the character type and its representations. And while acknowledging the common attributes of outlaws across cultures, this approach complicates the notion of an abstract, universal "social banditry".

Outlaw-heroes such as Robin Hood, William Wallace, Rob Roy, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid have stimulated the popular imagination for centuries. While suggestive comparisons have been made between American and British legends, treatments of the outlaw-hero have focused mostly on Robin Hood, and the famed English outlaw is often enlisted to stand for "British" outlawry as a whole. There are important differences between the Scottish and English legends, however, and understanding of Scottish outlaw-heroes benefits if we extricate them from a totalising Britishness in order to gauge the degree and character of the Scottish- American connections. In light of differences among outlaw legends within British culture and the transatlantic migration of structures and motifs from outlaw-hero narratives, a number of factors may be seen as contributing to both stability and variation in the character type. Ballads detailing the exploits of outlaws from both Scottish and American traditions turn in similar ways on the motifs of "alliance" and "defiance", which shape the narratives while also revealing differences in these distinctive figures and the cultural spaces in which they function. In these narratives, Scottish outlaws share with their American counterparts a reliance on relationship - on family or extended family - in their resistance to authorities perceived to be repressing their social groups. In addition, outlaws from both traditions operate around contested borders or within geographical spaces that are marked by conflict, often national or quasi-national in nature.

A major vehicle for transmission of outlaw legends over long periods of time and great distances has been the ballad, a narrative form whose longevity may be attributed to its peculiar combination of stability, adaptability to diverse subject matter, and popularity. At many points in history, the ballad has emerged as a dominant form for expressing popular dissent, even outright subversion of the dominant discourse. Famously, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun asserted in 1703 that he knew "a very wise man" who believed that "if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation" (Fletcher 1744: 265). …

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