Depairte, depairte


Departe, departe,

Allace, I most departe

Frome hir that hes my hart,

With hairt full soir…

Alexander Scott (c. 1520–1582/3)


 The Bannatyne Manuscript was compiled “in tyme of pest / Quhen we fra labor was compeld to rest” (1568) [1] by George Bannatyne, an Edinburgh merchant and burgess. There was an outbreak of plague in Edinburgh so Bannatyne either fled to his Angus family estate or remained in their Edinburgh residence, shut up in the Cowgate, to anthologise some four hundred texts of vital importance to the preservation of early Scottish literature.

One such work in this manuscript is ‘Depairte, depairte’ by Alexander Scott, who was a “singer in the choir of St Giles and a personal acquaintance of the Bannatynes” [2]. Biographically, not much is known about Scott but it is known that he was appointed organist at Inchmahome Priory in the Lake of Menteith by John, Lord Erskine. The Erskines were close to the royal family and were trusted with looking after royal infants. Famously, at the time of Scott’s appointment, four-year old Mary Queen of Scots was taken to Inchmahome to ensure her safety following the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (1547) during the Rough Wooing. 

‘Depairte, depairte’ has been the subject of speculation for many years due to its alternative title ‘Off the Maister of Erskyn’. The song describes a lamenting ‘farewell’ between two lovers and its title has led to the belief that the identity of those two lovers were Mary of Guise and Lord Robert Erskine, who died in the Battle of Pinkie. John Knox, the major Scottish Reformer, wrote that

In that same battell [of Pinkie] was slane the Maister of Erskin, deirlie beloved of the Quein, for whome she maid great lamentatioun, and bayre [bore] his death many dayis in mind. [3]

Theo van Heijnsbergen writes that “this statement has led critics to label Robert Erskine ‘the lover of the Queen-dowager’, accepting Knox’s innuendo – if such it indeed was – as factual truth.” [3]

By treating this statement as ‘truth’, the story bolsters accusations against Mary as licentious and  at a time when the Catholic monarchy were being targeted by the Protestant Reformers, the consequences of which were very serious indeed. (See The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, John Knox, Geneva, 1558)

Scott matched his own words to an existing tune of anonymous composition to create the song performed here by Alasdair Roberts. The lyrics describe a painful parting from one lover and occasionally suggest more than a temporary departure. For example, the line “My thirlit hairt dois bleid” could refer to the speaker’s metaphorically bleeding heart, but it could also indicate his macabre awareness of the ending of his life. This is also reflected in “My dayis ar most compleit”, possibly translating to ‘my days are almost complete’, and his plea for “remembrance rycht”.

The sophisticated structure of ‘Depairte, depairte’ reflects Scott’s wider corpus. Though his lyrics are written “in a courtly plain style, they nevertheless reveal a musician’s ear for rhythm and melody.” [4]

Shire argues that, although only four works by Scott have been found to be set to music, by approaching his “words as song” [5] we can glean more about the way poetry and music were intertwined to be performed and enjoyed at court, and outside of it. Even today, the words of a poem when sang do not have to be fully absorbed by the listener to provoke an emotional response. They also might encourage the listener to engage with the work in a different or a fuller way than a written poem on the page might.

[1] The Bannatyne manuscript ( National Library of Scotland Advocates’ M.S.1.1.6), eds. Denton Fox and William A. Ringler (Scolar Press; NLS, 1980), xii.

[2] Theo van Heijnsbergen, ‘The Bannatyne MS Lyrics: Literary Convention and Authorial Voice’ in The European sun : Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, ed. Graham Caie (Tuckwell Press, 1993), pp. 423-444, 424.

[3] David Laing, Inquiries respecting some of the early historical writers of Scotland, Volume 1, (Neill and Company, 1878) p. 213.

[4] Theo van Heijnsbergen, ‘Studies in the Contextualisation of Mid-Sixteenth-Century Scottish Verse’, (Thesis, University of Glasgow, 2010) p. 110.

[5] Helena Mennie Shire, ‘Alexander Scott and traditions of Court-song, Dance and Ceremony’, Song Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland Under King James VI (Cambridge University Press, [1969] 2010), pp.44–66, 58.