Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary

The Three Ravens

English Folk Ballad - Anonymous


"The Three Ravens" (Child 26, Roud 5), from which The Twa Corbies was derived, 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.

Newer versions (with different music) were recorded right up through the 19th century. Francis James Child recorded several versions in his Child Ballads (catalogued as number 26). The Scots language ballad called "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens" or "Two Crows") has lyrics based on "The Three Ravens" with a similar general story, but with a darker twist.

The Three Ravens ballad takes the form of three scavenger birds conversing about where and what they should eat. One tells of a newly slain knight, but they find he is guarded by his loyal hawks and hounds. Furthermore, a "fallow doe", an obvious metaphor for the knight's pregnant ("as great with young as she might go") lover or mistress (see "leman") comes to his body, kisses his wounds, bears him away, and buries him, leaving the ravens without a meal. The narrative ends with "God send euery gentleman / Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman".

The lyrics to "The Three Ravens" are transcribed below using 1611 orthography. They can be sung either straight through in stanzas of four lines each, or in stanzas of two lines each repeating the first line three times depending on how long the performer would like the ballad to last.

The second method appears to be the more canonical, so that is what is illustrated below. The refrains are sung in all stanzas, but they will only be shown for the first.


Twa Corbies - Song, written heavily in the Scots language, probably dates from the 18th century and was first published in Walter Scott's Minstrelsy in 1812.

It has a more dark and cynical tone than the Three Ravens, (described above) from which its lyrics were clearly derived. There are only two scavengers in "The Twa Corbies", but this is the least of the differences between the songs, though they do begin the same.

Rather than commenting on the loyalty of the knight's beasts, the 2 corbies tell that the hawk and the hound have forsaken their master, and are off chasing other game, while his mistress has already taken another lover. The ravens are therefore given an undisturbed meal, as nobody else knows where the man lies, or even that he is dead. They talk in gruesome detail about the meal they will make of him, plucking out his eyes and using his hair for their nests. Some themes believed to be portrayed in "Twa Corbies" are: the fragility of life, the idea life goes on after death, and a more pessimistic viewpoint on life. The loneliness and despair of the song are summed up in the final couplets.


Related Scottish Country Dances

Twa Corbies (Boyd)
Twa Corbies (Russell/McConachie)

The Three Ravens - Anonymous

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

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?

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

His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,

His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie

Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,

She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,

She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,

She buried him before the prime,
She was dead her self ere euen-song time.

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


Meaning Of The Unusual Words:

rauens = ravens
nie = nigh
lake = pit
prime = Euen-song
Leman = sweetheart or mistress


The Three Ravens Song Video

The Three Ravens Song - Information Video
Raven's - Information Video
The Three Ravens Painting Image
"The Three Ravens" Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902) Watercolour On paper, c. 1883


Dance information licensed under this Creative Commons Licence.
Text from this original The Three Ravens article on Wikipedia.
Image copyright Edward Frederick Brewtnall (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to the top of this 'The Three Ravens Song' page