Child (I, 253) quotes a letter from Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe to Walter Scott (August 8, 1802): "The song of 'The Twa Corbies' was given to me by Miss Erskine of Alva (now Mrs Kerr), who, I think, said that she had written it down from the recitation of an old woman at Alva.".
It has a more dark and cynical tone than the Three Ravens, (described below) 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 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.
No tune appeared to survive in oral tradition until R.M. Blythman (the Scots poet "Thurso Berwick") set it (around 1956) to the old Breton tune, An Alarc'h, The Swan, learned from the Breton folk-singer Zaig Montjarret. The fit of song to tune is almost perfect.
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".
'In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
'His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady's taen another mate,
So we may mak our dinner sweet.
'Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare.
'Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
Oer his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.'
alane = alone
twa = two
corbies = carrion crows
mane = moan
tane = one
fail = turf
wot = know
kens = knows
gane = gone
hame = home
taen = taken
hause-bane = breast bone
pike = peck
een = eyes
gowden = golden
theek = feather
Mony = many
mane = a moan
nane sall ken = none shall know
Oer = over
banes = bones
sall blaw = shall blow
evermair = evermore