Bonnie Susie Cleland

The song ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ is an interesting one. Adapted from The Child Ballads “Lady Maisry”, which tells a particularly brutal tale of a young Scots woman being burned at the stake by her family for falling in love with an English lord. Bonnie Susie Cleland is an adaptation of this tale set in Dundee, with Susie Cleland meeting a similar fate.

The name Cleland was not common in the Dundee area, and there are no records which show the song to be based on fact, but it is not without historical context. There is a local tradition that many women were killed for consorting with English soldiers who were stationed in the city in the years after the storming of the city by General Monck in 1651. Burning or hanging was also the prescribed penalty in medieval Scottish law for sexual indulgence by an unmarried woman, unless her family protected the offender or found a father for her child.

There were also witch burnings in Dundee, the last of which was Grissell Jaffray in 1669, with women accused of witchcraft to cover the real reasons behind their burnings. The Presbytery Records do not always record the name of the women who were burned. An account from the Burgh Treasurer’s Accounts of 1590 lists sums spent on the burning of a witch, which included two shillings (£0.10) to Esmie Goldman for four fathoms of rope, fifteen shillings (£0.75) for three baskets of coal, six shillings (£0.30) for two tar barrels and six shillings and eightpence (£0.33) for the hangman’s travel expenses from St Andrews. The treasurer totals the expense as five pounds, sixteen shillings and eightpence (£5.81)—but the name of the poor woman does not merit a mention!

The cruelty of the family in the ballad in burning their own daughter is unimaginable. Whether real or not, it’s hard to listen to the song and not feel awful for poor Susie Cleland.

Lyrics:

Bonnie Susie Cleland
There lived a lady in Scotland
Hey my love and ho my joy
There lived a lady in Scotland
Wha dearly lo’d me
There lived a lady in Scotland
She’s fa’n in love wi’ an Englishman
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
The faither tae the dochter cam’
Sayin, “Will ye forsake yer Englishman?”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“If ye’ll no’ that Englishman forsake
Then I maun burn ye at the stake”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“I’ll no’ that Englishman forsake
Though ye may burn me at the stake”
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.
“Oh whaur will I get a little wee boy
Tae carry tidings tae my joy
That bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee?”
“Here am I a pretty wee boy
An’ I’ll carry tidings tae yer joy
That bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
“O gie tae him my right hand glove
Tell him tae get another love
For bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
“Gie tae him this gay gowd ring
Tell him I’m gaun tae my burnin’
And bonnie Susie Cleland’s tae be burnt in Dundee.”
Her faither he ca’d up the stake
Her brither he the fire did make
And bonnie Susie Cleland was burnt in Dundee.

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