Patrick Regan has kindly shared the material from his Robert Buchanan site with readers of the Victorian Web, who may wish to consult the original.

NOTE. — The foundation of this ballad is historical, more particularly the part taken by the enlightened pedant, James VI. of Scotland, who, on his accession to the English throne, procured the infamous statute against witchcraft, which actually remained unrepealed till 1736, and even then was repealed under strong protest from the Scottish clergy! One traveller, as late as 1664, casually notices the fact of having seen nine witches burning together at Leith, and in 1678, nine others were condemned in a single day. — R.B.


'The lights o' Leith! the lights o' Leith!'
    The skipper cried aloud —
While the wintry gale with snow and hail
    Blew snell thro' sail and shroud.

'The lights o' Leith! the lights o' Leith!'
    As he paced the deck cried he —
'How merrily bright they burn this night
    Thro' the reek o' the stormy sea!'

As the ship ran in thro' the surging spray
    Afire seemed all the town;
They saw the glare from far away,
And, safely steer'd to the land-lock'd bay,
    They cast their anchor down.

''Tis sure a feast in the town o' Leith
    (To his mate the skipper spoke),
'And yonder shadows that come and go,
Across the quay where the bonfires glow,
    Are the merry-making folk.

'In right good time we are home once more
    From the wild seas and rough weather —
Come, launch a boat, and we'll run ashore,
    And see the sport together.'

But the mate replied, while he shoreward gazed
    With sad and gentle eyes,
While the lights of Leith beyond him blazed
    And he heard the landward cries:

''Tis twenty lang year since I first left here,
    In the time o' frost and snaw —
I was only a lad, and my heart was mad
    To be up, and free, and awa'!

'My mither she prayed me no' to gang,
    For she had nae bairn but me —
My father was droon'd, and sleeping amang
    The weeds o' the northern sea.

'I stole awa' in the mirk o' night
    And left my mither asleep,
And ere she waken'd, at morning light,
    I was oot on the roaring deep.

'Aye, twenty lang year hae past sin' syne,
    And my heart has aft been sair
To think o' that puir auld mither o' mine,
    Alane, in a warld o' care.

'When back I cam' frae the salt sea faem
    I was a bearded man,
Ae simmer I dwelt in the hoose at hame,
    Then awa' to the sea I ran.

'And twice sin' syne hae I left the sea
    To seek the hameward track,
And aye my mither had had for me —
Tho' ne'er a gift had my hands to gie —
    A tender welcome back.

'Then, cast awa' in a soothern land,
    And taen to slaverie,
I lang'd for the touch o' a mither's hand
    And the glint o' a mither's e'e.

'But noo that my wandering days are done,
    I hae dree'd a penance sad,
I am coming hame, like the Prodigal Son,
    But wi' siller to mak' her glad!

'I hae gowden rings for my mither's hand,
    Bonnie and braw past dream,
And, fit for a leddy o' the land,
    A shawl o' the Indian seam.

'And I lang, and lang, to seek ance mair
    The cot by the side o' the sea,
And to find my gray old mither there,
    Waiting and watching for me;

'To dress her oot like a leddy grand,
    While the tears o' gladness drap,
To put the rings on her wrinkled hand,
    The siller intil her lap!

'And to say "O mither, I'm hame, I'm hame!    
    Forgie me, O forgie!
And never mair shall ye ken a care
    Until the day you dee!"'

O bright and red shone the lights of Leith
    In the snowy winter-tide —
Down the cheeks of the man the salt tears ran,
    As he stood by the skipper's side.

'But noo I look on the lights o' hame
    My heart sinks sick and cauld —
Lest I come owre late for her love or blame,
    For oh! my mither was auld!

'For her een were dim when I sail'd awa',
    And snaw was on her heid,
And I fear — I fear — after mony a year,
    To find my mither — deid!

'Sae I daurna enter the toon o' Leith,
    Where the merry yule-fires flame,
Lest I hear the tidings o' dule and death,
    Ere I enter the door o' hame.

'But ye'll let them row me to yonner shore
    Beyond the lights o' the quay,
And I'll climb the brae to the cottage door,
    A hunnerd yards frae the sea.

'If I see a light thro' the mirk o' night,
    I'll ken my mither is there;
I'll keek, maybe, through the pane, and see
    Her face in its snawy hair!

'The face sae dear that for mony a year
    I hae prayed to see again, —
O a mither's face has a holy grace
    'Bune a' the faces o' men!

'Then I'll enter in wi' silent feet,
    And saftly cry her name —
And I'll see the dim auld een grow sweet
    Wi' a heavenly welcome hame!

'And I'll cry, "O mither, I'm here, I'm here!
    Forgie me, O forgie!
And never mair shall ye ken a care!
Your son shall lea' thee never mair
    To sail on the stormy sea!"'


They row'd him to the lonely shore
    Beyond the lights of the quay,
And he climb'd the brae to the cottage door
    A hundred yards from the sea.

He saw no light thro' the mirk of night,
    And his heart sank down with dread,
'But 'tis late,' thought he, 'and she lies, maybe,
    Soond sleeping in her bed!'

Half-way he paused, for the blast blew keen,
    And the sea roar'd loud below,
And he turn'd his face to the town-lights, seen
    Thro' the white and whirling snow.

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    How they flash'd on the night-black bay,
White with sullen roar on the rocky shore
    The waters splash'd their spray!

When close he came to the lonely cot,
    He paused in deeper dread, —
For the gleam that came from the far-off flame
    Just touch'd the walls with red;

Thro' the doorway dark did the bleak wind blow,
    The windows were black and bare,
And the house was floor'd with the cruel snow,
    And roof'd with the empty air!

'O mither, mither!' he moan'd aloud,
    'And are ye deid and gane?
Hae I waited in tears thro' the weary years,
    And a' in vain, in vain?'

He stood on the hearth, while the snow swam drear
    Between the roofless walls —
'O mither! mither! come here, come here, —
    'Tis your ain son, Robin, calls!'

On his eager ears, as he stood in tears,
    There came a faint foot-tread —
Then out of the storm crept a woman's form
    With hooded face and head.

Like a black, black ghost the shape came near
    Till he heard its heavy breath —
'What man,' it sighed, 'stands sabbing here,
    In the wearifu' hoose o' death?'

'Come hither, come hither, whae'er ye be,'
    He answer'd loud and clear —
'I am Robin Sampson, come hame frae the sea,
    And I seek my mither dear!'

'O Robin, Robin,' a voice cried sobbing,
    'O Robin, and is it yersel'?
I'm Janet Wylie, lame Janet Wylie,
    Your kissen, frae Marywell!'

'O Robin, Robin,' again she cried,
    'O Robin, and can it be?
Ah, better far had the wind and the tide
    Ne'er brought ye across the sea!'

Wailing she sank on the snow-heap'd hearth,
    And rocked her body in pain —
'O Robin, Robin,' she cried to him sobbing,
    Your mither — your mither — is gane!'

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    How brightly still they glow!
The faint flame falls on the ruined walls,
    On the hearthstone heap'd in snow!

'O Janet, Janet, kind cousin Janet,
    If ever ye cared for me,
Noo let me hear o' my mither dear,
    And hoo she cam' to dee!'

Wailing she lifted her weeping face,
    And answer'd in soul's despair —
'O Robin, awa' frae the wicked place —
    Awa' — and ask nae mair!'

But he grasp'd her arm with a grip of steel
    And cried 'O Janet, speak!'
'O Robin dear, dinna seek to hear,
    For oh! your heart must breik!'

But he pressed her more, and he pleaded sore,
    Till at last the tale was told,
And he listened on, till the tale was done,
    Like a man death-struck and cold.


'O Robin dear, when ye sail'd awa',
    That last time, on the sea,
We knew her heart was breiking in twa,
    And we thought that she wad dee.

'But after a while she forced a smile —
    "I'll greet nae mair," said she,
"But I'll wait and pray that the Lord, ae day,
    May bring him again to me!

'"The Lord is guid, and Robin my son
    As kind as a bairn can be —
Aye true as steel, and he loes me weel,
    Tho' he's gane across the sea."

'O Robin, Robin, baith late and air'
    She prayed and prayed for thee,
But evermair when the blast blew sair,
    She was langest on her knee!'

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    That flame o'er sea and skies!
How bright they glow! — while the salt tears flow
    From that bearded mariner's eyes.

'But, Robin, your mither was auld and pair,
    And the season's cauld and keen;
The white, white snaw was on her hair,
    The frost film owen her een.

'And here in the hut beside the sea,
    The pair auld wife did dwell —
Her only kin were my mither and me,
    And we were as pair's hersel'.

'She leeved on a handfu' o' barley meal,
    A drink frae the spring sae cauld —
O Robin, Robin, a heart o' steel
    Might bleed for the weak and auld!

'In twa she was bent, on a staff she leant,
    Wi' ragged duds for claise,
And wearifu' up and doon she went,
    Gath'ring her sticks and straes.

'And the weans wad thrang as she creepit alang,
    And point, and cry sae shrill —
"There's Grannie Sampson," was ever their sang,
    "The wicked witch o' the hill!",

'Ah, mony's the time up the hill she'd climb,
    While the imps wad scream and craw —
At the door she'd stand, wi' her staff in hand,
    And angrily screech them awa'!

'Then wi' feeble feet creeping ben, she'd greet
    That the warld misca'd her sae,
And wi' face as white as the winding-sheet,
    She'd kneel by the bed, and pray.

'O Robin, Robin, she prayed for him
    Wha sail'd in the wild sea-rack,
And the tears wad drap frae her een sae dim,
    As she prayed for her bairn to come back!

'Then whiles . . . when she thought nae folk were near . . .
    (O Robin, she thought nae harm!
But stoop your heid, lest they hear, lest they hear!)
    She tried . . . an auld-farrant charm.

'A charm aft tried in the ingleside
    When bairns are blythesome and free,
A charm (come near, lest they hear, lest they hear!)
    To bring her boy hame from the sea!

'And the auld black cat at her elbow sat,
    (The cat you gied her yersel')
And the folk, keeking in thro' the pane, saw a sin,
    And thought she was weaving a spell!'

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    They flame on the wintry gale!
With sore drawn breath, and a face like death,
    He hearks to the gruesome tale!

'O Robin, Robin, I kenna hoo
    The lee was faither'd first,
But (whisper again, lest they ken, lest they ken!)
    They thought the puir body accurst!

'They thought the spell had been wrought in Hell,
    To kill and curse and blight,
They thought she flew, when naebody knew,
    To a Sabbath o' fiends, ilk night!

'Then ane whose corn had wither'd ae morn,
    And ane whose kye sicken'd doon,
Crept, scared and pale, wi' the leein' tale,
    To the meenisters, up the toon.

'Noo, Robin, jest then, King Jamie the King
    Was oot at sea in his bark,
And the bark nigh sank unner, wi' fire-flaught and thunner,
    And they thought — the Deil was at wark!

'The King cam' to land, and loup'd on the strand,
    Pale as a ghaist and afraid,
Wi' courtiers and clergy, a wild fearfu' band,
    He ran to the kirk, and prayed,

'Then the clergy made oot 'twas witchcraft, nae doot,
    And searchit up and doon,
And . . . foond your auld mither (wae's me!) and twa ither,
    And dragg'd them up to the toon!

'O Robin, dear Robin, hearken nae mair!'
    'Speak on, I'll heark to the en'!'
'O Robin, Robin, the sea oot there
    Is kinder than cruel men!

'They took her before King Jamie the King,
    Whaur he sat wi' sceptre and croon,
And the cooard courtiers stood in a ring,
    And the meenisters gather'd roon'.

'They bade her tell she had wrought the spell
    That made the tempest blaw;
They strippit her bare as a naked bairn,
They tried her wi' pincers and heated airn,
    Till she shriek'd and swoon'd awa'!

'O Robin, Robin, the King sat there,
    While the cruel deed was done,
And the clergy o' Christ ne'er bade him spare
    For the sake o' God's ain Son!. . . .'

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    Like Hell's own lights they glow
While the sailor stands, with his trembling hands
    Prest hard on his heart in woe!

'O Robin, Robin . . . they doom'd her to burn . . .
    Doon yonner upon the quay . . .
This night was the night . . . see the light! see the light!
    How it burns by the side o' the sea!'

. . . She paused with a moan. . . . He had left her alone,
    And rushing through drift and snow,
Down the side of the wintry hill he had flown,
    His eyes on the lights below!


The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    They flame on the eyes of the crowd,
Around, up and down, move the folk of the town,
    While the bells of the kirk peal aloud!

High up on the quay, blaze the balefires, and see!
    Three stakes are deep set in the ground,
To each stake smear'd with pitch clings the corpse of a witch,
    With the fire flaming redly around!

What madman is he who leaps in where they gleam,
    Close, close, to the centremost form?
'O mither, O mither!' he cries, with a scream,
    That rings thro' the heart of the storm!

He can see the white hair snowing down thro' the glare,
    The white face upraised to the skies —
Then the cruel red blaze blots the thing from his gaze,
    And he falls on his face, — and dies.


The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    See, see! they are flaming still!
Thro' the clouds of the past them flame is cast,
    While the Sabbath bells ring shrill!

The lights of Leith! the lights of Leith!
    They'll burn till the Judgment Day!
Till the Church's curse and the monarch's shame,
And the sin that slew in the Blessed Name,
    Are burned and purg'd away!

(From Miscellaneous Poems and Ballads, 1878-83.)

Last modified 27 September 2002