Scarborough Fair: A Traditional Yorkshire Ballad – Part II

This article was originally published in the Yorkshire Journal (Issue no. 2, 2014) by Gillian Morris. She has kindly contributed her work to be republished here. You can read Part I by clicking here.


Part I of this article outlined the history of Scarborough Fair – the yearly event that took place in Scarborough from the 13th century until the 18th. This part of the article discusses the famous song that the fair inspired.

It is likely that the song Scarborough Fair was first sung by Medieval bards – professional poets and singers whose job was to compose and sing verses in honour of the heroic achievements of royalty and brave men. This role was later taken on by wandering minstrels, who created popular ballads about chivalry and courtly love. Such performers were famous for memorising long poems based on popular myths and legends – just as the Medieval bards had done before them – and these epic poems were called ‘chansons de geste’.


Above: An illustration showing medieval musicians (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

As the minstrels sang they typically accompanied themselves on an instrument, such as fiddle, and travelled through villages and towns singing songs such as Scarborough Fair.


Above: An illustration showing medieval musicians (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

Locals would then imitate these ballads, and this is how songs such as Scarborough Fair were spread.

Lyrics and melodies were adapted and modified by those who sung them, which explains why there are now many different versions of Scarborough Fair today.

Prior to the 19th century, Scarborough Fair suffered from waning popularity, and became a relatively unknown folk song until many such songs were collected, written down and published in the 1800s. Frank Kitson published Collection Of Traditional Tunes in 1891, and included Scarborough Fair, reporting that the song was ‘sung in Whitby streets twenty or thirty years ago’. Since then many singers and musicians have produced their own versions of  the song, the most familiar version being that by Simon & Garfunkel – created in 1966.

The lyrics refer to a man, attempting to attain his true love. The singer asks a friend who is attending Scarborough Fair to seek out a former love , and to let her know he still has feelings for her. However, for her to be his true love again she must carry out a number of impossible tasks.

To give one example, she must make him a cambric shirt with no seams or needlework and then wash it in a dry well. Cambric is a lightweight fabric that was used specifically for making lace and needlework. The fabric is tightly woven and when completed, it has a slight glossy finish.

Cambric was not actually available until 1520-30, when it was discovered by the French, so the word Cambric, or this particular verse was probably not in the original ballad but added to the song sometime after the mid 16th century.

In each verse, the second line mentions four herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. In the Middle Ages flowers and herbs were highly significant, and medieval people believed that they contained mystical properties that could influence emotions and feelings.


Above: Illustrations of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

Parsley is the first herb mentioned in the song, and has long been associated with aiding digestion – indeed, eating a few leaves with a mean was thought to promote well-being, and this tradition survives to this day. The song, however, alludes to another meaning associated with the herb. Parsley was thought to remove feelings of bitterness and bad emotions. The singer of the song therefore expresses a desire to cleanse the bitterness between himself and his lost love.

Sage – the second herb – was a symbol of strength and wisdom according to Celtic tradition and was even associated with immortality. Today, it is more typically used for stuffing the Christmas turkey. Sage has drying properties and was used, in the past, to treat chest congestion. Furthermore, its antiseptic compounds were used to bind wounds and treat snakebite. In the context of the song, it seems that the singer wants to offer strength and wisdom to his lover, by evoking the qualities of this herb.

Rosemary is associated with love and fidelity. As its strong scent lingers, this herb was given as a token of remembrance between lovers. The singer evokes rosemary to helps his lover to remember what love and affection they had.

Thyme has been used for thousands of years to bind wounds and as an antiseptic. It was also a sign of love and courage. Our singer wants his lover to have courage to do what it will take in order to complete the tasks so that they will once again be lovers.

It has been suggested that the name of the ballad, Scarborough Fair, along with the chorus ‘parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme’ dates to a 19th century version of the song. The chorus may have been borrowed from other ballads which have similar themes. There are a number of older versions that refer to locations other than Scarborough and many versions do not mention a place name at all, instead being given general titles such as ‘The Lovers’ Tasks’ and ‘My Father Gave Me an Acre of Land’.


Above: An illustration of Scarborough Castle and the town in the 1300s (via the Yorkshire Journal, Issue No. 2, 2014)

It has also been suggested that the lyrics of Scarborough Fair appear to have something in common with an obscure Scottish ballad, ‘The Elfin Knight’, which has been traced as far back as 1670 and may well be older. In this ballad, an elf threatens to abduct a young woman to be his lover unless she can perform an impossible task.

Whilst it is difficult to say exactly when Scarborough Fair was composed, it is likely that the song has been adapted and modified with more lyrics added as time went by. Likewise other ballads may have been inspired by Scarborough Fair, so tracing the respective histories of these long-running songs is complicated.

There has been much debate over the meaning of the song, but its title pays tribute to the days in which Scarborough hosted one of the most famous international fairs in England.The following is a typical modern version the ballad that most people will recognise.

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Remember me to one who lives there,

She was once a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Without a seam or needlework,

She will be a true love of mine.

Tell her to wash it in yonder dry well,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Where never spring water or rain ever fell,

She will be a true love of mine.

Tell her to dry it on yonder grey thorn,

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

Which never bore blossom since Adam was born,

She will be a true love of mine.


For a full list of acknowledgements, and to see the article in its original format, please visit the Yorkshire Journal (Issue no. 2, 2014). All copyright retained by the author.

Many thanks to Gillian for sharing this article with Stories From Scarborough!