This is one of the Child Ballads (#39), originating in the Scottish Borders. It’s definitely one of the “big” songs.
The story revolves around the rescue of Tam Lin by his true love from the Queen of the Fairies. While this ballad is specific to Scotland, the motif of capturing a person by holding him through all forms of transformation is found throughout Europe in folktales. – Wikipedia
Here’s a great contemporary version from Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.
Janet sits in her lonely room
Sewing a silken seam
And looking out on Carterhaugh
Among the roses green
And Janet sits in her lonely bower
Sewing a silken thread
And longed to be in Carterhaugh
Among the roses red
The Yarrow Valley
So I had a fantastic weekend at the St. Louis Tionól last weekend, including five hours in a room with singer/folklorist Ed Miller from Edinburgh (although now living in Austin, TX.) He spent the day talking with us about the rich tradition of song in the Scottish Lowlands and the Border country, both traditional and modern folk.
This song is one of the older ones he taught us. It’s the usual sad tale. Boy courts girl. Girl’s family doesn’t like boy. Girl’s family kills boy. Girl apparently learns her lesson. Here’s Ewan MacColl‘s version. The text below is one of the longer versions I have found and includes a bit more than what Ewan sings.
The Dowie Dens O’ Yarrow
There was a lady in the North,
I ne’er could find her marrow,
She was courted by nine gentlemen,
And a ploughboy lad frae Yarrow.
These nine sat drinking at the wine,
As oft they’d done afore, O;
They hae made a vow amang themselves
Tae fecht wi’ him on Yarrow.
She’s washed his face and kaimed his hair,
As aft she’s done afor, O,
She’s made him like a knight sae hright,
Tae fecht for her on Yarrow.