UNDER a grey sky, reaching out into a grey loch, is the heap of stones that is all that remains of Greysteil’s castle. Loch Rangag is the loch, up in Caithness on the road to Thurso. In bad weather this is grim country; but the castle is said to be the one time home of the most invincible of all mediaeval knights in armour, surrounded by woods and lush pastures. If this seems unlikely, we have a record from 1725 that it was approached by an avenue “where the red curran grows and bears fruit”. So how it looked, back in mediaeval times, may well have been very different from today. More recently, that part of our country has been seen as good for sheep, good for deer, bad for people, good for tax-break forestry, good for wind turbines, and good for sustaining peat-bogs. So many agendas, so little by way of overview. In the epic it is known as the land of Bealm and “the land that was forbidden” and access to it was controlled by the uncanny Greysteil.

In the past weeks Alan Riach and I have been wandering about in the period leading up to and following the Reformation in Scotland, extolling great names such as those of Tobias Hume, Gavin Douglas, Robert Carver, William Dunbar, Robert Henrysson, Sir David Lyndsay and Robert Johnson. But in this last of my offerings in the present series I am writing about a great sung epic whose makar is unknown — he, or she, who wrote Greysteil.

I started off this series with a question of identity — that of Tobias Hume, Scot. The same question has arisen with respect to Greysteil. Who is he? What is it? Whence came it? What has it got to do with all those great names?

What it is is an epic romance and, quite remarkably, we have the tune to which it was surely sung. As for the connection with all those great names — well, Greysteil is a great sung epic and we know that on the 19th of April 1497 “tua fithelaris that sang Graysteil” to King James IV were paid nine shillings. I assume they accompanied themselves on their fiddles, perhaps occasionally giving their voices a rest. It would take at least two hours to perform a full version of the epic. In 1508, five shillings was given to a lutenist by the name of Gray Steil, presumably named after the piece he performed. Performers were not always men. There is a record as early as 1398 of a harpist with the name ‘Meg of Abernethy’, so there were female clarsairs around from early days: and there are entries for female singers; ‘Item, to tua wemen that sang to the king, eighteen shillings.’ Five shillings more than two women received for singing in the King’s chamber the year before (1505).

James IV’s son, James V was clearly keen on the story of Greysteil, for he loved Archibald Douglas of Kilspindie so well for his ability of body, that he “was wont to call him his Gray-Steill.” The King’s unofficial tutor and playmate, Sir David Lyndsay, refers twice to the epic, first in The History of Squire Meldrum:

“I wate he faucht that day als weill
As did Schir Gryme aganis Gray Steill.”

And in The Auld Man and his Wife, a character boasts that

“This is the sword that slew GRAY STEILL
Nocht half a myle beyond Kinneill.”


In 1549 Robert Wedderburn included the story “syr egeir and syr gryme” (two of the knights in Greysteil) in a long list of tales told by shepherds to pass the time; and in 1574 John Davidson wrote:

“Even of Gray-Steill, wha list to luke,
There is set foorth a meikle buke...”

By 1577 Greysteil was so popular that an inventory of the publisher Thomas Bassandyne’s stock includes three hundred copies of Gray Steillis, with a total value of 7 pounds 10 shillings.

The name Greysteil has more than one literal meaning, never mind a few spellings. It could be “Gray Steel” referring to a sword; or it could be “Gree Steel” meaning victorious sword; a sword that “bears the gree”. But if this was a winning sword, what sword was able to win over it? The answer is the sword of true love.

From where does the epic come? Wikipedia will tell you it is thought originally to have come from the north of England. But Wikipedia is out-of-date, follows an 1867 edition and a commentary of 1963, and refers to, but ignores the best account of its origins given by Deanna Delmar Evans in The European Sun published in 2001.

Greysteil comes from Scotland. Not only are all the early references to it from Scotland: so too are the earliest publications: and so too is the tune for it, surviving only in a nineteenth-century transcription of Robert Gordon of Straloch’s lute book of 1627 — now lost, but of which a partial transcription survives in the National Library of Scotland. So here is another piece of musical evidence of vital importance and great beauty which has only survived by a thread. As we have seen, the epic was referred to as being sung, so I took it upon myself to transcribe it from the lute tablature of the transcription and have at least part of it performed and recorded to see if tune and epic were a good fit.

From the start it was obvious that this was no ordinary tune, but one that carried the implications of a style of performance which did not match the general run of tunes in this or other Scottish lute manuscripts, full of fascinating oddities and beauties as they are.

There was no question in my mind that if this tune was intended to be sung, then it would require epic singing. The wide range of a ninth, as well as the high tessitura (or average pitch); the rising sixth and seventh of the first phrase; the hypnotic repetitions; the simple but magnificent formal balance of the phrases; the high declamatory repeated notes; all these were dramatic indicators of some special function and manner.

It is also tonally ambiguous, with a double tonic and what would nowadays be called a move to the relative major. From the musical evidence alone one could reasonably deduce that this extraordinary piece of music was intended for the public performance of an epic. The tune fits like a glove. Like a glove indeed: there is much about gloves and hands in Greysteil and in one version Greysteil himself has extra fingers on his hands. Is it for this disfigurement that he cuts off the little finger of those whom he defeats? He defeats everyone.

Greysteil comes from another world — an almost supernatural world which challenges knighthood to prove its ideals of honesty, manliness and courage against what seems to be an invincible enemy. Gray-Steel’s land is not only “the land that is forbidden”; it is also called “the land of Doubt.”

What is fascinating about this epic is that it is full of deceit. Even the victor, Sir Gryme, is a deceiver. Hidden by his armour, he pretends to be his good friend Sir Eger, who has lost to Gray-Steel and only just escaped with his life at the cost of his little finger. Ashamed to admit his failure to the haughty woman he wishes to marry, he allows Sir Gryme to fight for him. When Sir Gryme returns victorious, Sir Eger claims the victory for himself and speaks cruelly to Lady Winliane although he is about to marry her under false pretences.

Sir Gryme himself has only been victorious with the help of the Lady Lillias whose brother and lover were killed by Gray-Steil. She had helped Sir Eger recover from his fearful wounds, dressing them in silk, but she had warned him:

“But I know by your buskening,
That ye have something in studying;
For your love, sir, I think it be:
But trust ye well and certainly,
As soon as love makes you agast,
Your ointments will you nothing last;
Your wounds they will both glow and gell,
Sow full sore, and be full ill;
But ye have mends, that ye may mean,
Unto your love where ye have been;
And bid her do as I have done,
And they will soft and sober soon.”

But of course the Lady Winliane will not “do as I have done” and offers no comfort to the wounded Sir Eger. So to save his friend’s life and hope of love, Sir Gryme has to go to defeat Gray-Steil in Sir Eger’s name and armour.

He brings with him a magic sword and the advice from Sir Eger to meet with the Lady Lillias, which he does.

The Lady Lillias is a wonderfully mysterious heroine, a healer who also represents good Fortune and True Love.

This is how she is described in the poem:

“She is large of body and bone,
A fairer saw I never none;
With brows brent and thereto small,
A drawing voice she speaks withal:
Betwixt her een and eke her neise
There is a greatness of a piese,
A spot of red, the lave is white;
There is none other that is her like:
And so her brows on a running —
There is a gay ready tokening!”

The description could be of a Hindu woman with a bindi mark on her forehead. She has an alluring voice, and her curved eyebrows are joined — “on-running”.

Rightly or wrongly, joined eyebrows are associated with sensuality, as the poem itself states — “There is a gay ready tokening!” But this tokening is not used here to indicate immorality or loose behavior; rather it indicates a woman who is prepared to give love where there is trust, as opposed to the Lady Winliane who will only give love when it meets her price, and her price was high. Meanwhile, Sir Gryme and the Lady Winliane, unbeknownst to each other, have fallen in love: but although their love was not yet declared, it was true and, as he approached Gray-Steel’s castle, Sir Gryme found the courage to face Gray-Steel when “he thought on the lady clear” as she had advised:

“Sir Gryme! Ah, knight of aventure!
In press think on your paramour:
I will not bid you look on me,
Think on your love, wherever she be.”

When Greysteil’s defeat finally comes, it is gory and awe-inspiring. Sir Gryme’s sword slides into his throat and the blood pours out of Greysteil’s armour as his dying hands clutch at the grass:

“Gray-Steel unto his death thus thrawes;
He walters, and the grass updrawes;
His armes about him could he cast,
He pulled herbes and roots fast;
A little while then lay he still,
Friends that saw him liked full ill,
And blood into his armour bright,
For so he had full many dight.”

The victor, Sir Gryme, then cuts off the right hand of Gray-Steel — “Syne in a glove of plate it shook” — and returns to the lady Lillias whom he eventually marries.

There is much underlying this tale that tells of virginity, virility, of love and of trust, and the relationship between these and proper conduct.

Sir Gryme’s marriage to Lillias is not the end of the story, which is wound up rather awkwardly in my view, so shall leave you with the wonderfully philosophical lines immediately following the defeat of the invincible Gray-Steil:

“In world there is no bale nor bliss,
Or whatsoever that it is,
But at the last it will overgang,
Suppose that many think it lang.”