The Scottish ballad of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray tells the story of two young women, both daughters of Perthshire lairds, who retreated to a bower in the woods to avoid the plague in 1645, but later succumbed to it when a male companion brought the disease to their doorstep during one of his visits. Some believe the boy was meeting with the girls in secret, others think it’s more likely he was sent to bring them food. One of the more imaginative stories paints a picture of lesbian lovers seeking solitude in the woods and a loyal male companion who fancied them both. There are as many different versions of the story as the ballad itself, but the differences are quite minor and, unfortunately, they all end the same.

Our favorite version of the ballad is by Cherish the Ladies. We’ve included the lyrics near the bottom of this post. You can listen to it here:

There’s even a short English nursery rhyme about Bessie and Mary, but it tastefully omits any mention of male visitors, lovers, the plague or death:

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray,
They were two bonnie lasses;
They built their house upon the lea,
And covered it with rashes.
Bessy kept the garden gate,
And Mary kept the pantry;
Bessy always had to wait,
While Mary lived in plenty.

There exists a beautiful stained glass piece created by Harrington Mann for Guthrie & Wells in 1896, titled Bessie Bell and Mary Gray. It’s an exquisite scene of two fair, young women walking together on a cobblestone path. A red-roofed estate looms in the distance on what appears to be a warm summer’s day near a waterfront in Scotland. The work is currently on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

bessiemary

Bessie Bell and Mary Gray also appear in earlier work by painter J. R. West. His work was later engraved by William Finden. The image below dates back to 1831 and it includes a barefoot young gentleman, possibly the one referenced in the ballad, entertaining the women. Their temporary home can be seen beneath the trees behind him.

bessiemary3

An additional sketch also appears in the second edition of The Illustrated Book of Scottish Songs from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, which was published in London by Nathaniel Cooke in 1854.

bessiemary7bessiemary44bessiemary55In the description of the origins of the ballad, Allan Ramsey speaks of the relationship between Bessie and Mary and how their fate was sealed by a young gentleman who was in love with at least one of them, although we do not know which. He states:

The heroines of this well-known ballad were the daughter of two Perthshire gentlemen. Bessy Bell was the daughter of the Laird of Kinnaird, and Mary Gray ofthe Laird of Lynedoch. A romantic attachment subsisted between them, and the retired together to a secluded spot called the “Burn Braes,” in the neighbourhoodof Lynedoch, to avoid the plague that then raged in Perth, Dundee, and other towns. They caught the infection, however, and both died. Tradition asserts that a young gentleman, in love with one of them, visited them in their solitude, and that it was from him they caught the contagion. The late gallant Lord Lynedoch, on whose estate the heroines lie buried, erected a kind of bower over their graves.

An even older reference to Bessie and Mary can be found in the Edinburgh Literary Journal from November, 1828 – May, 1829. The story is told by Allen Ramsay, under the title Bust Bell. Mabt Ghat. 

However, as the Perthshire Diary explains, this version of the story is contested by Mrs. Murray of Kensington:

Bessie Bell and Mary Gray were daughters of the Lairds of Kinnaird and Lednock respectively. When the plague (the pest) came to Perth (the burrows town) the girls fled to the sanctuary of the banks of the river Almond and “biggit a bower theakit o’er wi’ rashes.” According to popular tradition they were visited regularly by an admirer. On one occasion he brought them a rare necklace he had purchased from a Jew (a nice bit of anti-Semitism here). Unfortunately the necklace had originally belonged to one who had died from the plague and as a consequence all three contracted the disease, died and were buried by the Almond.

However, the Hon. Mrs Murray of Kensington who visited the grave in 1799 told a somewhat different story.

“Under the hanging wood of Lednock I came to a bit of ground walled in and on a stone in the wall I read ‘The tomb of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray’. I plainly saw the marks of two graves by the rising of the sod – the third, that of the lover, said to be at their feet I could not find.” 

There is no mention of a male admirer in the original anonymous verses. But later the verses were ‘improved’ by Allan Ramsay and his version became very popular. It seems highly probable that the romantic admirer only surfaced in Ramsay’s version of the tragedy and is pure invention.

The burial place may still be seen today on the banks of the Almond west of December rue. The area is almost as lonely now as it must have been in the 17th Century and the yew tree growing over the graves completes the air of brooding sadness.

Allen Ramsay’s story Bust Bell. Mabt Ghat. is rather long, but we’ve included it in full:

if. Gray. Welcome to Leduoch! my sweet sisterfriend! Thrice welcome to my heart!

B. Bell, “My dearest Mary!

Clasp’d in your arms, the heaving of my bosom
May tell my joy; but words and thanks are feeble.

M. Gray. Thou dear kind creature! but we two have known and loved each other now so long, so well, that many words of compliment were idle.

B. Bell. Yes, Mary, we have been two sister-streams,
Flowing from bordering fountains; playfully,
And singing with light glee, the one glides on,
A dancing, sparkling, joyous wanderer ;—
The other winds along its silent way,
Tridiug with meadow-dowers, and waving grass,
On its green margin.

M. Gray. Well, I’d rather be the dancing, singing, sparkling one. What harm
can spring from innocent mirth?

B. Bell. None, Mary, none;

But while one heart gives utterance to its joy,
Another broods in secret, silent raptures-
Yet gratitude may dwell alike in both,
And each may, like sweet flowers of different hue,
Reflect in its own character its sense
Of bliss.

Drummond, the friend and lover of the two maidens, enters soon afterwards, to inform them how desolating the ravages of the plague have become. He describes, first, its progress in London, which elicits the following reflections from one of his fair listeners;

Dreadful tale!

Alas for them! Poor wretches! ‘mid that scent
Of all-accumulated miseries pent,
To them no strong untainted mountain gala
Comes, bearing on its wing the dews of fife;
No lark, careering near the gates of morn,
Comes like a sweet-tongued messenger to tell
Of Heaven’s returning love and clemency;
Even the bright skies hang lurid o’er their heads.
Oh! how unlike the dome of stainless blue,
Gilded with sunbeams, smiling over us,
With love and beauty most magnificent I
Poor wretches 1 Death is awful! but to die
In such a scenr, where earth is one huge grave,
The air a pestilence, and heaven’s own brow
Murky and scowling— ’tis too horrible.

But the plague has already found its way to Scotland, and in the following spirited passage Drummond discloses the melancholy truth:

Drum. Forgive the unwilling messenger of evil; And listen to me calmly. We have heard With grief and pity of the fate of London,— And ’twas a moving tale of awe and wonder; Yet, deeming us by distance, and the free Fresh breezes of our northern mountains, safe, We felt, at most, that sympathetic fear, Which mortals must feel when they talk of death; But now the Pest its banner has uufuri’d, And, like a thunder-cloud, comes lowering on, Stemming the gale, and scattering wide around, Even on our shores, horror, despair, and death. High hearts, that had but leap’d with stern delight, To meet assailing enemies, wax weak With shuddering dread: Man’s brow, that lofty brow, Which burns in war, is blacken’d ; woman’s cheek Is pale and haggard, red and wild her eyes. In populous cities, where the mingled tide Of human life its fullest billow roUs, There hugest Ruin stalks, there reigns Dismay With all her frenzied train. Dunedin fair Trembles upon her rocky throne; Dundee Mourns her lost thousands ; ancient Perth groans deep, As frequent funerals blucken o’er her streets: Green youth, strong manhood, drooping age, alike Betake them to the mountain solitudes And distant glens, in headlong fearful flight, There hoping to escape the blue destruction. And ni>n’, charged with this tale of woe, I corns To warn you, and to speed you hence, away To some remote retirement, where the gale, Forever freshen’d by the breezy speed

Of some clear rushing stream, may yet repel
The dire contagion, till the sultry heats
Of summer have departed, and the keen
And vigorous winds of winter shall arise
To sweep afar the noxious exhalations,
And Dow a healthful renovating flood
Of life through the glad air.

By their lover’s advice, Bessy Bell and Mary Gray consent that a ” Bower” shall be built for them in a secluded and romantic situation; and, having retired to it, they beguile the time in innocent recreations and friendly converse. Speaking to Drummond of patriot, ism, Mary Gray says,—

if. Gray. But, tell me, Drummond, how would you defend

That strange attachment to particular scenes
Which forms no trivial part of the romantic?

Drum. It scarcely needs defence. It is a bond
Between the living and the dead—a spell
Evoking all of lovely, good, and great,
That e’er have cost n grace, a dignity,
A glory, all-imperishable, o’er
The scenes that gave them birth, or saw their deeds:
And, when we tread that hallow’d ground, our souls,
Kindling, acquire the sacred inspiration,
Making their viitues ours. Breathes there a man
Whose soul can harbour villainous intents
Against swei’t maiden-innocence, while near
The grave where lies the young, the beautiful*
The famed in tender song? Or who could dare,
With lawless purpose, or hands stain’d in guilt,
To violate tbe sanctity which reigns
Where calmly sleeps the grey-hair’d patriarch?
And who can tread the memorable fields
Where freedom’s battle has been fought and won,
Nor feel thy mighty spirit, Independence,
Great in his bosom? Is there—can there be
A Scot who can behold red Luncarty,
Nor think he sees the hoary tumuli
Teem with the shades of his great ancestors?
Or who can steal, with sneaking, craven foot,
O’er ground that echoed once the undaunted tread
Of Wallace, Liberty’s own chosen son?
No! while we breathe the air that proudly waved
O’er Scotia’s banner on thy fated field,
Triumphant Bannockburu! we must be free

We must pass over the scene in which the coming on of the plague, and the death of the two sister friends, is very affictingly told, and can only give an extract from Drummond’s final soliloquy, (the whole of which is good,) after he has buried them in a grave of his own making:

Drum. My task is done ! and what is now to me
The world—mankind—life—death—or any thing?
What am I to myself?

A record of what might have been, but was not!
A spectral semblance of what is, and is not!
A breathing form, dead at the heart, that dies not!
I am a fear, a wonder to myself,
Stricken and blasted to the core!—cease, cease,
Ye smouldering fires of fate !—and thoti, my soul,
Be still, and learn to yield thee to thy doom!
Oh! what a precious spot of earth is this,
With its two little narrow grassy mounds!
There sleep the young, the beautiful, the good!
But goodness, beauty, youth, could not avail
The fell destroyer’s progress to arrest!
Oh! who that had beheld them in their bloom,
Glowing with all the loveliness of life,
Could, even in his gloomiest moods of mind,
Have ever dreamt their death so near?

Death—Death-
Full of mysterious import is that word!
Breathed over recent gravrs, it is a spell
To call forth the departed; or to bear
Our souls beyond the limits of this world,
With all its scenes and beings palpable, —

Into the land of shadows, doubts, and fears—
The bind of hopes, of glories, and of truths!
Death !—yes, I feel its pretence. Errors, mists,

And prejudices, from my mental sight
Depart, and truth, severe but glorious, beams
Upon my soul. O world! how false thou art!
How hollow are thy pleasures! In thy joys,
How treacherous ! ‘nought hast thou but it bear*
The bias or the stamp of evil. — Love,
That even in thee some faint resemblance claims
To what it was erewhile in Paradise,—
To what hereafter it shall be in Heaven,

Even Love, alas! rull oft misleads the heart.—
Have I not felt upon mine own sad breast
Fall an unwonted, and a holy calm,
I knew not whence or wherefore, till my soul
Smiled at afflictions? And I look’d to heaven,
And to the earth around me, and I felt
On me and with me, the mysterious powers
Of that high world to come, — the World of Spirits!
Ye sister-spirits, newly enter’d there!
Do ye behold me from your bower of bliss?
And do your viewless hands even now prepare
To touch the master-chords of my jarr’d heart,
And tune its tones to soft harmonious peace?
“Tis done! ’tis done! and I repine no more.
That lone deserted bower, and these twin graves,
Shall they be all forgot? Shall future times
Of them know nothing? No! while flowery spring
Shall prank the greensward gay; while summer suns
Shall Hush the full-blown blossoms on the boughs ,
While autumn shall heap high her mellow fruits,
And savage winter wrap his brow in storms,
So long shall youths and gentle maidens come
In pensive pilgrimage, to view the bower
And graves of Bessy Bell and Mary Gray.

The plot of all the Sketches is of an equally simple and in artificial kind, but on this very account they are more true to human life. A great number of songs are introduced, in the style of the “Gentle Shepherd,” and many of them arc very sweet lyrical compositions. We have only room for one!

‘Tis sweet wi’ blithesome heart to stray
In the blushing dawn o’ infant day;
But sweeter than dewy morn can be,
Is an hour i’ the mild moonlight wi’ thee ‘—
An hour wi’ thee, an hour wi’ thee,
An hour i’ the mild moonlight wi’ thee;
The half o’ my life I’d gladly gie
For an hour i’ the mild moonlight wi’ thee!
The garish sun has sunk to rest;
The star o’ gloaming gilds the west;
The gentle moon comes smiling on,
And her veil o’er the silent earth is thrown.
Then come, sweet maid, O come with me 1
The whisp’ring night-breeze calls on thee .
O, come and roam o’er the lily lea,
An hour i’ the rnild moonlight wi’ me.
For wealth let worldlings cark and moil,
Let pride for empty honours toil,
I’d a’ their wealth and honours gie,
For ae sweet hour, dear maid, wi’ thee. —
An hour wi’ thee, an hour wi’ thee,
An hour i’ the mild moonlight wi’ thee.
Earth’s stores and titles a’ I’d gie
For an hour in the mild moonlight wi’ thee.
We have little doubt but that Mr Hctherington’s
modest volume will find its way to many a quiet cottage,
and be read by the blaze of many a farmer’s ingle,
to a circle of admiring and delighted listeners.

PERTH & KINROSS: Bessy Bell & Mary Gray

The most recent reference to the story of Bessy Bell & Mary Gray can be found on the Perth and Kinross Council website. It reads:

The tragic story of Bessie (later Bessy, then Betsy) Bell and Mary Gray is commemorated in poem, song and gravestone. Theirs is a story of youth, beauty, love and death. When a fresh outbreak of the plague arrived in Perth in 1645 some surrounding parishes initially seemed to have escaped its ravages. One such parish was Moneydie, where lay (on the banks of the river Almond) the Lynedoch estate of Sir Patrick Gray.

His beautiful daughter Mary had an equally beautiful cousin and best friend, Bessie Bell and the threat of the plague persuaded their parents to try and protect their daughters from its ravages. They were sent to a secluded spot on the near-by Brauchie Burn, called Burn Brae. There they lived in a temporary shelter made of tree branches, rushes and heather. A young lover of Bessie’s secretly brought them food parcels but on one trip he inadvertently also brought the plague and passed it on to Bessie and Mary. Both died soon afterwards.

Their bodies were refused internment in the parish church at Moneydie and so were committed to the ground a short distance from their rude shelter. The spot was marked with a cairn and some 100 years later the grave site was enclosed with a stone wall and a new headstone was erected bearing their names. This was later replaced by a railinged enclosure and a new stone slab inscribed “They lived, they loved, they died.”

Their story did not end there. Scottish immigrants from the area to Ireland and then later from Ireland to America appear to have taken the legend of Bessie and Mary with them. At both Newtonstewart, County Tyrone and at Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is a pair of hills known as Betsy Bell and Mary Gray.

LYRICS TO BESSIE BELL AND MARY GRAY

Oh, Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lassies!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes,
Fair Bessie Bell I lo’ed yestreen,
And thocht I ne’er could alter;
But Mary Gray’s twa pawkie een
Gar’d a’ my fancy falter!
Oh, Bessie Bell… and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.

Bessie’s hair’s like a lint-tap,
She smiles like a May mornin’,
When Phoebus starts frae Thetis’ lap,
The hills wi’ rays adornin’;
White is her neck, soft is her hand,
Her waist and feet fu’ gently,
Wi’ ilka grace she can command;
Her lips, O vow! they’re dainty.
Oh, Bessie Bell… and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.

Mary’s locks are like the craw,
Her een like diamond’s glances;
She’s aye sae clean, redd-up, and braw;
She kills whene’er she dances.
Blythe as a kid, wi’ wit and will,
She’s blooming, tight, and tall is,
And guides her airs sae gracefu’ still;
O Jove, she’s like thy Pallas!
Oh, Bessie Bell… and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.

Young Bessie Bell and Mary Gray,
Ye unco’ sair oppress us;
Our fancies jee between ye twa,
Ye are sic bonnie lasses.
Wae’s me! for baith, I cannot get;
To ane by law we’re stinted;
Then I’ll draw cuts, and tak’ my fate,
And be wi’ ane contented.
Oh, Bessie Bell… and Mary Gray,
They were twa bonnie lasses!
They biggit a bower on yon burnbrae,
And theekit it ower wi’ rashes.

They theekit it ower wi’ rashes green,
They theekit ower wi’ heather;
But the pest came from the burrows-town,
And slew them baith thegither.

They thocht to lie in Methven kirk
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lie in Lynedoch Brae
To beek forment the sun.

Were Bessie and Mary Lovers?

The following comments were pulled from a 15-year-old thread found on an old message board called The Mudcat Cafe. The full archive rests at MudCat.org, and the site is still active. We’ve included some of the most interesting comments below. 

Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: sadie damascus
Date: 28 Jan 01 – 04:08 PM This song was described by my father as the oldest lesbian song in English. The two women, shunned in the town, are obliged to build a cottage in the woods so they can live together. The boy who brings them their groceries brings them the plague.Forbidden the cemetery of their ancestors, their bones are tossed over the wall onto the heath, where they will “biek forenent the sin” (bake under the sun). The song was revised during the 1500’s so as to represent Queen Mary and Elizabeth Tudor:Bessy kept the gairden gate, An Mary kept the pantry; Bessy Bell had aye tae wait, While Mary leeved in plenty. (A sly reference to the years Elizabeth spent in seclusion or virtual imprisonment during the nervous Mary’s reign).And other verses were added at an unknown time (one states that the women refused to wear shoes of blue or yellow, but insisted on wearing the “shoes of green”, a reference either to their older religion or to their alternate sexuality; does anyone know?)
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 28 Jan 01 – 05:05 PMSadie: This is very interesting. Your description is more full than any other I’ve seen. What you are citing in the oral tradition that has been handed down with the song. Their graves are supposedly known near Perth. At least they are claimes in a 1781 letter. But there is no surviving documentation and scarce little internal evidence in the text. What we have is that they fled town to quaranteen themselves and avoid the plague. Nevertheless the plague came from the nearby town and killed them. Because of some sin, they could not be burried in the churchyard. Although lesbianism is a good guess, there’s no evidence for it. Might be some other sin. Oral tradition gives mutual sexual contact with the delivery boy as the source or their plague. If he were married, that would be adultery and be a qualifying sin, too. The date is almost certainly 1645-7 when the plague devastated Perth. The local of the bower is said to be Lednock, 7 miles away. I believe the additional verses cited are written much later, by Alan Ramsey. Good song.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Jeri
Date: 28 Jan 01 – 05:21 PMI think it’s very interesting myself, Abby. I’d heard various things about the song and never knew where they came from. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether a story has been passed down, or whether it just sounded like a good explanation to someone years later. (Hence the Ring Around the Rosie urban legend.) Pedantic me wants to say you can get plague from someone with the pneumonic (pneumonia) form of it, but I don’t think someone who had that would be delivering, interested in sex, but I’ll refrain. They may have been fooling around before the young man got sick, although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that people would have believed that regardless of the facts.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 28 Jan 01 – 05:21 PMThe surviving documents are noted by F. J. Child in ESPB, #201. They caught the plague from a young man who was bringing them provisions, and they died from it and were buried. ‘The burial-place lies about a half mile west from the present house of Lednock’- letter of 1781. The earliest tune for it is in the Guthrie MS, c 1675. A letter of 1781 placed the plague as that of 1666, but Prof. Child said it was probably the plague of 1644-5, since that of 1666 didn’t get to Scotland. Allan Ramsay used a verse of it for a song of his own in his Poems of 1721, and Child (ESPB, #201) quoted a reference to the song in the late 17th century, but the earliest text of the ballad is that in C. K. Sharpe’s ‘Ballad Book’ of 1823. Nothing known about them implies they were lesbians, or suggests any date prior to 1645.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Dave Wynn
Date: 28 Jan 01 – 06:18 PMI liked this song from the singing of Steelye Span (Individually Collectively). But my interest was hightened some years ago while looking at an Ordinance Survey map of Northern Ireland. There are two hills (mountains) named Betsy Bell and Mary Grey. I have not done any more research since finding them on the map but I really am curious if anyone knows them.Spot
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 29 Jan 01 – 11:43 AMJeri: I’ll leave you to be the pedant & look it up.QUOTE: Pedantic me wants to say you can get plague from someone with the pneumonic (pneumonia) form of it, but I don’t think someone who had that would be delivering interested in sex, but I’ll refrain.My recollection is that pneumonic form is the more virulent and deadly one. A person may have both p. and bubonic.But the contagious stage, like most bacterial infections, begins well before the symptomatic one. Seven days, if I recall Bocaccio’s scary-vivid description.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Jeri
Date: 29 Jan 01 – 05:28 PMMore than anyone wants to know:
Bubonic plague can get into the bloodstream (septicemic plague) and infect the lungs, causing pneumonia (pneumonic plague) which can then be transmitted person-to-person by “respiratory droplets” (coughing). Bubonic plague is transmitted by fleas feeding off infected rats (also any rodents such as ground squirrels, bunnies and cats) and then biting people. Overcrowding in cities contributes greatly to its spread, which is why moving to the country might have been a reasonable idea.The incubation period is 1-7 days, but if a person with pneumonic plague isn’t coughing, it doesn’t seem too easy for them to transmit the disease, but I can see how it could be possible. The incubation period is the time between being infected and beginning to have symptoms – not when the person becomes infectious. It’s possible they’re infectious before they begin feeling sick. The book I have, Beneson’s Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, doesn’t say anything about this. I think pneumonic plague is so rare they may not have had a chance to study it much. There were only 12 cases of plague in the US from 1984-1983, and no cases of person-to-person transmission since 1925.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST,Brruce O.
Date: 29 Jan 01 – 06:06 PMsadie damascus’s verse is described in the Opies’ ‘The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes’ as an adaptation of the ballad. Their history is close to that which I gave from Child above. The two lasses were both said to be in love with the young man that brought them provisions- so much for lesbians. They weren’t buried in a churchyard because plague victims could not to be buried there, according to the Opies.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 29 Jan 01 – 09:07 PMPlague victims in isolated places were simply left where they lay; there could be no question of a formal, churchyard interment.  In more heavily populated areas they were buried in mass graves (“plague pits”) where there were enough people to do it; sometimes they were incinerated in their houses.  It has been suggested that the Fire of London might have been started deliberately to cleanse the city of plague, which it did indeed do.Malcolm
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 29 Jan 01 – 11:50 PMBut in the song and its oral tradition they a) were buried and b) committed. Are you suggesting the “sin” mentioned was having the plague at all?Also, just because they (it is said) were having sex with the delivery boy, mightn’t they have been having sex with each other? I have heard vague rumors that such ghastly things have occurred.Ok, ok. I’ve got a Merck right here at my desk but I was too lazy to stand all the way up. Quoting…Man-to-man transmission occurs from inhalation of droplet nuclei spread by caughing patients with bubonic or septicemic plague who have developed pulmonary lesions; primary pneumonic plague is the result. A number of cases have been associated with household pets, especially cats. Transmission from cats can be by bite or, if the cat has pneumonic plague, by inhalation of infected droplets.Bubonic is most common form…incubation from a few hours to 12 days…usually 1-5 days. There follows a description of symptoms nowhere near as graphic or specific as Bocaccio’s. Primary pneumonic plague has 2-3 day incubation. Most untreated patients die within 48 hours after symptoms begin. With antibiotic treatment, mortality less than 5%.As Jeri found, the actual contagious period is not clearly given. Bubonic is far less dangerous. Coughing seems to start well into the symptoms when you’d think Delivery Boy wouldn’t want to be driving around with the grocery order. Still, if it were deliver or lose his job and in the early stages…and just maybe plague was transmissible earlier in the incubation period through other bodily fluids than cough drops. What do I know?
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Llanfair
Date: 30 Jan 01 – 11:42 AMI was under the impression that lesbianism was never a sin, because “ladies don’t do that kind of thing”. It’s never been illegal, so these two would not have been ostracized because of it. Spinster ladies often lived together, and were accepted by their community.
Cheers, Bron.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: cowboypoet
Date: 05 Feb 01 – 11:41 PMThere are two hills called Betsy Bell and Mary Gray near the little town in Virginia where I was born and raised… As I recall the local folklore said they were named after two girls who went berry-picking in the woods and were killed by Indians. What an amazing coincidence!
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 06 Feb 01 – 07:58 AMOf course Delivery Boy might have been in the early stages of bubonic form and non-symptomatic. BUT, he might not have been to the laundromat and still wearing flea-ridden clothing. I think that’s a highly probable vector. I’ve been trying to find out from the county center for disease control 1. how early after infection a person in contagious (I feel it may be very) and 2. if it’s ever transmissible as an STD.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 06 Feb 01 – 04:45 PMOK. Good as I’m likely to find out. Infected fleas jumping off Delivery Boy is the best guess. As has been said way above. True, Delivery Boy might have been in the early stages of bubonic form and non-ill-appearing. He might have had a groin-area (external) bubo which ruptured and spread during a sexual contact – but this is a low-probability vector. I don’t know if you would call that an STD or not. As to the other two forms, they are less likely as the severe illness would have been present before he’d be sneezing/coughing. He wouldn’t have been tromping around the countryside by that time, according to the local head of epidemiology.What “sin” would have kept them out of hallowed ground is another story. Anyone know any scholars of Church legal history?
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: MMario
Date: 06 Feb 01 – 04:59 PMFrom various things learned over the years – I gather that plague victims were considered to have died of the plague because of their sins (generic unspecified) – a good catchall; and were forbidden sanctified burial. I suspect it may have been one more way to collect fees and indulgences. “Oh – you just donated those lovely candlesticks to the church? This man obviously did not die of the plague!”
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Jeri
Date: 06 Feb 01 – 05:24 PMFleas don’t generally munch on humans – they prefer small furry creatures. But if the rats were abundant and dying, the fleas would have been desperate, and delivery boy for lunch is better than starving.Seeing as they didn’t have grocery sacks back then, the fellow could have delivered them in a wagon or something, and the rats themselves could have stowed away.I’m not sure about the sexual transmission of exploding buboes. Seeing a sizable lesion would have a tendency to turn one off. Of course, people might have been less squeamish about such things back then.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 06 Feb 01 – 07:47 PMI still don’t think that there was any sin preventing normal Christian burial, just practical considerations; in such areas, contact with dead Plague victims was simply avoided so far as was possible.  They didn’t get a formal funeral because they were living in an isolated place and were probably not discovered until they were well past dead.Malcolm
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 07 Feb 01 – 12:25 PMMalcolm: That’s logical but I’m going by Child (A) here:They thought to lye in Methven kirk yard,
Amang their noble kin;
But they maun lye in Stronach haugh,
To biek forenent the sin. [bask; in the face of]
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 07 Feb 01 – 01:55 PM’Sin’ it is in C. K. Sharpe’s ‘A Ballad Book’, 1823, but suspect that’s a mistake for ‘syne’.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 07 Feb 01 – 02:47 PMI should have added that it was C. K. Sharpe in ‘A Ballad Book’, that identified the plague as that of 1645.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 07 Feb 01 – 03:02 PM”To bake in the sun”, surely?
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST,Bruce O.
Date: 08 Feb 01 – 01:43 AM…sin and syne are both Scots forms of ‘since’, and the line in question in “Bessie Bell and Mary Gray”, it just says their grave has been there ever since.
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Malcolm Douglas
Date: 08 Feb 01 – 06:30 AMSin is also a common Scottish form of “Sun”.  John’s glossary is good, but not so comprehensive as Warrack’s Chambers Scots Dictionary and his Scots Dialect Dictionary, to which I refer in such matters.  Biek is not given, but would seem to be the same as Beik, which is defined under Beek, “to warm before the fire; to make warm; to bask in the sun or warmth of a fire; of the sun: to shine brightly; to add fuel to fire.”  Also, “to bathe, foment”.  Forenent: “opposite, facing, over against, in opposition to”.  Hence, “To bake/bask in front of (beneath) the sun.”  I think that this is the obvious interpretation of the line; no other had even occurred to me until Abby mentioned it.  Bruce’s reading may be equally justified, but I do feel that mine makes better narrative sense given the context.  I don’t have Child’s notes at present, so I don’t know if he expressed an opinion.Malcolm
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: Abby Sale
Date: 08 Feb 01 – 10:39 AMWell, it’s all speculation at best. Child helps little except to slightly upgrade the lesbian theory a bit. He cites the local tradition about the song (again, the only chance of making sense to to refer back to this as much as the text.)He cites a letter of June, 1781 by Major Barry, the proprietor of Lednock… “When I came first to Lednock,” says Major Barry, “I was shewn in a part of my ground (called the Dranoch-haugh) an heap of stones almost covered briers, thorns and fern, which they assured me was the burial place of Bessie Bell and Mary Gray. The tradition of the country relating to these ladies is, that Mary Gray’s father was laird of Lednock and Bessie Bell’s of Kinvaid, a place in this neighborhood: that they were both very handsome, and an intimate friendship subsisted between them; that while Miss Bell was on a visit to Miss Grey, the plague broke out in the year 1666; in order to avoid which they built themselves a bower about three quarters of a mile west from Lednock House, in a very retired and romantic place called Burn-Braes, on the side of Beauchieburn. Here they lived for some time; but the plague raging with great fury, they caught the infection, it is said, from a young gentleman who was in love with them both. He used to bring them their provision. They died in this bower, and were buried in the Dranoch-haugh, at the foot of a brae of the same name and near to the bank of the river Almond” (He noted the Major’s date is certainly 20 years late.)OK. Two probs still with this. I’ve never come across “sin” as ‘syne’ or as ‘since’ used as a verb. “Syne” is used very liberally with restect to time functions but I can’t fit ‘syne’ into this sentence in any comfortable grammer.Further, to bask in the sun troubles me, too, as they clearly have been buried, both in the song and the oral tradition. “Fornent” is an odd word – I glossed as you found, it’s most common usage “in the face of, in opposition to” but I think this can extend to “in spite of,” & thus even “on account of.” “Bake” in this context clearly implies hell. (Both of these only work if “sin” means ‘sin’ in the first place.)
Subject: RE: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey
From: GUEST
Date: 17 Jan 07 – 02:44 PMThe 2 hills which lie close together near Newtownstewart, Co. Tyrone, in Northern Ireland are Bessy (not Betsy) Bell and Mary Gray (not Grey). I seem to recall hearing from a man who lived not too far away that they were named after 2 sisters who had died of the plague (I had previously heard the Steeleye Span song).I suspect that they were not from the area, but that the name was given to the 2 nearby hills, probably by settlers of Scottish origin, in memory of an earlier event in Scotland, and I suspect also that, though possibly 2 women were indeed killed by Indians in Virginia, USA, as referred to above it would be stretching coincidence too much for these 2 woman to also be called BB & MG. Many Scots-Irish settled in Virginia and they may have brought the story with them and used it to name the area.Just to confuse things further, there was I think a real Betsy Gray (from Co. Down) associated with the 1798 rebellion there. The term “Hearts of Down” springs to mind here.