Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Ballad of Sinclair

The Ballad of Sinclar (Zinklars vise) is a ballad from Norway composed by Edvard Storm in 1781. It tells the story of a historical battle at Kringen in Norway, which took place in 1612. In this battle, a group of Norwegian farmers ambushed a company of Scottish soldiers (one of the officers was a Captain George Sinclair) who were on their way to fight for Sweden against Norway in the Kalmar war. The ambush took place where the Scottish soldiers had to pass along a narrow way bordered by steep slopes on one side and a river on the other. The Scots were heavily defeated, and the battle assumed a legendary status, partly due to the poems, stories, and songs that have been told and sung about it. This is one such.

You may see from the performances below that it is still a popular song for bands and singers who like to sing old ballads. There are some stylistic differences between this and a typical folk ballad though.

The Battle of Kringen by Georg Nielsen Strømdal


Before the action proper begins, there are a couple of opening verses in which we hear that things will not go well for Mr Sinclair, and that though he comes sailing over the salty sea or the billowy blue to fight for his Swedish paymasters, he will soon find his grave in Norway.

Even Sinclair himself is warned to turn back as he approaches Norway onboard his ship. A mermaid appears on a wavetop and tells him that if he lands in Norway, he will never return home alive. But Sinclair is not interested in listening to the mermaid. He shouts a few choice words at her and sails on. And on the fourth day, he sights the Norwegian coast.

The Scottish army lands at Romsdal, 1400 of them, and all very bad men ... they go through the country, burning and pillaging, hurting widows and killing babies. Well the news of this spreads throughout the land, but as all the Norwegian soldiers are away fighting for the king, the farmers decide that they will have to defend the land themselves. And so they gather with their axes and plan to "have a word with" Mr Sinclair.

The ballad singer then describes the site where the ambush will take place: the path called Kringen runs close under the hill while a river runs close by. And into that river the enemy will fall.

The grey-haired farmer takes his rifle from the wall. And another creature of Norwegian folklore, the Neck, appears, raising his wet beard from the water. He anticipates that soon he will have his prey, when all the Scotsmen fall into the river.

Sinclair dies by the first shot that hits him. And so all his men cry out in despair. But the Norwegians give a rallying cry, and the Scots wish they were back at home. Kringen is soon strewn with dead bodies, so that the ravens have enough to eat, and the Scottish girls would cry if they could see it. Not a living soul comes home to tell his countrymen how dangerous it is to visit those who live in the Norwegian fells. And there now stands a monument now in that place.

Here is the full text of the ballad.

The lyrical style that this ballad is written in is noticeably different in parts from the typical folk ballads, though it is sung to ballad melodies, sometimes with a refrain (omkväde). I would say the first seven verses are a lot closer than the rest to the style of a traditional ballad.

The opening two verses are reminiscent of the opening two verses of, say, Bendik and Årolilja, where the entire plot is summarised very briefly in a single verse, and then immediately repeated with minor variation. The verses where Sinclair is speaking to the mermaid are also more typical ballad verses, with a lot of direct speech. But there is little of this later in the ballad: there is a lot of more commentary, and where there is speech, it is somehow more abstract as the speaker is not identified. Much of the imagery and many of the descriptions also seem richer to me than in a typical folk ballad.

The rhyme pattern in Norwegian is ABAB. This is very unusual. Four-line ballad verses are typically ABCB, or very occasionally AABB. And the rhymes are almost all perfect, which is also very unusual. A further feature that sets this ballad apart from the typical medieval ballads is the lack of repetition. The first two verses of the ballad are variations of one another, but beyond that, repetition, which is such a typical feature of the folk ballads, is basically absent.

Now there is also a Swedish Sinclairvisan (Ballad of Sinclair) that is quite unrelated to this one. The Swedish ballad tells of a certain Swede by the name of Malcolm Sinclair and his murder by the Russians. The text was written by Anders Odel (1739), and the melody is a variation on the Folia tune. Perhaps this Swedish ballad will be for a future installment ...


The lyrics by Edvard Storm do not include a chorus (omkväde) line. Here are two Norwegian melodies for the ballad from Berggreen:

(1) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65a)

(2) Sinclars Vise (Berggreen 65b), from Trondheim.

But nowadays the ballad is often performed – see below – to a traditional melody from the Faeroes (or perhaps from Denmark via the Faeroes), with the omkväde: Vel op før dag, de kommer vel over den hede (well before day, they come over the heath).


This is the whole ballad, sung to a melody without an omkväde (chorus) line. It appears on an album of Edvard Storm's songs, Viso I Gomol Og Ny Drakt (1993), performed by Stormti. This rendition uses two verse melodies, both different from the two melodies given above.

Folk rock pioneers Folque interpret the ballad (Sinclairvise) using the melody with the omkväde. This ballad appeared on their first album, Folque (1974). Folque have made recordings of ballads previously featured on this blog: Heming and King Harald and Sir Olof and the Elves.

Faeroese folk metal band Tyr recorded their take (Sinklars Visa) based on the same melody. This appears on their album Land (2008). Note that although these last three performances are from the Faeroe Islands, the language is not Faeroese. They are all singing the lyrics as written in Norwegian, though the pronunciation may be described as Gøtudansk (street Danish), and is typical for singing Danish ballads in the Faeroes.

The former singer of Tyr, Pól Arni Holm, now sings with Hamradun. They also recorded Sinklars Visa for their first album, Hamradun (2015). This take again uses the same melody, but with all the ballad verses.

In the Faeroe Islands, ballad singing often goes together with a traditional dance called the ballad dance. Here you can see the Faeroese ballad dance to Sinklarsvise.


A. P. Berggreen, Norske Folke-Sanger og Melodier, Kjøbenhavn, 1861