Scottish Murder Ballad

by | Feb 7, 2022 | CNF, Issue Twenty Five

He made a harp of her breastbone

Whose sound would melt a heart of stone

                                                —Binnorie/The Twa Sisters.

  1. My Great-Grandmother’s murder as reported by her son, Alistair Munro, to Assistant Registrar, John Rowman, July 13th, 1967.

Her surname was Munro. Not Kerr. Munro was my dad’s surname. James Kerr was her other husband. She had children with him. They moved away to England, Canada. Australia maybe.

No, I don’t have contact information. She never spoke of them.

My dad’s dead now. And the other husband too.

Yes, in 1957, the same year as their wedding.

She was a widow, yes.

The police found her face-down on the basement floor. They shouted, “Are you alright? Can you hear us?” She was unconscious, barely alive. She died later in the hospital. Before I got there. Blows to the head and a broken pelvis, they told me.

Her body was small, deflated, bruised around her eyes, on her jaw. There was grey dust under her nails.

Sign here? On this line?

  • Before she is murdered, my Great-Grandmother looks at family photographs.

My oldest girl, Jannie, is about ten. The youngest, Muriel, not even two. Look at her fur collar. That coat was Jannie’s. It lasted well. I had meant to sew on the missing button.  

            The photographer came to the house. Jannie brought out one of the chairs and propped Muriel up on it. I stood at the side, watching, while the photographer told them where to stand, where to put their hands. I wanted to smooth Kitty’s hair out of her face and into her ribbon, but I stayed out of the way.

            Jimmy, the little sailor. His boots are too big.

Jannie never let me comb the tangles out of her hair. Her lips are parted like she’s about to speak. If I study the picture more closely maybe I can tell what she’s going to say by the shape of her mouth.

I don’t remember the sound of her voice.

This is after. After Alistair was born. After I left. I hardly recognize Jannie. Is that a smile?

No. The sun is in her eyes.

I remember her clenched fists.

            The boy James is holding must be Jannie’s son. My first grandson. I never saw him back then. Or since. He must be the same age as my Alistair. About thirty. They should have grown up together. Like brothers.

            Jannie’s namesake, my mother-in-law, is wearing the apron. She’s taken my place. Ignoring my grandson. If I had been there, I would have tickled his palms. Caught him up in my arms if he reached toward me.

  • Aunt Isabella tells her sister, Jannie, about my Great-Grandmother’s murder.

Aunt Isabella takes a taxi from the train station to her sister Jannie’s house. Pulls a neat square of paper from her pocket, checks the number on the front door. Her mouth turns down at the corners where her rose-colored lipstick hasn’t quite reached. She leans forward to press the bell. Listens for its metallic ring.

Aunt Isabella walks in the rain to a phone-box on the corner of a dimly lit street. Struggles with her umbrella. Pulls open the heavy steel door. Smells empty beer bottles, wet leaves. Takes a neat square of paper from her pocket, lifts the scratched black receiver, begins to dial her sister Jannie’s number. Car headlights shine across her back. She pushes a two-pence coin into the slot. Starts to speak.

Aunt Isabella sits at the dining table in the front room of her terrace house. Stares down at the first page of a light blue writing pad. Straightens the line-guide underneath. A clock ticks and whirrs on the quarter hour. A yellow canary in a covered cage skuttles across its metal perch. Aunt Isabella glances at her sister Jannie’s address written on a neat square of paper. Starts to write.

Aunt Isabella scrawls the news of the murder onto parchment with the burnt end of a match. As blue-green storm clouds circle the firth, she drops the note into the River Tay. She engraves the words on the inside of her gold wedding band, throws it into the fireplace, watches the yellow circle glow orange in the grate. She screams the news into the ocean, calls it out to the tops of pine trees. With the chipped edge of her brother’s sgian-dubh she carves a message into one of the granite crags on Dundee’s outskirts. Uses a willow branch to trace each letter into the sand of Broughty Ferry harbor. She tells the story of the murder to a black cat, to a raven, to a silver doe. Whispers to her sister in a dream; sends a signal–a white feather floats into Jannie’s outstretched hand.

Aunt Isabella presses a wax-sealed envelope into the icy palm of a black-haired stranger. She offers him shortbread, a dram of whiskey, a tarnished copper coin. The stranger agrees to deliver the news of the murder to Jannie at midnight on the first day of the new year.

Jannie will open her front door. Lean her body out over the empty doorstep. She will squint up into the streetlight. Watch a solitary moth beat its wings in the fluorescent yellow hum.  She will shiver, step back inside, close the door.        

  • My Great-Grandmother’s life and death as told in a Scottish murder ballad.

“The Lonely Death of Catriona Munro” tells the story of my great-grandmother—a widow who was killed by unnamed assailants and left to die alone. The ballad went unsung. There was no record of it. No-one recited it or wrote it down. I pieced it together from unearthed fragments: a newspaper story, a death certificate, two photographs, my mother’s memories. Joined the shards with glue made from flour and water. Some of the edges overlap. Many gaps remain.

In the ballad, Catriona is a “Cruel Mother,” though she does not stab her babies through the heart with her pen knife or strangle them with a ribbon from her hair. She simply abandons them when an alluring stranger catches her eye.

Catriona is haunted by her children. She sees them as outlines and shadows when she walks to the market or washes her clothes. She keeps an old photograph of them; brings it up close to her face. Holds it to her ear. Hears their likenesses whisper.

She dreams about her eldest daughter, Jannie, who she left to raise the younger children. Catriona sees that Jannie’s eyes, the shape of her mouth, are identical to her own. In the dream, Jannie covers her face with her hands and her features melt into her fingers, disintegrate into dust.

When Catriona Munro meets her death, she is not young and beautiful, like the tragic women in so many traditional ballads. She is old and tired. Her murder is not vengeance. She does not die by her own hand as the decades of guilt become unbearable. Doesn’t drown in a murky river. There is no silver dagger. Catriona Munro dies after a random mugging.

The lyric lingers on her bruised eyes and jaw, on her broken bones.

In “Binnorie/The Twa Sisters” a murdered woman’s breastbone is transformed into a magical harp that, when played, retells the story of her death. Catriona Munro’s shattered pelvis is no such conduit. It embodies the violent death of an ordinary woman—her fragility, her isolation.

The elegiac refrains that end the ballad show Catriona Munro abandoned, left alone. 

Her youngest son, Alistair, responds to the City Registrar’s condolences:

“No matter”

the son replied,

turned his back on Catriona Munro

and quietly walked away.”

      Her estranged daughter, Jannie, hears of Catriona Munro’s death:

                  “No matter”

her daughter said.

“I have no mother.

She simply walked away.”

A woman will mutter these lines under her breath as she tips cups of flour into a mixing bowl. A child in a grey skirt and maroon sweater will stand at the front of a high-windowed classroom and stumble over them. A granddaughter will look at her reflection in an airplane window before take-off and remember them. A devoted husband will whisper them to his wife as she takes her last breaths.

Catriona’s children turned away from their mother. Got on with their lives as if she had never existed.

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