Ye Ugly Witch

Ye Ugly Witch

This week’s choice is “Alison Gross”, an anonymous ballad about a witch whose spell is broken on Hallowe’en.

Awa, awa, ye ugly witch,
Hand far awa, and let me be;
I never will be your leman sae true,
And I wish I were out of your company.


Poem 239. Alison Gross

O Alison Gross, that lives in yon tow'r,
The ugliest witch in the north countrie,
She trysted me ae day up till her bow'r,
And mony fair speeches she made to me.
She straik'd my head, and she kaim'd my hair,
And she set me down saftly on her knee;
Says-”If ye will be my leman sae true,
Sae mony braw things as I will you gi'e.”
She shaw'd me a mantle of red scarlet,
With gowden flowers and fringes fine;
Says-”If ye will be my leman sae true,
This goodly gift it shall be thine.”
“Awa, awa, ye ugly witch,
Hand far awa, and let me be;
I never will be your leman sae true,
And I wish I were out of your company.”
She neist brocht a sark of the saftest silk,
Weel wrought with pearls about the band;
Says-”If ye will be my ain true love,
This goodly gift ye shall command.”
She show'd me a cup of the good red gowd,
Weel set with jewels sae fair to see;
Says-”If ye will be my leman sae true,
This goodly gift I will you gi'e.”
“Awa, awa, ye ugly witch,
Haud far awa, and let me be;
For I wadna ance kiss your ugly mouth,
For all the gifts that ye cou'd gi'e.”
She's turn'd her richt and round about,
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn;
And she sware by the moon and the stars aboon,
That she'd gar me rue the day I was born.
Then out has she ta'en a silver wand,
And she turn'd her three times round and round;
She mutter'd sic words, that my strength it fail'd,
And I fell down senseless on the ground.
She turn'd me into an ugly worm,
And gar'd me toddle about the tree;
And aye on ilka Saturday night,
Auld Alison Gross she came to me,
With silver basin, and silver kame,
To kame my headie upon her knee;
But rather than kiss her ugly mouth,
I'd ha'e toddled for ever about the tree.
But as it fell out on last Hallow-e'en,
When the seely court was ridin' by,
The queen lighted down on a gowan bank,
Near by the tree where I wont to lye.
She took me up in her milk-white hand,
And she straik'd me three times o'er her knee;
She chang'd me again to my ain proper shape,
And nae mair do I toddle about the tree.

This anonymous poem is one of the Child Ballads (collected and anthologised by Francis Child). It is written in Scots dialect and tells the tale of an unfortunate man who is subjected to the unwelcome attentions of “The ugliest witch in the north countrie”—Alison Gross (rather a good name for an ugly witch).

The importunate witch arranges a private meeting with the narrator of the poem, hoping to secure him as her lover—she caresses him and sweet talks him and offers him gifts: a scarlet cloak with flowers and fringes of golden thread, a silk shirt with pearls around the waist band, and a jewelled golden-red cup. All are rejected by her intended who has no intention of being any such thing and spurns her in stronger and stronger terms.

Faced with his constant rebuffs, she tires of him and with her love turned to hate, she resolves to make him regret his harsh words (“she sware [swore] by the moon and the stars aboon [above]/That she’d gar [make] me rue the day I was born”). Pulling out a horn and a wand, she casts a spell on the unlucky man who falls to the floor senseless and turns into a worm (possibly an outsize invertebrate or a kind of wingless dragon like the Worm of Lambton) just as ugly as she is.

She condemns him to circle the tree endlessly except for Saturdays when she comes to tend his head with a silver comb and bowl, though he prefers to remain a worm and “toddle about the tree” than kiss her.

One Hallowe’en, the court of the faerie queen (“the seely court”) pauses by the tree and she negates the spell with three strokes of her hand and reverts the man to his proper form.

The poem was set to music by Steeleye Span, who took most of the poem (omitting the faerie queen’s breaking of the spell) and turned it into a folk rock song.

I like it because it tells a good story—despite the increasingly rich gifts on offer, the horrified man repulses his hideous admirer, even though she eventually punishes his intransigence by turning him to a worm. The descriptions are great, particularly the gifts she offers and the spell she casts. I’ve always liked the Steeleye Span track too.


  • Read about the poem at Wikipedia.
  • Read about the Lambton Worm at Wikipedia.
  • Watch Steeleye Span’s 50th Anniversary Tour Live performance on YouTube.
  • Listen to the poem performed by Jim Clark on YouTube.