Friday, October 5, 2012

The Legend of Fair Helen

From Wilson's Tales of The Borders
by Anita Davison

In the village of Eaglesfield in the Scottish Borders, stands the ancient church of Kirkconnel, where a 16th Century tragedy is said to have taken place.

Helen Irving lived in Bell Tower, a Pele Tower on the Scottish border and served as a refuge from the Scots Reviers who raidede the cattle and sheep of the border farms.

Helen was reputed to be a beautiful girl with many suitors, including Robert Bell of Blacket House. Her family approved of Robert, who was from an important and financially secure family. Helen, however loved a young man named Adam Fleming of Kirkpatrick.

Torn between her parents’ wishes, and her love for Adam, she would meet him at twilight on Kirkconnel Lea, or in the churchyard, a romantic spot, surrounded by the river Kirtle.

Robert Bell, insane with jealousy and determined to win Helen’s hand, followed her when she met Adam armed with a carabine with the intent of confronting his rival. Seeing them together, his jealousy overcame his reason and he fired across the steam at Adam. At the last second, Helen threw herself in front of her lover and was shot in the chest, falling dead on the spot.

Kirconnel Church
In a fury of grief, Adam launched himself down the banks of the Kirtle Water where Bell was frantically trying to reload his gun. Raging, he hacked Bell to death with his sword, then returned to Helen’s body and cradled her in his arms throughout the night. In the morning, knowing he would hang for Bell’s murder, Adam fled the country and was not heard of again.

When Helen’s body, and Robert’s mutilated one were found, Adam was initially accused of a double murder in his absence. The truth finally came out when friends of Helen vouchsafed for the integrity of Adam, his love for Helen, the meetings in the churchyard and Bell’s jealousy.

A few years later a servant of the Bell Tower, found the prostrate body of a dead man lying atop Helen’s grave. He recognised the still handsome features of Adam Fleming and ran to inform Helen’s family. Adam was buried next to Helen, a sign that her parents had forgiven their daughter and her lover. The grave of the lovers exists in the church-yard of Kirconnell,  the tomb-stone into which a cross and a sword are sculpted and the inscription: ‘Hie jacet Adamus Fleming’

Graves of Helen and Adam
Sir Walter Scott, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, recorded the Ballad of Fair Helen in his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’.

I wish I were where Helen lies,
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirconnell Lee.

Curst be the heart that thought the thought,
And curst the hand that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt, (maid)
And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair (sore)
When my love dropt down and spak nae mair! (spoke no more)
There did she swoon wi’ meikle care, (with great care)
On fair Kirconnell Lee.

In John Mackay Wilson's Tales of the Borders and of Scotland, the heroine is called Helen Palmer and her story is somewhat embellished, but  whether it is a legend passed down from the 16th Century, or  a Victorian romanticism of an original story, the legend of Fair Helen Irving and her Adam is still a lovely one.

Anita Davison is a Historical Fiction Author whose latest release, ‘Royalist Rebel’ a biographical novel set in 17th Century England, is being released by Claymore Books in early 2013 under the name Anita Seymour


  1. An interesting but sad story. I enjoyed the pic of the ruined church.

  2. I just recently found your blog & I'm so glad that I did. The first thing I noticed about the head stones is that they lean toward each other. A beautifully told, but heart wrenching story.

  3. That's quite a tale! Fantastic photos, too.

  4. Fantastic story, made my afternoon reading it!


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