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People (well, a person, but still) asked about the incidental music in my recent episode on Mothers and Milk. It is my interpretation of one of the Child ballads, No. 40, The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice. How we got there is a bit of a roundabout story.

When I’m working on a topic, I am hypersensitive to anything adjacent to the topic, so when I saw a tweet from Gillian Bowker celebrating “breastfeeding normalised in my local community” I had to investigate. It turned out to be a huge mural of a woman breastfeeding a baby that occupies the entire gable end of a tenement in Nicolson Street, Greenock, on the Clyde.1 But this is no ordinary mother and child. The woman is a mermaid, and so is her baby.

That was a disappointment, because in the dim recesses of my memory were traces of stories of fairy women and babies, and indeed one of the comments on the original tweet was Selkie mama. There’s nothing even vaguely phocid about the woman in the painting, though, but she still prompted me to go looking. One of the things I turned up was The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice.

First revelation, nourice: “wet-nurse, woman who nourishes or suckles an infant; foster-mother to a young child,” from Old French norrice “foster-mother, wet-nurse, nanny” (source of proper name Norris).2 Nurse — as in take care of children — follows later, and as one who takes care of the sick even later, “by 1580s”. Of course this may well be head-smackingly obvious, but I for one had not previously connected nurse and nourish, and perhaps nuzzle and nestle too.

Tradition!

As for the ballad, there are a few versions. In essence, the Queen of Elfan wakes to hear her child’s wet-nurse crying. Why does her child have a wet-nurse? “Tradition has it that fairies much preferred to have human women nurse their babies,” and that is a relatively common theme in fairy stories and ballads. Anyway, the Queen asks why the nurse is crying. Is it for her meat, her fee, or for the gifts she might get? No, says the nurse, it is for her own son, from whom she was taken when he was only four days old. OK, says the Queen, promise me that you will nurse my child until he can stand and walk hand in hand, and I promise I will return you home to yours. Then the Queen points out the narrow road that leads to Heaven, the broad road that leads to Hell, and the “bonny road” that winds back from Elfland to the “Christen land” for which the nurse also pines.

When I first looked, early in the year, I couldn’t find any recordings, though I did find a version that included notation for the tune. So I dug further into the dim recesses, figured out the tune and pecked it out on my little MIDI keyboard. The magic of GarageBand allowed me to fix my dreadful time keeping and add a bit of instrumentation, and the result is what you heard in the episode.

Why do I mention all this? First, because I am actually quite proud of having created that little bit of entertainment, even though I was utterly dependent on the machines. More importantly, I think the Greenock mural (and others by the same artist) are important to normalise breastfeeding. The fact that the Queen of Elfan abducts a human mother to nourish her bairn shows how valuable human milk really is.

Syndicated to Eat This Podcast


  1. I couldn't find a photo I am free to use, but Inverclyde Now and the Greenock Telegraph have good, illustrated stories. 

  2. Take that, Chuck. 

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