John Barleycorn: A Ballad

There was three kings into the east, Three kings both great and high, And they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn should die. They took a plough and plough'd him down, Put clods upon his head, And they hae sworn a solemn oath John Barleycorn was dead. But the chearful Spring came kindly on, And show'rs began to fall; John Barleycorn got up again, And sore surpris'd them all. The sultry suns of Summer came, And he grew thick and strong, His head weel arm'd wi' pointed spears, That no one should him wrong. The sober Autumn enter'd mild, When he grew wan and pale; His bending joints and drooping head Show'd he began to fail. His colour sicken'd more and more, He faded into age; And then his enemies began To show their deadly rage. They've taen a weapon, long and sharp, And cut him by the knee; Then ty'd him fast upon a cart, Like a rogue for forgerie. They laid him down upon his back, And cudgell'd him full sore; They hung him up before the storm, And turn'd him o'er and o'er. They filled up a darksome pit With water to the brim; They heaved in John Barleycorn, There let him sink or swim. They laid him out upon the floor, To work him farther woe; And still, as signs of life appear'd, They toss'd him to and fro. They wasted, o'er a scorching flame, The marrow of his bones; But a miller us'd him worst of all, For he crush'd him between two stones. And they hae taen his very heart's blood, And drank it round and round; And still the more and more they drank, Their joy did more abound. John Barleycorn was a hero bold, Of noble enterprise; For if you do but taste his blood, 'Twill make your courage rise. 'Twill make a man forget his woe; 'Twill heighten all his joy; 'Twill make the widow's heart to sing, Tho' the tear were in her eye. Then let us toast John Barleycorn, Each man a glass in hand; And may his great posterity Ne'er fail in old Scotland!


Liam Brennan

About this work

This is a song by Robert Burns. It was written in 1782 and is read here by Liam Brennan.

More about this song

'John Barleycorn' is one of Burns's earliest productions. However, it did not appear in print until the Edinburgh edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scots Dialect (1787). The poet himself noted that the song was 'partly composed on the plan of an old song known by the same name'.

This folk allegory depicts the personification, death and transubstantiation of 'John Barleycorn' from plant to whisky, referred to here as 'his very heart's blood'.

Pauline Mackay

Themes for this song

drink work farming man

Locations for this song


Selected for 06 January

On the feast of the epiphany, this ballad in praise of whisky is chosen because of the comic use Burns makes of the three kings and their gifts in homage to a new-born monarch even more regal than themselves.

Donny O'Rourke

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