I've known the Keats poem about her for ages and assumed she was his invention. However, I've been buying poetry books and in the Faber Book of Children's Verse, there's a poem by Sir Walter Scott called The Nativity Chant, sung by Meg Merrilies. So I googled and found she appears as a character in Guy Mannering, one of Scott's novels - not sure if the verse is extracted from that, or Scott wrote it independently of the book. Now I'm wondering whether she goes back further than Scott and is some sort of personification of a gypsy (like Robin Goodfellow, for example). We had a thread about Childe Harold along the same lines a while ago, if you remember - another part of my laughable attempts to make sense of the universe.
While I'm at it, have a joke - it should offend everybody and therefore nobody:
A worldwide survey was conducted by the UN. The only question
asked was:"Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the
food shortage in the rest of the world?"
The survey was a huge failure...
In Africa they didn't know what "food" meant.
In Eastern Europe they didn't know what "honest" meant.
In Western Europe they didn't know what "shortage" meant.
In China they didn't know what "opinion" meant.
In the Middle East they didn't know what "solution" meant.
In South America they didn't know what "please" meant.
And in the USA they didn't know what "the rest of the world" meant
Here's what Cobham Brewster's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has to say about Meg:
Meg Merrilies (in Sir W. Scott’s Guy Mannering). This character was based on that of Jean Gordon, an inhabitant of the village of Kirk Yetholm, in the Cheviot Hills, in the middle of the eighteenth century. A sketch of Jean Gordon’s life will be found in Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. i. p. 54. She is a half-crazy sibyl or gipsy.
The article from Blackwood's Magazine is quoted at length in Scott's own preface to GUY MANNERING.
Read it here: [www.bartleby.com] />
At the end of the novel there's an "ADDITIONAL NOTE GALWEGIAN LOCALITIES AND PERSONAGES WHICH HAVE BEEN SUPPOSED TO BE ALLUDED TO IN THE NOVEL" with a little more about Meg.
The full text is available in several places including this one:
(I browsed there for a Meg poem, but didn't see it -- still, I was scanning pretty quickly.)
For "my laughable attempts to make sense of the universe" (above), read "my attempts to make sense of the laughable universe."
Thanks, Marian - it is in Guy Mannering - at the beginning of Chapter 3
Canny moment, lucky fit;
Is the lady lighter yet?
Be it lad or be it lass,
Sign wi’ cross and sain wi’ mass.
Trefoil, vervain, John’s-wort, drill,
Hinders witches of their will;
Weel is them, that weel may
Fast upon St. Andrew’s day.
Saint Bride and her brat,
Saint Colme and his cat,
Saint Michael and his spear,
Keep the house frae reif and wear.
I think the title I have was made up by the chap who put it in The Faber Book of Children's Verse.
Looking at the quote from Blackwood, on Jean Gordon, it says
‘My father remembered old Jean Gordon of Yetholm, who had great sway among her tribe. She was quite a Meg Merrilies, and possessed the savage virtue of fidelity in the same perfection.'
This implies that the name Meg Merrilies does predate Scott, and he borrowed that and Jean Gordon's character from some earlier legend. It appears the whole of Guy Mannering also draws on a tale Scott had heard, altered and elaborated.
The Toronto site suggests MM is written in Ballad Meter, with variations in the third line of each stanza.
Far be it from me to correct the learnèd scholars at RPO, but I believe the 3-3-4-3 stanzas are more accurately labeled Short Meter.