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THE FIDDLER'S SONG. Suggested by an old improper ditty, of which there is a modern and imperfect version in Herd's Collection (1769). The fiddler, as the “Merry gutscraper,” is one of the personages of The Merry Beggars.
THE TINKER'S SONG. Suggested, as to matter, by derivatives in the chapbooks, from old black letter ballads on the "jovial tinker," but not in the metre of any of them, the stave being the six line stave in rime couée, fashioned on the imperfect Iambic tetrameter. It was used by Dunbar (1460—1520) and was a special favourite of Alexander Scott (A. 1547-1584). Properly it should be written thus :
“My bonie lass
I work in brass,
I've travell'd round
All Christian ground
In this my occupation, &c." Stanza II, 1. 6. "Kilbaigie”:-Burns notes that this whisky was a favourite "with Poosie Nansie clubs." The distillery of Kilbaigie was in Clackmannanshire.
SEVENTH RECITATIVO. In the modified form of the stave of the old poem, Christis Kirk (possibly by James I.), invented by Ramsay.
Stanza II, 1. 5. "Homer's craft": -"Homer,” remarks Burns, "is allowed to be the oldest ballad singer on record.” L. 3. “shored them Dainty Davie":"Offered them, for nothing, permission to complete their amour.” Dainty Davie was a Scottish covenanting clergymen, the hero of a ludicrous adventure in a lady's bedroom when pursued by Claverhouse's dragoons. He is the subject of an improper song of that title preserved in The Merry Muses, and also of various verses in Maidment's Handful, of Pestilent Pasquils (privately printed).
THE BARD'S SONG. The oldest version of For a' That and a’ That is probably that preserved in The Merry Muses, although there are also Jacobite versions. The stave is the six line form of rime couée, formed on the imperfect Iambic tetrameter (see ante, p. 135).
Stanza II, l. 4. "Helicon":-Alexander Montgomerie, in The Cherry and the Slae, refers to "fontane Helicon”, and Fergusson, in The King's Birthday, is even more specific in confounding the mountain with the stream:
"Nor seek for Helicon to wash us,
"How blest are beggar-lasses
Who never toil for treasure!
Each day's successive pleasure!" &c.
THE HOLY FAIR. Written in the autumn of 1785, and, like The Jolly Beggars, essentially descriptive. Its theme is the "sacramental occasion” of Mauchline parish, on the second Sunday of August; and it may be that all the orators portrayed actually officiated on that day and in the manner depicted. It may be well to explain that in the time of Burns, and even well on in the nineteenth century, it was customary to make the annual observance of the Lord's Supper, an occasion also for the festivity of "tent preaching”. Services were suspended in the neighbouring parishes, the clergyman and flocks of all the neighbouring districts, for miles around, assembling in one large crowd in the neighbourhood of the one particular parish church; and while the communion was being dispensed inside the building at successive “tables,” a series of sermons, with interludes of praise and prayer, were delivered in the open air from a rostrum pitched in a tent.
The method of treatment was in great part suggested by Fergusson's Leith Races and his The Hallow Fair. The measure is the modified form of the Christis Kirk stanza as used by Fergusson, the octave being built usually not on two but four rhymes, although there are several departures from this form throughout the piece. Stanza I. Compare the opening lines of Fergusson's Races:
“In July month, ae bonny morn,
When Nature's rokely green
To charm our roving een.” L. S. “Galston muirs”:-A range of high uplands in Galston parish, east-north-east from Mauchline.
Stanza III, 1. 5. "The third cam up” &c.:-Compare the description of “Mirth” in Fergusson's Leith Races.
Stanza IX, 1. 8. "Kilmarnock":- This, now the largest town in Ayrshire,- about 10 miles NNW. of Mauchline-had from the close of the sixteenth century been famed for the weaving of hose, nightcaps and broad bonnets; and before Burns wrote, the manufacture of carpets had also been introduced.
Stanza XII, 1. 3. “Moodie”:- Alexander Moodie (1722–1799), minister of Riccarton, whose pulpit antics are similarly described in The Kirk's Alarm:
“Wi' a jump, yell and howl
Alarm every soul." Stanza XIV, 1. 5. "Smith”:-George Smith (d. 1823) minister of Galston, a "moderate” (non-evangelical), but timid and time serving ecclesiastic.
Stanza XVI, 1. 3. “Peebles frae the water-fit”:-William Peebles (1752?–1826) of Newton-upon-Ayr, situated on the right bank of that stream where it fulls into the sea. He was the leader of the orthodox party. L. 7. "Common-Sense”:- This may mean the “NewLight” (or “Common-Sense”) party of the Scottish church, or may refer to Dr Mackenzie of Mauchline, a prominent layman of that party, or may simply imply a patent lack of Common-Sense in the preacher's discourse. L. 8. “The Cowgate”:—Burns explains this was “a street, so called”, facing “the tent in Mauchline.” No doubt it was by it that the cows of the village originally went to pasture.
Stanza XVII, 1. 1. “Wee Miller”:--Alexander Millar (d. 1804) was then, Burns explains, “the assistant minister at St Michael's” Kil
marnock. In 1787 he was ordained minister of Kilmaurs parish, notwithstanding the violent opposition of the people.
Stanza XXI, 1. 4. “Black Russell”:- John Russel (1760—1817) then of the chapel-of-ease Kilmarnock, and afterwards of the second charge, Stirling-a burly militant christian, of black complexion and tremendous voice, famous for his stern delight in dilating on the terrors of the "wrath to come". L. 8. "Sauls does harrow":"Shakespeare's Hamlet” (Note by Burns).
Stanza XXVII. Such closing reflections are thoroughly in the Scottish manner. Cf. the conclusion of Fergusson's Hallow Fair:
“But gin a birkie's ower well saird,
HALLOWEEN. Though descriptive, this piece is neither, like The Jolly Beggars, concerned with low life, nor, like The Holy Fair, essentially satirical. It presents one of the pleasantest pictures of an old-world peasant interior, and the amusements of a company of “merry, friendly country folks,” ever depicted by poet. Wholly avoiding the constraint and artificiality of The Cottar's Saturday Night, Burns never here lapses into mere rhetoric or rhodomantade. Finely finished in every detail and marvelously terse and vivid, the piece is also more strictly poetic than many of his productions, the moonlight scene of Stanza XXV being enchantingly beautiful.
In his subject Burns was anticipated by John Mayne (1759-1836), who had published a poem on Halloween in Ruddiman's Weekly Magazine for September 1780. It is written in the standard six line stave in rime couée; and Burns may unconsciously have obtained from it a few faint suggestions; but if it be so, the individuality of treatment which confers poetic distinction is wholly that of Burns. Admitting that the germ of the escapade of “Leezie" is to be found in the adventure of "Jock M'Lean," who
"Plump in a filthy peat-pot fell
at Halloween”, it is at least undeniable that by Burns the incident is improved almost beyond recognition.
The poem is in The Holy Fair form of the Christis Kirk stanza, the octave being built generally on two rhymes only, although in Stanza XV three rhymes are used, and occasionally, as in
stanza I, recourse is had to the six line stave, in rime couée derived from the imperfect Iambic tetrameter.
Halloween, All Saints Eve (31th October), is still kept in all the rural districts of Scotland, and although there is considerable variety in the ceremonies observed, social fun and jokes ending with a supper form the staple of the evening's recreation. Of Halloween Burns wrote: "Is thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the Fairies, are said, on that night, to hold a grand Anniversary.” He also introduced the poem with the following preface:
“The following Poem will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but, for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, Notes are added, to give some account of the principal Charms and Spells of that Night, so big with Prophecy to the Peasantry in the West of Scotland. The passion of prying into Futurity makes a striking part of the history of Human Nature, in its rude state, in all ages and nations; and it may be some entertainment to a philosophic mind, if any such shall honour the Author with a perusal, to see the remains of it, among the more unenlightened in our own.”
Stanza I, l. 2. “Cassilis Downans”:—"Certain little, romantic, rocky green hills, in the neighbourhood of the ancient seat of the Earls of Cassilis” (B.). The lands came by marriage into the possession of the family early in the fourteenth century; and some portions of the Castle, now a seat of the Marquis of Ailsa who is also fourteenth Earl of Cassilis, date from the fifteenth century. It is to Lord Cassilis' gate that the gipsy of the ballad of Johrnie Faa is represented as coming, but the 'Countess' of the ballad has not been identified. L. 7. “The Cove”:-—“A noted cavern near Colean House, called the Cove of Colean; which, as well as Cassilis Downans, is famed, in country story, for being a favourite haunt of Fairies” (B.). There are in reality six coves adjoining Colzean Castle—now the chief seat of the Marquis of Ailsa, and built in 1777, about eight years before Burns penned his poem-three towards the west and three towards the east of the castle. The Tradition that the caves are haunted by fairies, or unearthly creatures, is mentioned by Sir William Brereton (Travels 1634), who gravely states that one of the Knight's sons and a Galloway gentleman told him that the impressions of the creatures footsteps were renewed every morning in the sand.