The Merry Muses of Caledonia/The Court of Equity








Collated from the British Museum MSS. and other Sources.



This youthful jeu de'sprit of the poet was composed in the Spring of 1786, before the publication of his poems brought him prominently before the world. At that time, his relations with Jean Armour, coupled with his former error with Elizabeth Paton, servant maid to the household at Lochlie, afforded ample material for the gossips and scandalmongers of Mauchline to "tease his name in kintra clatter." Along with his friends—John Richmond, law clerk; James Smith, merchant; and William Huner, shoemaker—all then resident in the village—he established a bachelors' club, which held stated meetings in the "Whitefoord Arms," a hostelry kept by John Dove, the "Johnie Doo" and "Johnie Pigeon" to whom he refers in other connections. One of the self-imposed duties of this secret association was humorously given out to be the supplementing of the efforts of the Kirk Session by searching out and bringing to book all transgressors who cultivated the "better art o' hiding." The poem professedly describes one of the sittings of this bachelors' club, at which it had constituted itself a "Court of Equity" for the trial of two alleged offenders—"Sandy," or "Coachman Dow," and "Jock," or "Clockie Brown"—against each of whom a "Libel Summons" was issued, in comical imitation of a regular court of law, Burns being designated president; Smith, fiscal; Richmond, clerk; and Hunter, messenger-at-arms.

Judging from the MS. copies which have been preserved, it does not appear that a final corrected copy was ever executed by the poet. That the piece is imaginary in some of its details is proved by the fact that John Richmond left Mauchline for Edinburgh about November, 1785. A version is preserved in the British Museum among the Egerton manuscripts; and in the same collection are to be found a fragment of the same version, and a curtailed version known as the "Additional MS."[1] Besides these, Mr. Scott Douglas evidently had access to another version, MS. copies of which he distributed amongst his friends when engaged on his magnum opus, the Edinburgh edition of the works of the poet. Concerning the origin of that version we have no information. In the transcript given here, we found upon Scott Douglas's version,[2] and indicate the differences and variation of the text as established by comparison.

An incomplete version of the "Court of Equity" seems to have been first published circa 1810 in octavo sheet form. It also appears surreptitiously appended to certain editions of the works of the poet about the same date. We have seen a copy of it in an appendix to an Alnwick edition, circa 1810. In 1827 it was printed in that filthy receptacle, "The Merry Muses"—the volume with which the name of Burns has been so erroneously and unjustly associated, and it is still retained in the ever-recurring issues of the obscenities therein contained. In 1893, an expurgated version was published in the Aldine edition, under the editorship of Mr. G. A. Aitken. Scott Douglas quotes the opening lines in his Kilmarnock edition, and again refers to the production in his Edinburgh edition (Vol. I., pp. 163, 166). Robert Chambers thus refers to it—"He composed, on the 4th of June, a poem on the reigning scandals of his village, cases on which the Session Record throws ample light, if light were of any use in the matter; but, unfortunately, though the mock-serious was never carried to a greater pitch of excellence than in this poem, its license of phrase renders it utterly unfit for publication." To this Dr. Wallace, in his new edition of Chambers, appends—"The composition is full of tenderness and humanity, but it is too 'broad' for publication."

Concerning the dramatis personæ Richmond was law clerk with Gavin Hamilton before he removed to Edinburgh, and it was in his lodgings that Burns found accommodation during his first visit to that city. He spent the last years of his life in Mauchline, and died there in 1846. Smith, to whom he addresses one of his epistles, was a draper in his native town who started an unsuccessful calico printing business in Lesmahagow, and ultimately died in Jamaica. Hunter was the village shoemaker, of whom no mention is made save in this effusion. The worthy trio, it appears, had each had experience of the pains and penalties which attached to personal appearance before the Kirk Session of Mauchline, hence their selection by the poet as the accredited officials of the mock tribunal. Sandy Dow (son of John Dow or Dove, mine host of the "Whitefoord Arms") drove the coach between Mauchline and Kilmarnock, hence his soubriquet of "Coachman." John Brown ("Clockie Brown") was watch and clockmaker in the village, and the hero of "Lament him, Mauchline husbands a'," which is dedicated to "Johannis Fuscus," in the original MS. The harder terms meted out to him seem to have been because of the aggravations condescended upon, and because he was not, like Dow, a brother "of the mystic tie" of Freemasonry. Of the heroines, nothing of certainty is known of Jeanie Mitchell. Maggie Borland was the daughter of the landlord of another hostelry, "The Red Lion." The "Godly Bryan" and his particular transgression are referred to in a paragraph, sometimes omitted, from Burns's letter to John Richmond, of July 9, 1786. "Godly Bryan was in the Inquisition yesterday, and half the countryside as witnesses against him. He still stands out steady and denying; but proof was led yesternight of circumstances highly suspicious, almost de facto: one of the girls made oath that she upon a time rashly entered the house (to speak in your cant) 'in the hour of cause.'" As a matter of fact, Bryan, farmer, West Welton, did actually appear before the Session of Mauchline on July 8, 1786, to answer to a charge of immorality preferred against him. He died at Mauchline, and is buried in the churchyard there. The scene of Brown's imaginary punishment was the village green, in the centre of which then stood the village pump, a handy stake to which to tie the culprit, while the populace energetically expressed their opinion of him in the literal way which then obtained.

By the aid of these brief notes, it will be found that the poem sufficiently explains itself.

In Truth and Honour's name—Amen!
Know all men by these presents plain,
The Fourth o' June,[3] at Mauchline given,
The year 'tween eighty-five and seven,
We, old practitioners,[4] by profession,
As per extracts frae Books o' Session,[5]
In way and manner here narrated,
All con amore[6] congregated,
Are, by our brethren, constituted
A Court of Equity deputed,
With special authorised direction,
To take within our strict protection,
The open stay-laced[7] quondam maiden,
With growing life and anguish laden,
Who, by the miscreant,[8] is denied,
That led her thoughtless steps aside;

He who disowns the ruined fair one,
And for her wants and woes does care none;[9]
The wretch who can deny subsistence,
To life he rak'd into existence;[10]
The coof wha stands on clishmaclaver,
When lassies halflins offer favour;[11]
The sneak wha at a lassie's by-job,
Defrauds her wi' a frig or dry-bob;[12]
The knave, wha takes a private stroke,
Beneath a sanctimonious cloak;
In short, all who in any manner,[13]
Shall stain the fornicator's honour;
To take cognisance thereanent,
And punish the impenitent,[14]
We are the judges competent.

First Poet Burns he takes the chair,
Allow'd by a' his title's clear;[15]
He shows a duplicate pretension,[16]
To pass nem. con, without dissension:
Neist, Merchant Smith, our trusty Fiscal,
To cow each pertinacious rascal,
For whilk, his very foes admit,[17]
His merit is conspicuous great;
Richmond, the third, our worthy clerk,
Our minutes he will duly mark,[18]
And sit, dispenser o' the law,
In absence o' the ither twa;[19]
And fourth, our messenger-at-arms,
When failing a' the milder terms,
Hunter, a hearty willing brither,
Weel skilled in dead and livin' leather.
Without preamble, less or mair said,
We—body politic—aforesaid,
For sake o' them for whom and wherefore[20]
We are appointed here to care for,
Shall punish contravening truants,
At instance of our constituents,
And under proper regulation
Amend the lists of fornication.[21]

Whereas our fiscal, by petition,
Informs us there is strong suspicion
That Coachman Dow and Clockie Brown,
Baith residenters in this toun—
In ither words, you, Jock and Sandy,
Hae been at warks o' houghmagandie;
And noo when facts are brought tae light,
Thae facts ye baith deny outright.[22]

First, Clockie Brown, there's witness borne,
And affidavit made and sworn,
That ye hae wrought a hurly-burly,[23]
In Jeanie Mitchell's turlie-whurlie,
And graizl'd[24] at her regulator,
Till a' her wheels gang clitter-clatter;[25]
And, further still, you cruel Vandal—
A tale might e'en in hell be scandal—
That ye hae made repeated trials,[26]
Wi' drogs and draps in doctors' vials,
Mixed, as ye thought, in fell infusion,
Your ain begotten wean to poosion;
And yet ye are sae scant o' grace,
As daur to lift your brazen face,"[27]
And offer here to tak' your aith,[28]
Ye never lifted Jeanie's claith;
But though ye should yoursel' manswear[29]
Laird Wilson's sclates can witness bear,
Last Mauchline February Fair,[30]
That Jeanie's masts ye laid them bare,[31]
And ye had furled up her sails,[32]
And was at play at heads and tails.

Next, Sandy Dow, ye are indited,
As publicly ye hae been wyted,
For aft clandestinely upwhirlin'[33]
The petticoats o' Maggie Borlan',
And giein' her canister a rattle,
That months hereafter winna settle;[34]
And yet, ye loon, ye still protest[35]
Ye never harried Maggie's nest,
Tho' its weel ken'd that at her gyvil,[36]
Ye've dune what time will soon unravel.

Sae, Brown and Dow, above designed
For clags and claims hereto subjoined,[37]
The Court aforesaid cite and summon,
That on the fourth o' July comin',[38]
The hour o' cause, in our Court-ha',
The Whitefoord Arms, ye'll answer a';[39]
Exculpate proof ye needna bring,
For we're resolved about the thing;[40]
Yet, as reluctantly we punish,
And rather would with zeal admonish,[41]
Since better punishment prevented,
Than obstinacy sair repented,[42]
We, for that ancient secret's sake
Ye have the honour to partake,
And for that noble badge you wear,
You, Sandy Dow, our brither dear,
We give you as a man and mason,
This serious, sober, frien'ly lesson;
Your crime—a manly deed we trow it,
For men, and men alone, can do it,
And he's nae man that won't avow it;[43]
Therefore, confess, and join our core,
And keep reproach outside the door,
For in denial persevering,
Is to a scoundrel's name adhering;[44]
The best o' men hae been surprised,
The doucest women been advised,
The cleverest lads hae had a trick o't,
The bonniest lasses ta'en a lick o't,
Kings hae been proud our name to own,[45]
As adding glory to their crown,
The rhyming sons o' bleak Parnassus,
Were aye red-wud about the lasses,
And saul and body baith would venture,
Rejoicing in our lists to enter,
E'en (wha wad trow't), the cleric order,
Aft slyly break the hallowed border,
And show, in kittle time and place,
They are as scant o' boasted grace
As ony o' the human race:
So, Sandy Dow, be not ashamed
In sic' a quorum to be named;[46]
See, even himsel'—there's godly Bryan,[47]
The auld whatreck, he has been tryin';
When such as he put tae their han',
What man on character need stan'?
Then lift an honest face upon it,
When in a fau't, it's best to own it,
"I, Sandy Dow, gat Meg wi' wean,"
"An's just as fit to do't again;"[48]
Ne'er mind their solemn reverend faces,
Had they, in proper times and places,
But seen and fun'—I muckle dread it,
They just would dune as you and we did;
To tell the truth's a manly lesson,
An' doubly proper in a mason.[49]

For you, Jock Brown, sae black your fau't is,
Sae doubly dyed—we gi'e you notice,[50]
Unless you come to quick repentance,[51]
Acknowledge Jean's and your acquaintance,
Remember this shall be your sentence:—
Our beagles[52] to the Cross will tak' ye,
And there shall mither-naked mak' ye,
Some cannie grip near by your middle,
They shall it bind as tight's a fiddle,[53]
The rape they round the pump shall tak',[54]
And tie your han's ahint your back,
Wi' just an ell o' string allowed,
To jink and hide ye frae the crowd,
There shall ye stand—a lawfu' seizure,
Enduring Jeanie Mitchell's pleasure,
Sae be her pleasure don't surpass,[55]
Five turnings o' a half-hour glass,[56]
Nor will it in her pleasure be,
To turn you loose in less than three.
This our futurum esse decreet,
We mean not to be kept a secret,
But in our summons here insert it,
And whoso dares let him subvert it;[57]
Thus, marked above, the date and place is,
Sigillum est, per Burns, the praeses,
This summons, wi' the signet mark,[58]
Extractum est, per Richmond, Clerk;[59]
At Mauchline, idem date of June,[60]
'Tween four and five of afternoon,
You twa, in propria persona,
Before designed, Sandy and Johnie,
This summons legally ye've got it,
As vide witness undernoted,[61]
Within the house of John Dow, vintner.
Nunc facio hoc, Gulielmus Hunter.

  1. Referred to in the textual notes as Eg. Ver., "Frag. MS.," and "Add. MS."
  2. Referred to as "S.D.'s version."
  3. This twalt o' May.—Eg. Ver. 4th of June,—Add. MS.
  4. We, fornicators.—Eg. Ver.
  5. As per extractum from each Session.—Eg. Ver.
  6. Pro bono amor.—Add. MS.
  7. The stays unlacing.—Eg. Ver. The stays outbursting.—Add. MS.
  8. Scoundrel, Eg. Ver.—Rascal, Add. MS.
  9. This couplet found only in Add. MS.
  10. The wretch that can refuse assistance,
    To those to whom he has given existence.
  11. This couplet found only in the Frag. MS.
  12. This couplet found only in S. D.'s Version.
  13. All who in any way or manner.—Eg. Ver.
  14. This line omitted in Egerton Version.
  15. "Fair."—Eg. Ver.
  16. An allusion to his two lapses.
  17. In this, as every other state.—Eg. Ver.
  18. Our minutes regular to mark.—Eg. Ver.
  19. "Former twa."—Eg. Ver.
  20. With legal due whereas and wherefore.—Eg. Ver.
  21. There is a slight variation of this quartette in the Egerton Version.
  22. The matter ye deny outright.—Eg. Ver.
  23. That ye hae raised.—Eg. Ver. That ye hae bred.—Add. MS.
  24. "Bloostr'd" in some printed copies.
  25. This couplet is found in S. D.'s version alone.
  26. Ye've made repeated wicked trials.—Eg. Ver.
  27. Ye daur set up.—Eg. Ver.
  28. And offer for to tak'.—Eg. Ver.
  29. But though by heaven and hell ye swear.—Eg. Ver.
  30. Ae e'enin' o' a Mauchline fair.—Eg. Ver.
  31. They saw them bare.—Eg. Ver.
  32. For ye had.—Eg. Ver.
  33. To have, as publicly ye're wyted,
    Been clandestinely upward whirlin'.—Eg. Ver.
  34. That months to come it.—Eg. Ver.
  35. And yet ye offer your protest.—Eg. Ver.
  36. Ye hae gi'en mony a kytch and kyvil.—Eg. Ver.
  37. For clags and clauses there subjoined.—Eg. Ver.
  38. That on the 4th o' June incomin'.—Eg. Ver.
  39. Ye answer law.—Eg. Ver.
  40. This couplet is found only in S. D.'s Ver.
  41. And rather mildly would admonish.—Eg. Ver.
  42. This couplet is found only in the Eg. Ver.
  43. This line is awanting in the Eg. Ver.
  44. This couplet is found only in the Eg. Ver.
  45. This and the ten lines immediately following are found only in S. D.'s Ver.
  46. In the Eg. Ver. this runs—

    Then, Brother Dow, if you're ashamed,
    In such a quorum to be named,
    Your conduct much is to be blamed.

  47. This and the three following lines are only found in the Eg. Ver.
  48. In the Eg. Ver. this runs—

    Then, Brither Dow, lift up your brow,
    And, like yoursel', the truth avow,
    Erect a dauntless face upon it,
    And say, "I am the man has done it,"
    "I, Sandy Dow, gat Meg wi' wean,
    An's fit to do as much again."

  49. The previous six lines are found only in the Eg. Ver.
  50. You, Monsieur Brown, as it is proven,
    Jean Mitchell's wame by you was hoven.—Eg Ver.
  51. Without you by a quick repentance.—Eg. Ver.
  52. Beadles.—Eg. Ver.
  53. This couplet found only in the Eg. Ver.
  54. Around your rump.—S. D.'s Ver.
  55. Dinna pass.—Eg. Ver.
  56. Seven turnings.—Eg. Ver.
  57. Whoso dares may controvert it.—Eg. Ver.
  58. In the Eg. Ver. the signature here appears "(L. S.) B....."
  59. Richmond's signature here appears "R....d."
  60. At Mauchline, twenty-fifth of May, about the twalt hour o' the day.—Eg. Ver.
  61. This summons legally have got,
    As vide witness underwrote.—Eg. Ver.