Saturday 12th August brought to an end the agricultural shows in Orkney with the biggest being The County Show in Kirkwall. I felt it was fitting therefore to choose Burns’s The Holy Fair, and I wonder upon the reading how much of it shall still ring true some 230 or so years later.
The painting is “The Mauchline Holy Fair” by Alexander Carse depicting the struggle between the pub and the church, and is based on the poem “The Holy Fair” by Burns.
A robe of seeming truth and trust
Hid crafty Observation;
And secret hung, with poison’d crust,
The dirk of Defamation:
A mask that like the gorget show’d,
Dye-varying on the pigeon;
And for a mantle large and broad,
He wrapt him in Religion.
Upon a simmer Sunday morn
When Nature’s face is fair,
I walked forth to view the corn,
An’ snuff the caller air.
The rising sun owre Galston muirs
Wi’ glorious light was glintin;
The hares were hirplin down the furrs,
The lav’rocks they were chantin
Fu’ sweet that day.
As lightsomely I glowr’d abroad,
To see a scene sae gay,
Three hizzies, early at the road,
Cam skelpin up the way.
Twa had manteeles o” dolefu’ black,
But ane wi’ lyart lining;
The third, that gaed a wee a-back,
Was in the fashion shining
Fu’ gay that day.
The twa appear’d like sisters twin,
In feature, form, an’ claes;
Their visage wither’d, lang an’ thin,
An’ sour as only slaes:
The third cam up, hap-stap-an’-lowp,
As light as ony lambie,
An’ wi’a curchie low did stoop,
As soon as e’er she saw me,
Fu’ kind that day.
Wi’ bonnet aff, quoth I, “Sweet lass,
I think ye seem to ken me;
I’m sure I’ve seen that bonie face
But yet I canna name ye.”
Quo’ she, an’ laughin as she spak,
An’ taks me by the han’s,
“Ye, for my sake, hae gien the feck
Of a’ the ten comman’s
A screed some day.”
“My name is Fun-your cronie dear,
The nearest friend ye hae;
An’ this is Superstitution here,
An’ that’s Hypocrisy.
I’m gaun to Mauchline Holy Fair,
To spend an hour in daffin:
Gin ye’ll go there, yon runkl’d pair,
We will get famous laughin
At them this day.”
Quoth I, “Wi’ a’ my heart, I’ll do’t;
I’ll get my Sunday’s sark on,
An’ meet you on the holy spot;
Faith, we’se hae fine remarkin!”
Then I gaed hame at crowdie-time,
An’ soon I made me ready;
For roads were clad, frae side to side,
Wi’ mony a weary body
In droves that day.
Here farmers gash, in ridin graith,
Gaed hoddin by their cotters;
There swankies young, in braw braid-claith,
Are springing owre the gutters.
The lasses, skelpin barefit, thrang,
In silks an’ scarlets glitter;
Wi’ sweet-milk cheese, in mony a whang,
An’ farls, bak’d wi’ butter,
Fu’ crump that day.
When by the plate we set our nose,
Weel heaped up wi’ ha’pence,
A greedy glowr black-bonnet throws,
An’ we maun draw our tippence.
Then in we go to see the show:
On ev’ry side they’re gath’rin;
Some carrying dails, some chairs an’ stools,
An’ some are busy bleth’rin
Right loud that day.
Here stands a shed to fend the show’rs,
An’ screen our countra gentry;
There Racer Jess, an’ twa-three whores,
Are blinkin at the entry.
Here sits a raw o’ tittlin jads,
Wi’ heaving breast an’ bare neck;
An’ there a batch o’ wabster lads,
Blackguarding frae Kilmarnock,
For fun this day.
Here, some are thinkin on their sins,
An’ some upo’ their claes;
Ane curses feet that fyl’d his shins,
Anither sighs an’ prays:
On this hand sits a chosen swatch,
Wi’ screwed-up, grace-proud faces;
On that a set o’ chaps, at watch,
Thrang winkin on the lasses
To chairs that day.
O happy is that man, an’ blest!
Nae wonder that it pride him!
Whase ain dear lass, that he likes best,
Comes clinkin down beside him!
Wi’ arms repos’d on the chair back,
He sweetly does compose him;
Which, by degrees, slips round her neck,
An’s loof upon her bosom,
Unkend that day.
Now a’ the congregation o’er
Is silent expectation;
For Moodie speels the holy door,
Wi’ tidings o’ damnation:
Should Hornie, as in ancient days,
‘Mang sons o’ God present him,
The vera sight o’ Moodie’s face,
To ‘s ain het hame had sent him
Wi’ fright that day.
Hear how he clears the point o’ faith
Wi’ rattlin and wi’ thumpin!
Now meekly calm, now wild in wrath,
He’s stampin, an’ he’s jumpin!
His lengthen’d chin, his turned-up snout,
His eldritch squeel an’ gestures,
O how they fire the heart devout,
Like cantharidian plaisters
On sic a day!
But hark! the tent has chang’d its voice,
There’s peace an’ rest nae langer;
For a’ the real judges rise,
They canna sit for anger,
Smith opens out his cauld harangues,
On practice and on morals;
An’ aff the godly pour in thrangs,
To gie the jars an’ barrels
A lift that day.
What signifies his barren shine,
Of moral powers an’ reason?
His English style, an’ gesture fine
Are a’ clean out o’ season.
Like Socrates or Antonine,
Or some auld pagan heathen,
The moral man he does define,
But ne’er a word o’ faith in
That’s right that day.
In guid time comes an antidote
Against sic poison’d nostrum;
For Peebles, frae the water-fit,
Ascends the holy rostrum:
See, up he’s got, the word o’ God,
An’ meek an’ mim has view’d it,
While Common-sense has taen the road,
An’ aff, an’ up the Cowgate
Fast, fast that day.
Wee Miller neist the guard relieves,
An’ Orthodoxy raibles,
Tho’ in his heart he weel believes,
An’ thinks it auld wives’ fables:
But faith! the birkie wants a manse,
So, cannilie he hums them;
Altho’ his carnal wit an’ sense
Like hafflins-wise o’ercomes him
At times that day.
Now, butt an’ ben, the change-house fills,
Wi’ yill-caup commentators;
Here ‘s cryin out for bakes and gills,
An’ there the pint-stowp clatters;
While thick an’ thrang, an’ loud an’ lang,
Wi’ logic an’ wi’ scripture,
They raise a din, that in the end
Is like to breed a rupture
O’ wrath that day.
Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair
Than either school or college;
It kindles wit, it waukens lear,
It pangs us fou o’ knowledge:
Be’t whisky-gill or penny wheep,
Or ony stronger potion,
It never fails, or drinkin deep,
To kittle up our notion,
By night or day.
The lads an’ lasses, blythely bent
To mind baith saul an’ body,
Sit round the table, weel content,
An’ steer about the toddy:
On this ane’s dress, an’ that ane’s leuk,
They’re makin observations;
While some are cozie i’ the neuk,
An’ forming assignations
To meet some day.
But now the Lord’s ain trumpet touts,
Till a’ the hills are rairin,
And echoes back return the shouts;
Black Russell is na sparin:
His piercin words, like Highlan’ swords,
Divide the joints an’ marrow;
His talk o’ Hell, whare devils dwell,
Our vera “sauls does harrow”
Wi’ fright that day!
A vast, unbottom’d, boundless pit,
Fill’d fou o’ lowin brunstane,
Whase raging flame, an’ scorching heat,
Wad melt the hardest whun-stane!
The half-asleep start up wi’ fear,
An’ think they hear it roarin;
When presently it does appear,
‘Twas but some neibor snorin
Asleep that day.
‘Twad be owre lang a tale to tell,
How mony stories past;
An’ how they crouded to the yill,
When they were a’ dismist;
How drink gaed round, in cogs an’ caups,
Amang the furms an’ benches;
An’ cheese an’ bread, frae women’s laps,
Was dealt about in lunches
An’ dawds that day.
In comes a gawsie, gash guidwife,
An’ sits down by the fire,
Syne draws her kebbuck an’ her knife;
The lasses they are shyer:
The auld guidmen, about the grace
Frae side to side they bother;
Till some ane by his bonnet lays,
An’ gies them’t like a tether,
Fu’ lang that day.
Waesucks! for him that gets nae lass,
Or lasses that hae naething!
Sma’ need has he to say a grace,
Or melvie his braw claithing!
O wives, be mindfu’ ance yoursel’
How bonie lads ye wanted;
An’ dinna for a kebbuck-heel
Let lasses be affronted
On sic a day!
Now Clinkumbell, wi’ rattlin tow,
Begins to jow an’ croon;
Some swagger hame the best they dow,
Some wait the afternoon.
At slaps the billies halt a blink,
Till lasses strip their shoon:
Wi’ faith an’ hope, an’ love an’ drink,
They’re a’ in famous tune
For crack that day.
How mony hearts this day converts
O’ sinners and o’ lasses!
Their hearts o’ stane, gin night, are gane
As saft as ony flesh is:
There’s some are fou o’ love divine;
There’s some are fou o’ brandy;
An’ mony jobs that day begin,
May end in houghmagandie
Some ither day.
Robert Burns 1785