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At Hallowmas, whan nights grow lang,
And starnies shine fu' clear,
Whan fock, the nippin cald to bang,
Their winter hap-warms wear,
Near Edinbrough a fair there hads,
I wat there's nane whase name is,
For strappin dames and sturdy lads,
And cap and stoup, mair famous
Than it that day.
Upo' the tap o' ilka lum
The sun began to keek,
And bad the trig made maidens come
A sightly joe to seek
At Hallow-fair, whare browsters rare
Keep gude ale on the gantries
And dinna scrimp ye o' a skair
O' kebbucks frae their pantries,
Fu' saut that day.
The Hallowmas Fair would have been the first time since the summer for the people of Edinburgh to let their hair down, get smartened up in their holiday clothes and get stuck in to the drink – not to mention each other. Along with the evocations of the sharp cold and the bright Autumn morning sunshine, Fergusson describes the fair as being as famous for the young men and women getting dressed to impress each other, as for the quality and quantity of the drink on offer.
Here country John in bonnet blue,
An' eke his Sunday claise on,
Rins efter Meg wi' rokelay new,
An' sappy kisses lays on;
She'll tauntin say, Ye silly coof!
Be o' your gab mair spairin;
He'll tak the hint, and criesh her loof
Wi' what will buy her fairin,
To chow that day.
In the third stanza, Fergusson personalises the poem a little and introduces us to a couple of characters – John and Meg – a young couple clearly in love with each other. He runs after her drooling kisses on her, but she’s having none of it and shoos him away. To keep in her good books he gives her some money for her “fairin” – literally ‘money for the fair’.
Here chapman billies tak their stand,
An' shaw their bonny wallies;
Wow, but they lie fu' gleg aff hand
To trick the silly fallows:
Heh, Sirs! what cairds and tinklers come,
An' ne'er-do-weel horse-coupers,
An' spae-wives fenzying to be dumb,
Wi' a' siclike landloupers,
To thrive that day.
Here the full spectacle of the fair is revealed – a motley assemblage of vagabonds, scoundrels and undesirables all eager to part the innocent young from their cash.
Here Sawny cries, frae Aberdeen;
'Come ye to me fa need:
'The brawest shanks that e'er were seen
'I'll sell ye cheap an' guid.
'I wyt they are as protty hose
'As come fae weyr or leem:
'Here tak a rug, and shaw's your pose:
'Forseeth, my ain's but teem
'An' light this day.'
The scene is like the Barras on a Saturday afternoon. He describes an Aberdeen market traders’ patter as he tries to attract people to his stall, offering bargains he claims will ruin him. Fergusson mimics the accent of the Aberdeen trader: protty for pretty; fa for who.
Ye wives, as ye gang thro' the fair,
O mak your bargains hooly!
O' a' thir wylie lowns beware,
Or fegs they will ye spulyie.
For fairn-year Meg Thamson got,
Frae thir mischievous villains,
A scaw'd bit o' a penny note,
That lost a score o' shillins
To her that day.
Fergusson urges the women attending the Fair to be on their guard (I don’t know why he should single out the women – perhaps the men are already throwing all their cash at the browsters.) He warns them that the smooth talking young men who work at the fair will take all their money off them in exchange for dodgy merchandise, and gives the example of Meg Thamson who last year spent all her money on worthless rubbish.
The dinlin drums alarm our ears,
The serjeant screechs fu' loud,
'A' gentlemen and volunteers
'That wish your country gude,
'Come here to me, and I shall gie
'Twa guineas and a crown,
'A bowl o' punch, that like the sea
'Will soum a lang dragoon
'Wi' ease this day.'
Without the cuissers prance and nicker,
An' our the ley-rig scud;
In tents the carles bend the bicker,
An' rant an' roar like wud.
Then there's sic yellowchin and din,
Wi' wives and wee-anes gablin,
That ane might true they were a-kin
To a' the tongues at Babylon,
Confus'd that day.
In stanzas 7 and 8 the drink really begins to flow. A bowl of punch is offered, for “twa guineas and a crown”, big enough, the sejeant assures us, to drown a soldier. In the booze tent, as the festivities proceed outside with lancers putting on a display, the rowdy atmosphere is likened to the tongues of Babylon (or Babel?) – a confused babble of chatter as the punters get drunker.
Whan Phoebus ligs in Thetis lap,
Auld Reekie gies them shelter;
Whare cadgily they kiss the cap,
An' ca't round helter-skelter.
Jock Bell gaed furth to play his freaks,
Great cause he had to rue it,
For frae a stark Lochaber aix
He gat a clamihewit
Fu' sair that night.
'Ohon!' quo' he, 'I'd rather be
'By sword or bagnet stickit,
'Than hae my crown or body wi'
'Sic deadly weapons nicket.'
Wi' that he gat anither straik
Mair weighty than before,
That gar'd his feckless body aik,
An' spew the reikin gore,
Fu' red that night.
He peching on the cawsey lay,
O' kicks and cuffs weel sair'd;
A Highland aith the serjeant gae,
'She maun pe see our guard.'
Out spak the weirlike corporal,
'Pring in ta drunken sot.'
They trail'd him ben, an' by my saul,
He paid his drunken groat,
For that neist day.
In verses 9 – 11, the transforming effects of the drink are beginning to take hold. Fergusson ironically invokes the Roman gods as a literary, high-flown counterpoint to the base antics of the drunken mob at the Fair as their rabble rousing plunges new depths. Jock Bell comes off worst here as he goes off to play merry – we’re not told exactly what he gets up to with his “freaks” but he receives a mighty buffet around the head from a Lochaber aix for his trouble. This would be the 18th century equivalent of a truncheon, back in the days when the Police were less, let’s say, humane than the law enforcement officers we know today.
Verse 10 continues Jock’s story and clearly the knock around the head has failed to instil any sense into him. For his cheek he is rewarded with another knock, “mair weighty than before” which has the effect of splitting his head open.
In verse 11, the unfortunate Jock, lies catching his breath on the pavement. The ironic touch of Fergusson has him ‘well served’ by the “kicks and cuffs” of the policemen. It’s clear whose side Fergusson is on. The guards are described as “weirlike” – literally warlike – and their Highland accent is mocked: pring for bring, ta for the. Poor Jock’s night of disaster is completed with the payment of his “drunken groat” – a fine for being drunk and disorderly, though since he was only out for a bit of fun, we wonder, between Jock and the policemen, who is the most disorderly.
Good fock, as ye come frae the fair,
Bide yont frae this black squad;
There's nae sic savages elsewhere
Allow'd to wear cockade.
Than the strong lion's hungry maw,
Or tusk o' Russian bear,
Frae their wanruly fellin paw
Mair cause ye hae to fear
Your death that day.
A wee soup drink dis unco weel
To had the heart aboon;
It's good as lang's a canny chiel
Can stand steeve in his shoon.
But gin a birkie's owr weel sair'd,
It gars him aften stammer
To pleys that bring him to the guard,
An' eke the Council-chawmir,
Wi' shame that day.
Fergusson leaves us with a note of caution: stay away from the Police! This “black squad” are the most brutal people anywhere allowed to wear a uniform and they are only too happy to knock you about with the slightest reason.
Furthermore, he cautions us to drink wisely. “A wee soup drink” we can read ironically – much as people who are going out on a major spree often say they are only going out for a “wee dram” or a “wee tipple”. Or else we can take him at his word: a couple of drinks, as long as you’re sensible about it, will bring you to no harm. But too much of the stuff will lead you into nothing but trouble.
The poem reads as a song, or more precisely, a ballad. The jolly lilting rhythm - swapping alternate iambic tetrameter with trimeter carries us along. It tells the story of a typical day at the fair. Plenty of it is in good humour but we cannot help but be shocked at the level of violence suffered at the hands of the guards. There is a cautionary element to it too, which we can take or leave. Certainly 300 years of history doesn’t seem to have changed the scheme of a drunken night in Scotland.
The antics of the Edinburgh folk – of which he was no mere innocent bystander – are one of the themes of Fergusson’s poetry. The humour, compassion, and ironic detachment he uses serve to paint a warm picture and the love he clearly felt for his home town.