Complete Songs Of Robert Burns - online book

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460                           HISTORICAL NOTES
He was opposed by a Tory, Thomas Gordon of Balmaghie, who had the support of most of the landed proprietors of the district. Burns knew most of the principal supporters on the other side, and his personal aversion to some of them whetted his pen. In his only known letter to Heron early in 1795 he sent a copy of this and No. 270 sufra, which had been previously printed in broad­sides for circulation among the electors. He informs Heron; 'In order to bring my humble efforts to bear with more effect on the foe, I have privately printed a good many copies of both ballads, and have sent them among friends all over the country . . . You have already as your auxiliary the sober detesta­tion of mankind on the head of your opponents; and I swear by the lyre of Thalia to muster on your side all the votaries of honest laughter and fair, candid ridicule !' Whether it is fair or not, there can be no question of the candidness of the ridicule. In these ballads we get a glImpse of the manners and high jinks at parliamentary elections a hundred years ago. For the tune For o' that, see Songs Nos. 2js and }og.
Ho. 276. Dire was the hate at old Harlaw. Cromek's Reliques, 1808, 416, entitled ' The Dean of Faculty. A new ballad. Tune, The dragon of Wantley' The last stanza is wanting in Cromek. The MS. is in the British Museum. Towards the close of 1795 the ferment of politics was very brisk in Scotland. Henry Erskine, the eloquent Dean of Faculty and the most brilliant member of the Scottish bar, presided at a public meeting in Edinburgh to discuss political reform. His action displeased the members of the Edinburgh Bar, and at the next election of a Dean, Robert Dundas, the mediocre son of a distinguished father, was nominated and was elected by a large majority. Burns had an old score to settle with the new Dean, who slighted him in 1787. At the instigation of the physician of the late Lord President Dundas, who had then just died, Burns wrote a eulogy and sent it to the son in a letter. Neither the poem nor the letter was acknowledged, and in writing the pungent satire Dire was the hate, Burns was paying tribute to his old friend and adviser, the witty Henry Erskine, and scoring off Robert Dundas. The first line of the ballad refers to the battle of Harlaw, which took place in 1411 at Garioch in Aberdeenshire, between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. It is celebrated in minstrelsy, and is memorable as being the last contest for political supremacy in Scotland between the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon races. Next to Bannockburn it was the most decisive battle in Scottish history. The ballad of Harlaw is named in the Complaynt of Scotland c. 1549, and an old pibroch bears the title, the tune of which in a modem form set to verses printed by Allan Ramsay in 1724 is in the Scots Musical Museum, No. J12.
The latter part of the first couplet of Burns's verses refers to the Battle of Langside, which determined the career in Scotland of Mary Queen of Scots. After this short introduction the poet proceeds to Impale the new Dean and his heretic supporters.
The tune and ballad of The Dragon of Wantley are in Durfey's Pills, 1719, I'll, 10. The words alone in A Collection of old ballads, 1723, jy, entitled An excellent Ballad of a most dreadful combat fought between Moore of Moore-hall and the Dragon of Wantley. The verses are coarse, but the wit and humour are undeniable and superior to the ordinary class of narrative ballads. A specimen is the following stanza : —
' This dragon had two furious wings,
Each one upon each shoulder; With a sting in his tail, as long as a flail,
Which made him bolder and bolder. He had long claws, and in his jaws
Four and forty teeth of iron; With a hide as tough, as any buff,
Which did him round environ.'