point was clearly derived from the ballad only, for his words are
these: — "The poem of The Whistle celebrates a bacchanalian
contest among three gentlemen of Nithsdale, where Burns ap-
pears as umpire."
How, and when — the reader will ask — did any question, much
more any " controversy " arise on this point to disturb the uni-
versal assumption ? The question dates from the year 1808 ; the
controversy &VOBQ ai 3b much later period. Cromek's " Reliques
of Burns, " published in that year, contain a letter addressed by
the bard, on the morning of the day of contest for the Whistle,
to the host of the betting party, himseK one of the competitors
for the prize. The terms of that letter entirely exclude the
notion that the poet was to form one of the party at Carse on
that occasion ; it indeed shows that his services as poet-laureate
of the forthcoming battle had been bespoke, but that he was to
be a hearsay historian merely. "Forme (he writes) as Thom-
son in his Winter says of the storm, ' I shall hear astonished, and
astonished sing.' " The concluding part of the letter, in particu-
lar, cannot be reconciled with the idea of his intention to be
present : he there requests Mr. Riddel to favour him by getting
his guest, .Sir Robert Lawrie, M.P., (one of the champions) to
frank two enclosed letters " for to. morrow, as I cannot get them
to the post to-night, and I shall send a servant for them in the
The public demand for absolute correctness in stating facts
and dates, and literary taste for sifting of details in biography
and history, had not yet become very manifest when Lockhart
in 1828 produced his admirable " Life of Burns." In referring
to the contest for The Whistle he writes as if he had never seen
the letter above quoted from, and never heard any question
raised regarding the actual presence of the bard on the occasion.
( 465 )
But only three years later, a cleverly edited volume containing
the "Complete Works " and a Memoir of Burns, takes up the
question in a foot-note referring to the letter just spoken of, in
these words : — "So it appears that Burns was not present at the
contest for The Whistle, although Dr. Currie, with a view to
heighten the irregularity of his habits, affirms that he was.
J. G. Lockhart, with this letter of the poet before him, repeats
and amplifies the calumny intended to be inferred from the sup-
posed circumstance. What will not such men venture to afiirm?"*
The "question," however, took no lasting hold anywhere
during that age : notions once accepted by the public are diifi-
cult to eradicate : artists who selected the song of The Whistle.
as a subject for illustration, helped to rivet on the general
apprehension the apparent fact of the poet's presence in the
group; and Mrs Burns, when "interviewed" on that point,
spoke confidently, as if from personal recollection, in favour of
the popular view. Unfortunately for " Bouie Jean's" reminis-
cences, they have generally been found to prove too much : we
have elsewhere, in our notes on the Highland Mary mystery,
and the legend of "the agony in the barnyard," commented on
this peculiarity. According to the memoranda of the late Mr_
M'Diarmid, " Mrs B. remembered the circumstances about The
Whistle, and that the bard, although present at the contest, came
home in his ordinary trim ; and that the song was composed soon
after the drinking bout, and that Capt. Biddel frequently called
to see how he was coming on with it. " This piece of information
naturally suggests the question — " If Burns could compose Tarn
o' Shanter in one day, how many days would the composition of
The Whistle require ? "
Thus much for the " Question " about the poet's actual presence
at the contest, but what of the "Controversy" concerning it?
Its beginner was undoubtedly " Christopher North," who in his
famous Essay on Burns (1840) took occasion to ridicule the popu-
lar belief on that point in his own effective way, and in very few
words (see headnote, p. 280 vol. i. of present work). He could
see nothing " to Burns' discredit " (as some afi"ect to do) in the
style the poet had chosen to construct his ballad, by introducing
* Burns' Works. — London : printed for William Clark, 1831,
( 466 )
himself as one of the acturs in the drama, while, as a matter of
fact, he was a hearsay narrator merely. The Professor of Moi-al
Philosophy could find excuse for a poet uttering a truth-like
fiction in song, although he would not have excused the same
poet were he guilty of fiction in his prose letters. The " real-
presence " party were roused into indignation by this ex cathedra
deliverance of the Professor, and they looked about them for
implements of warfare to support their cause. A leading man
amongst them — the late Sir J. S. Menteith of Closeburn — hunted
up a garrulous old blacksmith in his neighbourhood, who had
been heard to boast of bygone personal associations betwixt him-
self and the poet Burns — a common weakness with some aged
people of that period. He alleged that about the year 1789 he
had acted in capacity of a servant to Capt. Riddel of Carse, and
thus became an eye and ear witness of what transpired in that
gentleman's house on the day of contest for the Whistle. His
account of the transaction was closely copied from the ballad —
with a few slips nevertheless — his part of the performance being
to draw the claret-corks (15 among the three topers, he reckoned)
— to untie the neckcloths of the vanquished when they fell under
the table ; and at sunrise to assist in carrying the defeated
couple to bed. Phcebus rose at ten minutes before seven on the
morning after the battle. Bums had consumed two bottles of
spirits — one of rum and the other of brandy made into punch —
as he sat in a corner for twelve hours with writing materials
before him ; he had scribbled four folio sheets quite full, and ("as
he afterwards assured the informant ") he comi^leted the song of
The WhiMle on the spot. Finally, with The Whistle in his
pocket, the bard walked home to his farm only a very little
touched with the toddy. The worthy Baronet of Closeburn had
the information of this " hoary chronicle " formally extended in
shape of a Declaration, closing with the words "All the above
particulars I am willing to verify on oath," and the declarant —
"William Hunter by name — adhibited his signature to the deed on
2nd Deer., 1841.
This " Deposition of William Hunter (as it has magniloquently
been styled), intended as a bomb-shell to pitch into and scatter
all opposition, was copied in roimd hand and transmitted by the
Baronet to the Professor in the hope that the latter would there-
by be brought to repentance and recantation ; but it failed to
( iC7 )
make the expected impression in that qnarter. On the other
hand, the late Robert Chambers, whose heart was strongly im-
bued with that charity which ' ' thinketh no evil, " was inclined
to credit the alleged reminiscences of the aged blacksmith, and
accordingly he signitied his adhesion to the " real-presence " side
of the controversy. In the first edition of his admirable ' ' Life
and Works of Burns, " in 4 vols. (1851-52) besides speaking re-
spectfully of Hunter's statement, and expressing his dissent from
the \'iews of John Wilson, he thus remarks : — '' I frankly own my
inability to believe that so highly dramatic a description of the
Whistle-contest could have been unfaithful to fact in so prominent
a particular as the poet's presence. — 'A bard was selected to
witness the fray ' is a phrase too directly indicative to be inter-
preted as a fiction even in a comic poem. " In connection with
Tlie Whistle, he gave the Cromek letter, but without appending
to it any editorial observations calculated to reconcile the incon-
sistencies involved in the two productions under his own theory.
In a second edition of same work, however, which appeared in
1856, any necessity of argument to reconcile difficulties is obvia-
ted by the introduction, immediately after that letter, of the
following astounding paragraph, without a word of explanation
or note of authority : — " It appears that after this letter had been
received by Glenriddel, a note was sent to Burns inviting him to
join the party at Carse. He immediately replied in characteristic
fashion : —
' The King's poor blackguard slave am I,
And scarce can spare a minute ;
But I'll be with you by and by,
Or else, the devil's in it. — K. B.'
He was accordingly present, if not at the dinner, at the couipota-
tion which followed ; and the whole affair has been by him
chronicled in the most glowing ^jhraseology in his poem."
Every reader who is well versed in Burns' poetical productions
will recognise the above-quoted impromptu as "an old friend
with a new face." From the beguuiing of the present century
it has been printed, in a less " blackguard " form, in every full
edition of the poetry of its author, as an " Extempore answer to
a card from an intimate of Burns, wishing him to spend an hour
at a tavern with him." Lockhart adopts the lines as a motto for
( 468 )
his Dumfries chapter (the viii.) of the poet's Life, and Chambers
in his earlier edition also gives the genuine quatrain in its proper
place in connection with a Dumfries incident. In his later edi-
tion, however, after adopting it in the base form and connection
above quoted, he coolly deleted the true version from the later
portion of his book without a word of remark concerning the
change. For the little trick thus perpetrated with a view to
neutralise the disturbing effect of the Cromek letter, we cannot
hold Pv.obert Chambers primarily responsible : he had not the
boldness of invention to give it birth ; and we suspect some wag,
in the interests of the " real-presence " party, must have cast the
bullets, and then induced the too credulous veteran to fire them
off. But in fact, a critical examination of this familiar improviptu
in its new setting, must result in its rejection as altogether im-
probable. In October, 1789, Burns had barely entered on his
Excise duties — indeed there is no evidence from his published
correspondence that he had done so ; but be that as it may,
could he have replied in this manner to an unlooked for, and
rather late-in-the-day invitation to appear at Friar's Carse dressed
for a set entertainment, necessarily involving a bacchanalian sede-
runt of at least twelve hours ? — " I can scarcely spare a minute,
but I'll be with you by and by !" Spare a minute! why he could
not but anticipate that his share in those unhallowed orgies would
disqualify him next day for executing valuable services of any
Robert Chambers had retired on his well-earned laurels, laying
down the literary pen for ever, when (in August, 18G4) the outer
world was first made aware of the existence of a document of
unquestionable reliability, the effect of which is to upset ' ' the
best laid schemes " of the party in this curious strife to which
he had allied himself. This was no less than the original manu-
script, dated 10th Octr., 1789, of the " Minute of Bett between
Sib Robt. Lawrik and Craigdarroch for the noted Whistle,
so MUCH celebrated BY ROBT. BURNS' POEM, WHICH BeTT AVAS
decided at Carse, 16th Octr., 1789." It was communicated to
Sir J. S. Meuteith by its possessor, Mr. Thos. H. Cromek, of
Wakefield in Yorkshire— apparently a relative or descendant of
the worthy editor of "Burns' Rcliqucs," who had probably re-
covered that document along with the letter pertaining to it.
( 469 )
The inferences supplied by the letter are singularly corroborated
by this record of the Bett which tells us that the poet's friend,
Mr. M'Murdo, Chamberlain at Drumlanrig, had agreed to be
the judge or umpire of the contest, while the witnesses who
signed the minute and proposed to be spectators of the great
claret-shed, were the poet's landlord, Mr. Patrick Miller of Dal-
swinton, and a neighbouring squire, Mr. George Johnston of
In concluding this lengthy recapitulation of an exploded con-
troversy, we have only to say that we should not have troubled
our readers with it but for the salutary lesson it is calculated to
convey to dogmatisers. In this respect, the dead controversy
deserves embalmment as an instructive curiosity. Another
inducement for recording it here lies in the deplorable fact that
one learned gentleman whose literary labours are entitled to
much respect, and who, since 1864, has produced an edition of
Burns' Works of lasting value, has there avowed himself still a
believer in the Real Presence of Burns at the Whistle-contest.
To his credit, he has printed aU the documents necessary for
* "We here subjoin a copj' of this interesting relic. The reader will please to
observe that Mr. lliddel of Carse, possessor of the Whistle prior to the contest,
was only a pro forma competitor on the occasion; the Bett lying mainly betwixt
Craigdarroch and Sir Kobt. Lawrie. The poet has ingeniously modified this
circumstance by making Glenriddel retire from the struggle when matters
grew serious : —
"A high ruling elder to wallow in wine !
He left the foul business to folks less divine."
Alas, for the "deposition" of poor Hunter! according to whom, lEiddel often
fell from his chair, and, with Barns' assistance, was helped up, and eventually
carried to bed dead drunk ! It is now impossible to ascertain if Miller of Dal-
Bwinton witnessed the contest; but M'Murdo and Johnston were both pledged
to be present, and doubtless were so. M'Murdo endorsed the minute of the
Bett in these words :— " The Bett decided at Carse, 16 Oct., 17S9. Won by
Craigdarroch — he drank upds. of five bottles of claret."
"Mbmoeandum for the Whistle.
"The Whistle, gained by Sir Eobt. Lawrie [which is] in possession of Mr.
Bidden of Glenriddell, is to be ascertained to the heirs of the said Sir Kobert,
now existing, being Sir R. L.. Mr. E. of G., and A. F. of C, and to be settled
under the arbitration of Mr. Jno. M'Murdo ; the business to be decided at Carse,
the 16 Octr., 1789.
Cowhill, 10th October, 1789.
(Signed) ALEX. FERGUSON.
(Signed) JNO. M'MURDO— accepts as Judge.
GEO. JOHNSTON, WitneBS— to be present.
PATRICK MILLER, Witness— to be pret. if poBsible."
( 470 )
forming an opinion on that question ; and he has not condes-
cended to take advantage of the questionable help intended for
liis side in Chambers' last edition, which we have sufficiently
exposed above — an inference this, that he disapproves of such
unfair practise in honest warfare. He however holds that
' ' although we had no other evidence than that of the song itself,
we might affirm with almost as much certainty that Burns was
present at the contest for the Whistle, as that he was present
at the celebration of the Holy Fair." He is possessed of the
notion that it would be "to Biirns' disadvantage" to doubt
that he was so present : he appeals to the poet's words, ' ' I winna
lee, come what will o' me," as if the bard were no more capable
of ideal painting or exaggeration in a poetic reference to himself,
than of telling a falsehood in plain prose, or of deliberate dis-
honesty in his ordinary transactions. By this short-visioned style
of reading Burns, we should be bound to believe that he actually
did forgather and converse with the gruesome object called
"Death " between the village of Tarbolton and " Willie's Mill,"
as narrated in his poem. We should be bound to credit the
poet's averment in his epistle to James Smith, that he had worn
out "twenty pairs o' shoon " in travelling half a mile betimes
to see him. We should in like manner be bound to believe that
he spoke sincerely when he promised to drink Pitt's health in
Nanse Tinnock's little public-house " nine times a week." Why
Xanse herself had not a more contracted notion of the poetic
licence than this learned biographer of Burns has ! That well-
knovpn passage in the Author^ s Earnest Crt/ waa frequently quoted
to her, and she as often protested against the implication that
the poet and she ever were so "gracious." — "Nine times a
week ! the leein' fallow, he wasna three times in my house during
his hail life ! "
INDEX TO POSTHUMOUS YOL.
Accept the gift a friend sincere, 399.
Adown winding Nith I did wander, 93.
Ae day as Death, that gruesome carle, 199.
Afar the illustrious exile roams, 434.
Ah, Chloris, since it may na be, 323
A head, pure, sinless quite of brain and soul, 414.
A Highland lad my love was bom, 181.
Ah ! woe is me my mother dear, 391.
A lassie all alone was making her moan, 5.
A little upright, pert, tart, tripping wight, 276.
All devU as I am, a damned wretch, 252.
Altho' my back be at the wa', 35.
Altho' my bed were on yon muir, 253.
Amang the trees where humming bees, 285.
Ance mair I hail thee, thou gloomy December, 42.
An honest man here lies at rest, 166.
As cauld a wind as ever blew, 330.
As do-\vn the burn they took their way, 95.
As I cam o'er the Cairney mount, 29.
As I gaed up by yon gate-end, 325.
As I stood by yon roofless tower, 5.
As I was a-wand'ring ae morning in spring, 286.
As I was walking up the street, 248.
Ask why God made the gem so small, 215.
As on the banks of waud'ring Nith, 378.
A slave to love's unbounded sway, 244.
( ii. )
As Tam the chapman on a day, 334.
At Brownhill we always get dainty good cheer, 339.
Auld chuckie Eeekie's sair distrest, 271.
Auld comrade dear, and brother sinner, 217.
Awa wi' your belles and your beauties, 93.
Awa wi' your witchcraft o' beauty's alarms, 79.
Bannocks o' bearmeal, bannocks o' barley, 33.
Before I saw Clarinda's face, 313.
Behold the fatal hour arrive, 446.
Behold the hour, the boat arrive, 95.
Bless Jesus Christ, Cardoness, 330.
Blest be M'Murdo to his latest day, 373.
Blithe hae I been on yon hill, 55.
Bright ran thy line, Galloway, 283.
But lately seen in gladsome green, 35.
But rarely seen since Nature's birth, 338.
By Allan stream I chanced to rove, 57.
Canst thou leave me thus, my Katie ? 69.
Cauld is the e'ening blast, 245.
Cease, ye prudes, your envious railing, 226.
Come let me take thee to my breast, 59.
Come, rede me, dame, 344.
Comin' thro' the rye, poor body, 11.
Contented wi' little, and cantie wi' mair, 68.
Could aught of song declare my pains, 38.
Curse on ungrateful man that can be pleased, 270.
Curst be the man, the poorest wretch in life, 207.
Daughter of Chaos' doting years, 439.
Davie Rant, Davie Rant, 438.
X)ear I'll gie ye some advice, 307.
Dear Peter, dear Peter, we poor sons of metre, 321.
Deluded swain, the pleasure, 97.
Dire was the hate at old Harlaw, 284.
Does haughty Gaul invasion threat? 123.
Donald Brodie met a lass, 344.
Dost thou not rise, indignant shade I 321.
Duncan Gray cam here to woo, 45.
( iii. )
Fair empress of the poet's soul, 232.
Fairest maid on Devon banks, 1 14.
Fair maid, you need not take the hint, 307.
Fair the face of orient day, 216.
False flatterer, Hope, away, 133.
Farewell dear friend, may gude luck hit you, 299.
Farewell, old Scotia's bleak domains, 300.
Farewell, thou stream that winding flows, 66.
Fill me with the rosy wine, 338.
Fintray, my stay in worldly strife, 317, 418.
For lords or kings I dinna mourn, 207.
Forlorn my love, no comfort near, 110.
For me, my skill's but very sma', 437-
For weel he ken'd the way 0, 36.
Free through the leaves, ye maggots, 331.
Friday first's the day appointed, 376.
Friend of the poet, tried and leal, 168.
From the white-blossomed sloe, 350
From those drear solitudes and frowsy cells, 373.
Fy ! let us a' to Kirkcudbright, 384.
Gat ye me, gat ye me, 15.
Gin a bodie meet a bodie, 11.
Gracie, thou'rt a man of worth, 336.
Grant me, indulgent Heaven, that I may live, 214.
Gude e'en, my auld acquaintance cronie, 350.
Gude e'en to you, kimmer, 238.
Gude pity me because I'm little ! 294.
Gnde speed and furder to you, Johnnie, 262.
Had I a cave on some wild distant shore, 57.
Had I the wyte ? Had I the wyte ? 10.
Hail Poesie ! thou nymph reserved, 171.
Hail ! thairm-inspiring, rattlin' Willie, 365.
Hark the mavis' e'ening sang, 99.
Health to the Maxwell's veteran chief, 279.
Heard ye o' the Tree o' France ? 404.
He clench'd his pamplets in his fist, 274.
Hee, balou, my sweet wee Donald, 33.
Here brewer Gabriel's fire's extinct, 335.
( iv. )
Here cursing, swearing Burton lies, 33-4.
Here Holy Willie's sair-worn clay, 198.
Here is the glen and here the bower, 51.
Here lies a mock marquis, 229.
Here lies a rose, a budding rose, 349.
Here lies Boghead amang the dead, 424.
Here lies in earth, a root of hell, 225.
Here lies John Busby, honest man, 229.
Here lies Johnie Pigeon, 200.
Here lies with Death, auld Grizel Grim, 337.
Here lies Willie Michie's banes. 273.
Here's a bottle and an honest friend, 286.
Here's a health to them that's awa, 8, — 280.
Here's a health to ane I lo'e dear, 80.
Here's to thy health, my bonie lass, 38.
Here, where the Scottish muse immortal lives, 164.
Her flowing locks, the raven's wing, 270.
Here Stuarts once in glory reigned, 310.
He who of Rankin sang, lies stiff and dead, 200. ],
His face with smile eternal drest, 414.
Honest Will to Heaven is gane, 333.
How can my poor heart be glad, 98.
How cold is that bosom which Folly once fired, 162.
How cruel are the parents, 112.
How daur ye ca' me howlet-face ? 333.
How lang and dreary is the night, 50.
How wisdom and folly mix, meet, and unite, 144.
Hiimid seal of soft affection, 327.
Husband, husband, cease your strife, 65.
I am a bard of no regard, 185.
I am a keeper of the law, 188.
I am a son of Mars, 177.
I burn, I burn, as when tliro' ripcn'd corn, 231.
I call no goddess to inspire my strains, 155.
I coft a stane o' haslock woo, 17.
If ye gae up to yon hill-tap, 396.
If you rattle along like your mistress's tongue, 330.
I gaed up to Dunse, 236.
I had sax owsen in a plough, 241.
( V. )
I hold it, sir, my boundeu duty, 267.
I'll aye ca' iu by yon town, 24.
lU-fated Genius ! Heav'n-tauglit Ferguson, 322.
I met a lass, a bouie lass, 343.
I mind it Aveel, in early date, 134.
I'm now arrived — thanks to the gods ! 416.
I'm three-times doubly owre your debtor, 127.
I murder hate by field or flood, 227, 42S.
I'm wearin' awa, Jean, 348.
In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles, 116.
Innocence looks gaily-smiling on, 232.
In politics if thou wouldst mix, 227.
In seventeen hundred forty-nine, 335.
Instead of a song, boys, I'U give you a toast, 215.
In Tarbolton, ye ken, there are proper yoimg men, 397.
In this strange land, this iincouth clime, 368.
In vain would Prudence, with decorous sneer, 233.
In wood and wild, ye warbling throng, 161.
Is there for honest poverty, 107.
It was a' for our rightfu' king, 39.
It was the charming month of May, 61.
Jenny M'Craw she has ta'en to the heather, 343.
Jockie's ta'en the parting kiss, 122.
Kemble, thou cur'st my unbelief, 214.
Ken ye ought o' Captain Grose, 149.
Kind sir, I've read your paper through, 153.
Lament him, Mauchline husbands a', 199.
Lassie wi' the lintwhite locks, 104.
Lass, when your mother is fr^e hame, 343.
Last May a braAV wooer cam down, 74.
Let me ryke up to dight that tear, 182.
Let not woman e'er complain, 47.
Let other heroes boast their scars, 302.
Life ne'er exulted in so rich a j^rize, 154.
Light lay the earth on Billy's breast, 332.
Like Esop's lion. Burns says, soi-e I feel, 310.
Lone on the bleaky hills the straying fiocks, 311.
( vi. )
Long life, my lord, and health be yours, 297.
Long, long the night, 111.
Lord, we thank, and thee adore, 229.
Lord, to account who dares Thee call, 333.
Mark yonder pomp of costly fashion, 102.
Maxwell, if merit here you crave, 164.
Mild zephyrs waft thee to Life's farthest shore, 231.
My Auntie Jean held to the shore, 421.
My blessings on you, sonsie wifie, 306.
My bonie lass, I work in brass, 183,
My bottle is a haly pool, 227.
My Chloris, mark how green the grove, 103.
My curse upon your venom'd stang, 145.
My father was a farmer, 257.
My girl she's airy, she's buxom and gay, 425.
My heart is sair, I daurna tell, 17.
My heart is wae and unco wae, 401.
My honoured Colonel, deep I feel, 169.
My lady's gown there's gair upon't, 242.
My lord a-hunting he is gane, 242.
My Peggy's face, my Peggy's form, 122.
Nae birdies sang the mirky hour, 355.
Nae heathen name shall I prefix, 400.