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Jim Alison

ASLS believes that teachers will increasingly want to explore and expand the corpus of literature in Scots for use in schools. For that reason we welcome the recent appearance of Scottish CCC’s resource ‘The Kist’. It is also for that reason that we are rediscovering in this issue the little-known poem Lummie by Alexander Taylor. We hope you will agree that in practical terms Lummie is a valuable addition to the range of texts that will ‘go’ in secondary courses today. Even if you do not, the attempt to extend the canon is surely justifiable.

Lummie appeared in four weekly instalments in the Aberdeen Herald from April to May 1857. In a footnote to the second episode the Herald’s editor James Adam commented ‘Since Burns wrote Captain Grose there have not many better things, in its style, appeared than Lummie.’ Thereafter the poem seems to have vanished from public view. As far as I know, it has never been reprinted in its entirety, though a small extract appeared in Poetry of Northeast Scotland (1976). Its quality was however appreciated by a few notable students of northeast lore. Professor Child’s ballad correspondent Will Walker recorded its existence, and supplied a few facts about its author in Bards of Bon Accord (1887). Alex Keith, agriculturalist and ballad editor, saw Lummie as ‘a tragedy related with gusto and superb effect’. (A Thousand Years of Aberdeen, 1972)

In the Herald the poem was attributed pseudonymously to Auld Style, but Walker and Keith identify the author as Alexander Taylor. The biographical details which they supply are scanty. Taylor seems to have been born in Fetteresso in the early 1800s and educated in Stonehaven parish school. He trained as a writer’s clerk in Stonehaven, the ‘Kilwhang’ of the poem, and moved later to Edinburgh. According to Keith he had some fame as an amateur astronomer. There are probably other items by him lurking in the newspaper archives. Alan Reid in Bards of Angus and the Mearns (1897) mentions one Taylor, a farmer at Fetteresso, who in 1856 published in an Aberdeen paper a very good rhyming piece Dogger and Bumper described as ‘an ancient legend of Kilwhang’, about a legal case involving two liquor sellers. This sounds like our Taylor, or at least the same family. If any reader can supply further information about the author of Lummie, I shall be delighted to receive it.

The poem, which charts the downfall of a peasant farmer in the Mearns, is said to have some foundation in fact. Certainly the evocation of the rural background has a powerful ring of authenticity. The district of Lumgair is in the parish of Dunnotar just south of Stonehaven; a few miles further south lies Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Bloomfield and to the west is the heartland of Burns’s forebears. In the first half of the nineteenth century this was classic improvers’ country in which the peasant economy was rapidly being displaced by the new capitalist farmers and their cost-efficient husbandry. The local Barclay lairds of Urie had forcefully promoted this agricultural change. Writing in 1842 Peter Christian, a Stonehaven solicitor, describes how under their all pervading influence, ‘land was cleaned, drained and limed; regular fields were formed; artificial grasses and turnips were introduced, and the system of convertible husbandry finally banished the antiquated and rude management by infield and outfield ... In this way, within the last sixty years, the greater part of the land of Dunottar has, from the worst mode of management and comparative sterility, been advanced to a pitch of improvement not inferior to any district in this part of the country’ (New Statistical Account, Parish of Dunottar). In the same report Christian pronounces with evident satisfaction that ‘The people are in general attentive to their religious and moral duties. Indulgence in the use of intoxicating liquors is fast disappearing.’ It is against this kind of social background that Taylor traces the career of the elderly reprobate Lummie.

The sociologist Ian Carter characterises such ‘ancient farmers’ in the Northeast: ‘These were old men, irascible and litigious, though also honest and sensible. They were simple in their manners and plain in their dress. Good judges of black cattle, they were indolent in their management of their farms, paying little attention to scientific husbandry. They drank heavily, relishing the crack and dram of market days, and continued to follow their fathers’ leisure pursuits – like shooting at the mark.’ (Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1914, 1979). Their way of life was evoked sympathetically in William Alexander’s near contemporary novel Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk. In our poem Lummie lives and dies by his own lurid version of these obsolete, anarchic ways and values.

While Lummie may have some antiquarian interest as an item of local history, it does not necessarily command our attention as literature. For most of our readers, therefore, we are offering a critical challenge. Here is an unfamiliar work for which the present contributor is making large claims. Do you think these are justified? Do you judge it is good enough to use in some way with your students in the S4 to S6 stages?

The claim is firstly that Lummie is in its own right a considerable work of art with lasting human interest. Exploiting the constraints of the Standart Habbie, it is a deftly sustained narrative poem incorporating vigorous episodes – the minister’s visit, the wild ride from Aberdeen via Stonehaven to Lumgair, and the death of Lummie. Moreover the imagery of the squalor of Lummie’s ferm toun is extremely graphic. Above all there is the intriguingly ambivalent handling of the central character. On the one hand Lummie is presented with approval as embodying all the subversive carnivalesque virtues of the peasant farmer. He is fiercely proud of his wretched land:

‘... There’s only ae Lumgair
In a’ the warl’;
And ae gudeman ...’

He represents the good old Scotland that is being lost for ever. On the other hand the same gudeman stands defiantly isolated from his local community, a moral decadent whose audacious blasphemy and abuse of his long suffering wife deservedly ends in madness and suicide. What precisely is the authorial stance? The whole poem is managed with a fine feeling for the grotesque which culminates in the gothic horror of the corby:

‘O that grim bird there’s little said
But muckle feared’

As Adam hinted in the Herald, no reader will be in any doubt about Taylor’s debt to Burns. In Lummie the influence is apparent at every level, from turns of phrase to stanza form; from rhetorical devices to choice of theme. But Taylor cannot be dismissed as a plagiarist; indeed he demonstrates that Burns’s influence on 19th century Scottish poetry was not as uniformly malign as is sometimes supposed. The largest claims made in this introductory note are that Lummie can stand comparison with Tam o’ Shanter, and that teachers and students will benefit from reading the two works in conjunction. Although the parallels and borrowings are undoubtedly there, Taylor is his own man on his own ground; the contrasts between the two works are as rewarding as their similarities. Consider for example the ways in which the two poems treat the supernatural, the notion of respectability or the hero’s womenfolk. Taylor moreover has absorbed influences other than that of Burns. Clearly, for example, the hilarious gallop homeward owes more to The Diverting History of John Gilpin than to Tam’s return to Shanter. The croaking raven which presides over Lummie’s end echoes the ill-omened birds of Poe and the traditional ballads.

Finally the language of Lummie is worth some exploration. Its rich mainstream Scots is not marked by many of the northeast forms that you find in Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk, but there are some interesting farming terms that SND records as Mearns usage, eg ‘britchin-cleeks and cadden nails’.

Of Lummie and his like the poet says elegiacally:

‘Nor were they mannies made for show,
That couldna gi’e or tak’ a blow.
They spak’ braid Scots wi’ ready flow,
          Like honest men;
And what they thocht they werna slow
          To let you ken.’

Braid Scots with ready flow is Alexander Taylor’s medium in Lummie, and his achievement.

Copyright © Jim Alison 1997


by Alexander Taylor (?)

Ye drunkards far and near attend!
Nae mair your days in riot spend;
Your ways, ye Sabbath-breakers, mend!
          Swearers, gi’e heed!
To ilka sinner be it ken’d
          That Lummie’s dead.

Nane ever sair’d auld Nick sae leal,
Yet gied puir fouk sic lifts o’ meal;
Nane ever hame sae drunk could reel
          Frae ilka fair;
Nor crack a joke, nor curse sae weel
          As auld Lumgair.

For fifty years he held the grip,
And never let a mornin’ slip;
The foremost aye his coat to strip,
          And curse the idle;
The last at nicht to hang the whip
          Aside the bridle.

But sic a farm as Lummie staid on –
Sic brutes o’ horse his billies rade on –
Sic loons to wark as Lummie led on –
          Sic pleughs and harrows –
And sic a way his farmin’ gaed on
          Had never marrows.

Owre a’ his fields, gang whare ye micht,
On dyke or drain ye couldna licht;
His houses stood upon a heicht,
          Ricket thegither;
He didna fash to haud them ticht
          Against the weather.

Auld broken trams and barrow wheels,
Graip-shafts, auld axes, rotten creels,
Moth-eaten presses, rocks and reels,
          Sacks, torn and thrummy,
Lay thick to trip the stranger’s heels
          That ca’d for Lummie.

Auld buckets wi’ the bottoms out,
Kettles that tinklers michtna clout,
Thrawn couple-legs, inch-deep wi’ soot,
          Tethers and tubs
Rottin’, wi’ sticks and strae, thereout,
          Lay i’ the dubs.

Haims wantin’ cleeks, auld doors and shutters,
Pleuch-stilts, torn brechams, turnip cutters,
Auld crackit harness worn to tatters
          Ropes, spades and thack,
Trampit by nowte amang the gutters
          Lay roun’ like wrack.

To judge his dwellin’ by the shape –
Some hurriet chield had seized a graip –
Flung divots, clay, stanes, thack, and rape,
          In heaps thegither,
And made a shelter to escape
          Frae stress o’ weather.

The gavel-ends were thrawn and sklentit,
The sides were bulged, the roof indentit;
Ye could hae sworn, if placed anent it,
          The auld clay wa’
Had thrice wi’ sudden jerk repentit
          When bent to fa’.

A hole to let the reek gang out
Was fitted wi’ a timmer spout;
But when the thick peat-reek grew stout
          It filled the bore,
Syne thro’ the house it took the route,
          And socht the door.

The floor o’ clay was never sweepit;
Black draps frae sooty kebars dreepit;
Whare hens in rows their places keepit,
          Wi’ cocks to guard them;
When frae the thack o’ ratton creepit
          Loud cacklin’ scared him.

For ilka hen there was a cock,
And ane was king o’ a’ the flock;
He answered to the name o’ “Jock” –
          A strong game bird;
He would hae torn the e’en frae folk
          At Lummie’s word.

Thro’ a’ the house the poultry trippit;
In ilka dish their heads they dippit,
And ilka crumb that fell was nippit
          Ere it could licht;
Whiles on the tables whare folk suppit
          The cocks would fecht.

A sad gudewife sat I’ the neuk,
And muckle wrang she had to brook;
When Lummie gied a glower she shook,
          And leukit douce
Afore a limmer ca’d the cuik,
          That ruled the house.

She was a muckle, heesin’ soo,
Wi’ flabby cheeks and sulky broo;
A snuffy nose hang owre her mou’
          Set on asklent;
Her thick, short neck o’ greasy hue,
          Was sidelins bent.

But Lummie lo’ed the towzie quean,
And scandal spread that wouldna screen;
His ain kind wife, wha lang had seen
          Her troubles comin’,
Got usage sic as ne’er was gi’en
          To decent woman.

When autumn winds made branches bare,
She hurried frae the guilty pair,
And socht a hame whare her despair
          By few was seen;
When spring returned she wasna there –
          Her grave was green.

To Lummie’s door the parson rade,
And knockit like a man weel-bred;
The cuik appeared, took guilt and fled,
          But Lummie sat,
Dumb glowerin’ while the parson said –
          “What woman’s that?”

To hear that question thrice repeatit,
Wi’ five grim words gart Lummie meet it;
The parson, terrifiet, retreatit
          Wi’ hands upliftit;
But Lummie, by the fireside seatit.
          His place ne’er shiftit.

The fast-day cam’ – refused a token,
And warned to mind whase heart he’d broken;
At first he thocht the Session jokin’,
          But saw his error,
And cursed them till their knees were knockin’
          Wi’ sudden terror.

In winter days when frost was keen,
And nae green hillock to be seen,
The house was ‘maist o’ hens made clean –
          He weel could spare
To drive a load to Aberdeen,
          And sell them there.

Ae day, when at the Plainstanes sellin’,
The cover o’ the auld cart fell in;
The air grew darken’d wi’ the skellin’
          O’ scraichin’ chuckies;
And Lummie, dancin mad, ran yellin’ –
          “Ye devil’s buckies!”

At dizzens hungry tykes were snappin’;
Thro’ windows, flocks their heads were rappin’;
On ilka roof his cocks were clappin’
          Their wings and crawin’;
Frae dizzy heichts his hens were drappin’,
          And killed wi’ fa’in.

He rung’d the dogs and gart them cower;
And wi’ a spring o’ sudden power,
He made a noble claucht at four,
          But miss’d them a’;
And, in his hurry, tummlin’ ower,
          Row’d like a ba’.

He paid the skaith for windows craved;
Around his head his purse he waved –
"Let Lummie ken – send word!" he raved;
          "Send him a line
Whene’er ye wis’ your Plainstanes paved
          W’’ sterlin’ coin."

His mare stood harnessed I’ the street,
Snortin’, and scrapin’ wi’ her feet;
He loupit lichtly to the seat,
          And aff she flew –
"My lass," quo he, "their hides will heat
          That rin wi’ you."

He soon was oot o’ sicht and hearin’
Alang the Brig o’ Dee careerin’;
The road got never sic a clearin’ –
          Policemen chased,
And ilka crowd they passed was jeerin’
          Their pithless haste.

Alang the turnpike road he ca’d;
Whaever met him thocht him mad!
The hair his bonnet wouldna haud
          In streams was flyin’;
"Commaather! weesh! there, there, ye jaud!"
          He keepit cryin’.

Heich ower her head the dubs gaed splashin’;
Her muckle shoon the flintstanes thrashin’;
Frae ilka hoof the fire was flashin’;
          The strong cart-mare
Sprang furious wi’ her driver’s passion
          To reach Lumgair.

The milestanes, dykes, and palin’ rails
A’ backlins fled; she passed the mails;
The trams gaed up and down like flails,
          The linch-pins jumpit,
The breechin-cleeks and caddan-nails
          Like hammers thumpit.

To ilka door the folk cam’ flockin’;
Frae side to side they saw him rockin;
But spy the colour o’ his stockin’
          They never micht;
And wheels, that seemed to hae nae spoke in,
          Flash’t out o’ sicht.

He cleared the Den – he viewed the bay;
And fair atween him and the Brae,
Kilwhang in peerless beauty lay –
          "Kilwhang’s bewitchin’,"
Quo’ he, "but this is nae a day
          To slack the britchin’."

(Kilwhang, that’s doomed to watery ruin,
If Tammas Rhymer’s weird’s a true ane –
Kilwhang – the auld toun and the new ane,
          Whare, if ye dwell,
Your neebours ilka thing ye’re doin’
          Maun ken and tell.

Kilwhang, whare mony a gowkit loon
Disdains to benefit the toun
By makin’ breeks, or mendin’ shoon,
          Scorns honest wark;
And flunkey-daft, maun hunker doun
          To grow a clerk!

Kilwhang, whare lawyers thrive sae rare,
And proudly pace the Market Square –
For lawyers black was Lummie’s prayer –
          Grim deil pursue,
And hurl them hame, and dinna spare,
          Till hell be fu’.

He rummel’t through Kilwhang like thunder;
Lugs, mous, and e’en, grew wide wi’ wonder;
The natives ran, till, by the hunder,
          Their tongues hung out;
He left them gaspin’, miles asunder,
          In vain pursuit.

As sune’s he to Lumgair drew near,
The cuik ran out the news to speir;
The news that Lummie gart her hear,
          We daurna speak;
It made her shortly disappear
          Wi’ burnin’ cheek.

That nicht – sic swearin’ he took pride in –
Folk fand the house owre hot to bide in,
And, blythe of ony hole to hide in,
          Lay waukrife, hearin’
The roarin’ carle, past mortal guidin’,
          Dementit swearin’.

The curse, his latest word at nicht;
The curse, his first to hail day-licht;
He slippit cursin’ out o’ sicht,
          Cam cursin back,
And cursin’ gaed frae howe to heicht
          Owre a’ his tack.

At ilka market whare he stumpit
An eager mob around him jumpit;
In vain the show-folk twanged the trumpet,
          And beat the drum;
For Lummie wi’ his cudgel thumpit
          And sang them dumb.

At ilka stride his mill he rappit;
His breeks for want o’ buttons flappit;
His bonnet blue wi’ red was tappit,
          But auld and bare;
Doun frae the palsied head it happit
          Streamed lang red hair.

When drouthie farmers, blin wi’ drink,
Aside their seats began to sink,
At ilka waucht, without a wink,
          He toomed a stoup;
Syne doun the table, wi’ a clink,
          He gart it loup.

His richt neive steekit owre his head,
He gied his husky throat a redd –
Syne on the left loof, level spread,
          Cam eident strokes,
As ben the deafest lugs he gaed
          Wi’ roarin’ jokes.

And yet for a’ the spates he took,
A torn-down hash he didna look;
He ne’er was fashed wi’ cankert plook
          Or nose or broo;
And ne’er when lauchin’ had to crook
          A blistert mou’.

In Lummie’s days men werena shams –
They hadna shanks like barrow-trams;
Their faces werena wizzent hams –
          Their blood was fresh;
They didna dee wi’ drinkin’ drams,
          Nor tine their flesh;

Nor were they mannies made for show,
That couldna gi’e or tak’ a blow.
They spak’ braid Scots wi’ ready flow,
          Like honest men;
And what they thocht they werena slow
          To let ye ken.

His marrow Lummie never met
At drinkin whisky, cauld or het;
And owre his dram to see him set,
          And hear him yell,
Was something ane may ne’er forget,
          Nor hope to tell.

He jokit fouk that spak’ o’ death; –
"Gie lawyers wark!" quo’ he, "Gude faith!
It doesna save the saul frae skaith
          Though wills be written;
It’s time aneuch when scant o’ breath
          To think o’ flittin’."

If near Lochgair, or miles aroun it,
Unearthly noises whiles resoundit,
Nae man would start and look confoundit,
          Or stand a dummie –
The lug was deaf that ne’er was woundit
          Wi’ yells frae Lummie.

When thunder broke wi’ startlin’ hurl,
And made the verra earth to dirl,
He answered wi’ a mockin’ skirl
          The loudest crash,
And gart his auld blue bonnet whirl
          To meet the flash.

Whether at hame, at kirk, or fair,
He never tint the swaggerin’ air
That said – "There’s only ae Lumgair
          In a’ the warl’;
And ae gudeman – what wad ye mair?
          Ye see the carle!"

Wi’ cauld sweat on their gloomy broos,
Auld wives would gasp to hear the news
O’ Lummie’s deeds, while roun’ their mous
          Dumb terror wrocht,
Till Mercy tremblit to jaloose
          Their secret thocht.

Afore their judgment-bar they ca’d him –
Prophetic groans frae bliss outlawed him;
“Him! waur than a’ the sons o’ Adam –
          Fie, bar the door!
And wag upo’ the deil to scaud him
          For evermore.

Him? Lummie! – fire and brimstone streamin’,
Till hell’s black squad frae heat rin screamin’ –
The auld grim deil, wi’ visage gleamin’,
          Glowers doun the trap,
Whare Lummie, sooner than he’s deemin’,
          Is doomed to drap.’

But, strange eneuch, this fearsome chiel’ –
While auld wives sent him to the deil –
By younger folk was likit weel;
          In his auld biggin’,
They aye got scouth to rant and reel
          Up to the riggin’.

As keen as ony beardless boy,
He joined them I’ their daftest ploy;
And never grudged to mak’ their joy
          His hale nicht’s wark;
Nor failed them o’ a Scots convoy,
          When skies were dark.

When neebours, at their hairst, would spare
Green corn in patches here and there,
The daurin’ carle that farmed Lumgair
          Through ripe and green
Gaed hackin’ – whether foul or fair –
          Frae morn to e’en.

And when the last scythe-stroke was gi’en,
He, victor-like, was heard and seen
Rejoicin’ on a hillock green
          Owre his auld gun;
And a’ his loons attendit, keen
          To share the fun.

His gun was oak, wi’ iron braced
(Nae man had e’er sae thick a waist)
Upon its timmer carriage placed,
          Frae mony a shot
It backlins ran, wi’ red-het haste,
          And reekin’ throat.

Its girth and length led louns to doubt
That – handle aff, and box ta’en out –
‘Twas but some ship’s auld pump, grown stout
          Wi’ iron hoopit –
They saw the touch-hole whare the spout
          Had first been scoopit.

The pouther flashed at ilka roar
On divots dancin’ by the score;
Lummie stood gleg to spunge the bore,
          And eager herds
Rammed, primed, and fired, until they tore
          The rustit girds.

But Lummie’s day at length grows dark;
A croud, wi’ auctioneer and clark,
Gang on as if his verra sark
          They aff would rive,
And leave him neither dog to bark,
          Nor beast to drive.

The roarin carle grew dowff and dumb,
As if his hindmost hour had come;
The wind that soughed about the lum
          O’ his new bield
Concerned him mair than a’ the sum
          His roup would yield.

At Fancy’s ca’, when Reason fled,
His auld companions, lang syne dead,
Cam’ back and flockit round his bed –
          He sat and spak’,
While baith his hands a-glampin’ gaed
          Wi’ theirs to shak’.

“Come nearer, sirs," he cried, "it’s me!
Guid faith, we’se hae a muckle spree –
Fie! licht the lamp and let them see,
          In case they fa’;
And here gangs Lummie’s last bawbee
          To treat them a’.”

He threapit that they werena drinkin’;
He swore that he could see them jinkin’;
At length he spak o’ something blinki’’
          Wi’ unco licht;
And, ane by ane, he mourned them sinkin’
          Fast out o’ sicht.

He seized, wi’ strength that wouldna cowe,
A fathom o’ guid thick tow;
Round baith his neives he gart it row –
          His arms he streekit –
Neist moment I’ the ingle-lowe
          Twa pieces reekit.

They brunt awa’ by slow degrees;
He bent his head atween his knees,
And cried, that out o’ ilka bleeze
          The fiends were springin’;
And mutter’t about leafless trees,
          And dead men hingin’.

A freen that whisper’t laigh but clear –
“It’s time the minister were here”
Was answered wi’ a bitter sneer,
          And scornfu’ glower –
“Think ye that Lummie’s gaun to fear,
          What gars ye cower?”

His steekit neive, in fury raised,
Fell canny doun; the een that blazed
Grew motionless and horror-glazed;
          He held his breath;
And thankfu’ folk said “Guid be praised
          For sendin’ death!”

But, gaspin deep, he gied a yell,
Till frae his face the sweat-draps fell.
“She mocks me noo,” he cried, “hersel”
          “See, see she’s comin!
I’m chokin wi’ the brimstane smell –
          Drive oot that woman!”

In vain frae place to place they flaw
To scare the phantom that he saw;
In vain the pins alang the wa’
          Were cleared o’ claes;
In vain clear-burnin’ candles twa
          Shed forth their rays; –

Wi’ claspit hands and bristlin’ hair,
He hirsled backlins wi’ his chair;
The warnin’ wraith that nane could scare
          Was nearer seen,
And the grim glances o’ despair
          Shot frae his een.

Neist mornin’, when nae mortal saw,
He took a tow and hied awa;
A muckle corby near him flaw
          To watch him chokin’;
In vain he cursed to scare the craw –
          It keepit croakin’.

It spied him wi’ a glancin e’e –
It skirled his auld hard hands to see
First gird the tow about the tree,
          Syne climb the timmer;
Neist noose his craig, and glower a wee
          Wi’ ghastly glimmer.

He heard it croakin’ – “Mercy never!”
And, glowerin’ mad, began to shiver;
Thrice in his lug – “Ye’re mine for ever!”
          It screighed, and flappit;
“Then tak’ me, Deevil, and be clever!”
          He screamed, and drappit.

It sat to watch the timmer shak’,
And hear the rotten branches crack;
It flew and fasten’t in his back,
          Syne in his breist,
And croakit when, wi’ visage black
          His warstle ceased.

Wi’ black, unchancy wings outspread,
Three times it circled round the dead;
A wild unearthly sough it made,
          And disappeared.
O that grim bird there’s little said
          But muckle feared.



Last updated 19 August 2010.