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Essay's of Hugh Haliburton (James Logie Robertson)
The Farmers Ingle


MAKING incidental mention of Fergusson's name in the Heart of Midlothian, Scott proposed to designate him the Poet Laureate of the City Guard, because his verses referred so frequently to those military conservators of the peace ; but it will give a more intelligible idea of the position of Fergusson to describe him as the Poet Laureate of Edinburgh from 1770 to 1774. By both birth and upbringing he was a true son of the city; man, therefore, rather than nature, was his theme. The towns with which, by residence, he was acquainted were Edinburgh, Dundee, St Andrews, and Aberdeen; but it was Edinburgh with which he was longest and most intimately connected. Edinburgh furnished him with most of his subjects, and it was to an Edinburgh audience that he almost exclusively looked for applause. Once, however, he strayed beyond the bounds of city life for a subject, which he found in the Farmer's Ingle, and which he treated with such ability as to make one wish he had oftener meditated the rural muse. In any classification of his poems, The Farmer's Ingle must occupy a place by itself; not only because it is his one notable effort on a purely rural subject, but because it is the only worthy specimen of his serious style. All his other pieces which deserve preservation are avowedly humorous. The Farmer's Ingle, though not without a chance touch of humour, is a poem seriously sympathetic with the simple round of rustic life at a farm, and accurately descriptive of it. Poetical consideration apart, it has a historical value in the clear, careful, and correct picture which it presents of a phase of domestic farm-life in the east of Scotland in the latter half of last century. The original of the picture Fergusson probably found in some farm near St Andrews, when he wore the red gown and rejoiced in the freedom of an undergraduate.

The subject, when Fergusson selected it, was of a kind virgin to poetical treatment in the Scottish vernacular. There had been occasional references to the simple lives of common men in verses of an earlier date, but this was the first Scottish poem which seriously, directly, and exclusively dealt with the subject It was an attempt to invest a transcript from homely, every-day country-life with an interest which should be independent of caricature and false colour, and should appeal rather to the heart than to the fancy. The idea may have been got from the classical pastorals, or it may have been suggested by one or other of those brief bits of descriptive verse with which Ramsay introduces the dramatic scenes of the Gentle Shepherd. However it originated, the idea was ambitious, and was, I venture to say, admirably carried out. The result may never have been popular, but it constitutes, nevertheless, the masterpiece of Fergusson. It offers to the critic the best means of testing the strength and variety of the poet's power. Here we have picturesque glimpses of rural scenery, artistic compositions of rustic figures, touches of humour, finely-wrought though faint characterisation, portraiture, a sense of the supernatural, and a genuine sympathy with childhood, toiling manhood, and age, which once or twice makes near approach to pathos. An outline of the poem may be given.

The time is early winter—more particularly, it is an evening in the ' back-end' of the year when infant frosts are beginning to bite. The farm-labourers are leaving their various work. The herd, assisted by his dog, drives the cattle home from pasture; the maid-servants, who have been winnowing corn, are glad of the rest which gloaming brings; and thresher John, tired in every limb, is shutting the barn door. Within the farm - house preparations have been made for their home-coming; the spacious kitchen is clean and comfortable, there is a huge fire of peats and turf in the ample chimney, and supper is just ready. The goodman himself enters, and his eye bespeaks approval of the goodwife's management, 'ilka turn is handled to his mind.' There is abundance of savoury kail-brose, hot buttered scones, and home-brewed ale,—

'Weel kens the gudewife that the pleughs require
A heartsome meltith, and refreshing synd
Of nappy liquor o'er a bleezing fire;
Sair wark and poortith downa weel be joined.'

The entire household, master and servant, mistress and maid, sit down at the same table to supper. Let no one despise their homely fare. The kail-brose of auld Scotland is the l wale of food' both to work upon and to fight upon. It was the fare of those heroic ancestors of ours who turned the Romans, overthrew the Danes, and won the independence of the country. After supper coherent conversation begins, much promoted by the genial influence of the cheering ' bicker' or mug of strong ale.

The weather is always an important topic with country folks ; and that, therefore, they discuss first, not as a needless prologue to their after-talk, but as a matter of the first magnitude. The rustic mind is a meteorological register which can furnish date and details of the past weather, for many months in retrospect, at command. But the efficiency of the register can only be maintained by constant use; so the genial showers of vanished summers and the destructive speats of well remembered winters are recalled to reproduce the feelings they formerly evoked. Then follows the news of kirk and of market—the approaching marriage of Jock and Jenny, or, it may be, the misfortune which brings Marion to the cutty-stool. The children are now quiet, listening to their elders,—

'The fient a cheep's amang the bairnies noo,
For a' their anger's wi' their hunger gane.'

They are seated together in front of the fire, which with the dimly-burning cruizie, sheds an enlivening but unsteady light through the shadowy apartment It is now that the ancient granny opens to them the supernatural world, of which, with her wrinkles and her cracked and quavering voice, she herself almost seems to be a denizen. Her tale is of warlocks, and hob-goblins, and ghosts, of drear glens and silent churchyards. The effect which her narration produces upon her listeners is picturesquely noticed: ' it touzles a' their tap.' It is a back view we get of them, against the glow of the fire. Granny's belief in fiends and fairies is firm, and in the mischievous devilries they work about a farm. Here Fergusson introduces a beautiful appeal for sympathetic patience with old age,—

'O mock na this, my friends ! but rather mourn,
Ye in life's brawest spring wr1 reason clear;
Wi' eild oor idle fancies a* return,
And dim oor dolefu' days wr' bairnly fear:
The mind's aye cradled when the grave is near.'

All this while granny is busy spinning thread, not with a wheel; she believes in the traditional distaff. The old lady is more than worth her salt: her 'e'ening stent (task) reels she as weel's the lave.' What is she busy with at present ?

'On some feast day the wee things, buskit braw,
Shall heeze her heart up wr' a silent joy,
Fu' cadgie {happy) that her head was up, and saw
Her ain spun claithing on a darling oy {grandson)
Careless tho' death should mak the feast her foy {farewell feast)!'

The goodman, whose disposition is finely indicated by the confidence with which both collie and baudrons (the cat) approach him to win his attention is meanwhile reposing on a kind of rustic sofa, which is described as 'a warm and canny lean for weary banes.' But the fore-night is passing: it is time to issue instructions for the morrow's work. An oat-stack may have to be taken in and threshed out; or some ploughing may have to be done; or a sack or two of corn, a melder, may have to be taken to the mill to be ground. The goodwife, too, has her commands for the maids—to take a final look through the byres, and see that none of the cows has slipped a band, and to be careful at milking time that a particular 'crummie' does not indulge her favourite vice of kicking over the full milk pail. And now the whole household begin to wax sleepy. The fire is getting low, the oil in the lamp is nearly done. They retire to rest—'upon the cod {pillow) to clear the drumly pow.' Sound sleep till sunrise is the reward of toil. The concluding stanza is a kindly envoi,—

'Peace to the husbandman and a' his tribe,
Whase care fells a' oor wants fra year to year!
Lang may his sock and coulter turn the glybe,
And banks o' corn bend doun wi' laded ear! '
May Scotia's simmers aye look gay and green,
Her yellow hairsts fra scowry blasts decreed!
May a* her tenants sit fu' snug and bien,
Fra the hard grips o* ails and poortith freed,
And a lang lasting trade o' peaceful hours succeed!'

The subject of this poem suggested the subject of 'The Cottar's Saturday Night,' and supplied Burns with several hints besides. The verse is the same in both poems, and is well adapted to the nature of the subject. The time is the same in both; it is when 'November chill blaws loud/ and 'the shortening winter day is near a close.' It is the same rustic world we are ushered into, and the events of an evening are recorded in both. Burns has improved on his model in the introduction of the youthful lover, and the episode of Family Worship. The farmhouse, however, is higher than the cot, and Fergus-son's subject admits of an ampler variety of characters and events—which he did not fully take advantage of. What he has thus lost in artistic effect he partly makes up for in greater fidelity to truth. He depicts the scenes of an ordinary work-day evening, while Burns selects the night which precedes and prepares for the Sabbath. The Farmer's Ingle is perhaps only a sketch to what it might have been, but it is a sketch drawn by a masterly hand, and full of suggestive points. The suggestiveness of the poem is one of its leading features. It is full of pictures. In this respect it reminds one of Milton's L'Allegro and Burns's Tam o' Shanter.


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