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23 Dec 2019

Scotch Drink

A row of empty old whisky bottles on display at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
Burns wrote this poem in the winter of 1785 and it appeared the next year in his first published volume: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

Burns’s love of whisky has become almost as famous as his works, but it is unlikely to have had the ill effects on his health that were suggested after his death. Although he assuredly enjoyed a drink or two, there’s little evidence that he regularly drank to excess. He was a prolific writer, worked long hours on his farms and even made a living as an exciseman (a job that was hated across rural Scotland) for a number of years.

This poem was written in reference to the passing of an Act in 1784 that prohibited the Forbes family of Culloden from distilling their popular Ferintosh whisky free of duty. Burns was angered by the British government’s taxation of the drink. Here he celebrates the role whisky played in the life of the ordinary man – from festival days to gathering the harvest and settling neighbourly disputes.

Scotch Drink

Gie him strong drink until he wink,
That’s sinking in despair;
An’ liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That’s prest wi’ grief and care:
There let him bowse, an’ deep carouse,
Wi’ bumpers flowing o’er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An’ minds his griefs no more.

[Solomon’s Proverbs, xxxi. 6, 7]

Let other poets raise a fracas
Bout vines, an’ wines, an drucken Bacchus,
An crabbit names an’ stories wrack us,
An grate our lug:
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug.

O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin’ worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an wink,
To sing thy name!

Let husky wheat the haughs adorn,
An aits set up their awnie horn,
An pease and beans, at een or morn,
Perfume the plain:
Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn,
Thou king o grain!

On thee aft Scotland chows her cood,
In souple scones, the wale o’ food!
Or tumbling in the boiling flood
Wi kail an beef;
But when thou pours thy strong hearts blood
There thou shines chief.

Food fills the wame, an keeps us livin;
Tho lifes a gift no worth receivin,
When heavy-draggd wi pine an grievin;
But oild by thee,
The wheels o life gae down-hill, scrievin,
Wi rattlin glee.

Thou clears the head o doited Lear,
Thou cheers the heart o drooping Care;
Thou strings the nerves o Labour sair,
Ats weary toil;
Thou evn brightens dark Despair
Wi gloomy smile.

Aft, clad in massy siller weed,
Wi gentles thou erects thy head;
Yet humbly kind in time o need,
The poor mans wine:
His wee drap parritch, or his bread,
Thou kitchens fine.

Thou art the life o public haunts;
But thee, what were our fairs and rants?
Evn godly meetings o the saunts,
By thee inspird,
When, gaping, they besiege the tents,
Are doubly fird.

That merry night we get the corn in,
O sweetly, then, thou reams the horn in!
Or reekin on a New-Year mornin
In cog or bicker,
An' just a wee drap sp'ritual  burn in,
An gusty sucker!

When Vulcan gies his bellows breath,
An ploughmen gather wi their graith,
O rare! to see thee fizz an freath 
I th lugget caup!
Then Burnewin comes on like death
At every chaup.

Nae mercy, then, for airn or steel:
The brawnie, bainie, ploughman chiel,
Brings hard owrehip, wi sturdy wheel,
The strong forehammer,
Till block an studdie ring an reel,
Wi dinsome clamour.

When skirlin weanies see the light,
Thou maks the gossips clatter bright,
How fumblin cuifs their dearies slight;
Wae worth the name!
Nae howdie gets a social night,
Or plack frae them.

When neebors anger at a plea,
An just as wud as wud can be,
How easy can the barley-brie
Cement the quarrel!
Its aye the cheapest lawyers fee,
To taste the barrel.

Alake! that eer my Muse has reason,
To wyte her countrymen wi’ treason!
But monie daily weet their weason
Wi liquors nice,
An’ hardly, in a winter season,
Eer spier her price.

Wae worth that brandy, burnin’ trash!
Fell source o monie a pain an brash!
Twins monie a poor, doylt, drucken hash
O half his days;
An sends, beside, auld Scotlands cash
To her warst faes.

Ye Scots, wha wish auld Scotland well!
Ye chief, to you my tale I tell,
Poor, plackless devils like mysel!
It sets you ill,
Wi’ bitter, dearthfu wines to mell,
Or foreign gill.

May gravels round his blather wrench,
An gouts torment him, inch by inch,
Wha twists his gruntle wi’ a glunch 
O sour disdain,
Out owre a glass o whisky-punch
Wi honest men!

O Whisky! soul o plays and pranks!
Accept a Bardies gratefu thanks!
When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!
Thou comes  they rattle i their ranks,
At ithers arses!

Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!
Scotland lament frae coast to coast!
Now colic grips, an barkin hoast
May kill us a;
For loyal Forbes charterd boast
Is taen awa!

Thae curst horse-leeches o’ the Excise,
Wha mak the whisky stells their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!
An bake them up in brunstane pies
For poor damnd drinkers.

Fortune! if thoull but gie me still
Hale breeks, a scone, an’ whisky gill,
An rowth o rhyme to rave at will,
Tak a the rest,
An dealt about as thy blind skill
Directs thee best.

Handy glossary: 
bowse = booze 
drucken = drunken; crabbit = bad-tempered; wrack = annoy; lug = ear; bear = barley 
wimplin’ worms = winding spiral tubes in a whisky still; owre = over; ream = froth; faem = foam 
haughs = hollows; aits = oats; awnie = bearded; Leeze me on thee = blessings; John Barleycorn = the traditional personification of alcoholic drinks 
chows = chews; cood = cud; souple = soft; wale = choice 
wame = belly; scrievin’ = careering 
doited = muddled; Lear = learning; sair = sore 
massy siller weed = very fine clothing; gentles = gentry; wee drap parritch = little bit of porridge; kitchens = seasons 
But thee = without you; saunts = saints 
reekin’ = steaming; cog or bicker = bowl or beaker; gusty sucker = tasty sugar 
Vulcan = god of fire and metalworking; graith = gear; freath = froth; lugget caup = two-eared cup; Burnewin = blacksmith; chaup = stroke 
airn = iron; brawnie = muscular; bainie = bony; chiel = lad; studdie = anvil 
skirlin’ weanies = crying babies; clatter = babble; cuifs = fools; Wae worth = Woe betide; howdie = midwife; plack = farthing 
wud = wild/angry; barley-brie = barley-brew 
Alake = Alas; wyte = charge; weason = throat; spier = ask 
Fell = harsh/cruel; brash = illness; Twins = robs; doylt = muddled; hash = oaf 
plackless = penniless; sets = becomes; dearthfu’ = costly; mell = meddle; gill = a measure of drink 
blather = bladder; gruntle = face; glunch = sneer 
cranks = creakings 
Ferintosh = a whisky distillery that belonged to Forbes of Culloden; hoast = cough 
Thae = those; stells = stills; blinkers = spies; brunstane = brimstone 
Hale breeks = trousers with no holes; rowth = store

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