A marvellous and stirring long-lost Scots ode to ale from the 18th century

Beer poetry is pretty much always rubbish. Books-full of fine prose have been written about beer, and a fair few excellent aley folk-songs still survive, but plain versifiers seem only to produce dull, plodding rhyming tedium on the subject of malt and hops. I was delighted, then, to stumble serendipitously (I was looking for examples of the phrase “stout ale”) upon a forgotten but tremendous, bracing ode to “good stout ale” from the end of the 18th century, which seems, astonishingly, never to have been anthologized, though between them  in the late 1880s John Bickerdyke (the journalist Charles Henry Cook) in Curiosities of Ale and Beer and W. T. Marchant in In Praise of Ale pulled together more than 1,100 pages of beer-soaked mostly verse: indeed, Marchant actually had a chapter called “Scotch Ale Songs”. But he never included this, from a century earlier.

Is it that the poem is in Scots, the brother language to English, that gives it such rare and outstanding muscularity? Possibly. But to me, the power of the piece comes in the way that, in spite of the obscurity of much of the language for those of us brought up south of the Tweed, it positively demands to be proclaimed, to be read aloud, with a fu’ coggie o’ briskin beer gripped in your hand.

Who wrote this piece, which appeared on the front page of an Edinburgh newspaper, the Caledonian Mercury, on Monday September 12 1791, appears to be unknown. It is written in the form known, after Robert Burns, as the “Burns stanza”, with each verse having the rhyme scheme a-a-a-b-a-b, and three lines of iambic tetrameter, followed by one of iambic dimeter, another iambic tetrameter and a final iambic dimeter. With the B rhymes in each of the 14 verses identical, this is the work of a skilled versifier. But it certainly wasn’t Burns who wrote it, or the poem would be much better known. (The Burns stanza is also known as the Scottish stanza, or six-line stave, and existed long before Burns adopted it: another name for it is “standard Habbie”, after a Scots poet called Habbie Simpson, who lived from 1550 to 1620.) The Latin phrase Ut antea, meaning “as before”, appeared at the end of the poem, suggesting that the author had already been named: and indeed, 11 days earlier, another poem written using the “Burns stanza” form had appeared in the Mercury, credited to “Thoma [sic] Scotus”, which actually mentioned “Ayrshire Rob”, or Burns). So Thoma Scotus undoubtedly wrote Gude Stout Ale as well. But who was he?

Regardless, it’s Burns Night tomorrow, January 25, and though “Gude Stout Ale” may not be by Burns, I’m sure he read it, and approved, and it’s most certainly in his spirit. Below the poem is my stab at explaining the obscurer Scots words and phrases. (I sometimes wonder if reading Scots, for a speaker of “standard” English, is like reading Norwegian for a Dane … comments from Scandinavians welcomed.) Grip yer cap, and aff ye gang.


O some drole chiel’ the canty Muse
Has tun’d her pipes Ait Cakes to rooze
An’ some has prais’d what ilk’ ane loes,
Our gude Ait Meal;
A subject better I can chuse,
An’ that’s gude ale.

To sing its praise here I cou’d sit
The lee lang day, had I but wit
To gie’t its due — I’d ne’er permit
My hand to fail,
If a fu’ cap stood at my fit
O’ gude brown ale.

Auld Scotland, thou art fam’d in story;
Whane’er ye fought the bell ye bore ay,
Your warriors ay hae been your glory
Hame or a-fiel’;
They ne’er forgat their maws to store ay
Wi’ gude stout Ale

Sic was auld Wallace, that brave wight,
Wha’ wi’ a rung cou’d put to flicht
Three English louns, in harness dight
Frae head to tail;
Weel did that birkie ken the micht
O’ gude stout Ale

An’ in your lands there’s no been wantin’
Auld-farren chiels wha’s ay been chantin
Their hamely sangs, that beat the Mantuan
Or Spartan’s tale;
What made them wi’ Apollo wanton?
’Twas gude brown ale.

If heavy labour be your lot,
At the pleugh tail to drive the stot,
Or if your hap’s to cast your coat
At heuk or stail,
Ere ye begin, ay synd your throat
Wi’ gude stout Ale

I rade frae Forris to Kinghorn,
Fu’ fair was I, an’ a’ forlorn:
Believe me, I was fair outworn,
And unco frail,
But soon recruitit wi’ a horn
O’ good brown Ale.

Gif ony capernoity carle
Wi’ an auld frien’ should ’gin to snarl,
Whan ye wou’d wish to redd the quarrel,
Or janglings heal,
Fill ye a bicker frae the barrel
O’ gude brown Ale.

Whan Charlie Fox about him lays
Amang his rhetorician faes
If Willy wi’h him aught gainsays
He sorts him weel
A’ by the pow’r (lang live his praise)
O’ gude brown Ale

Wae worth that chiel wha first importit
That trash* by a’ our Madams courtit
A vomiter (diel head it’s short o’t)
Death’s daily peal;
A dowier heart it n’er comfortit
Like gude brown Ale.

Wives, gif ye wish a healthy body,
Abstain frae that vile Indian Toddy*,
Ay break your fast on Ait Meal Crowdie–
But dinna fail
To fill the orra o’ the coggy
Wi’ gude brown Ale.

But ’deed I doubt it’s a’ in vain
To think ye’ll fra that trash refrain
As lang’s a wife can make a maen –
’Twill fair heads heal:
Parritch brings ay a stomach-pain
Or gude brown Ale.

Auld Brither Scots, tak my advice,
About a diet ne’er be nice;
Tho’ it’s but cheese a dainty sklice,
Or gude Scots kale,
Ay synd it down, gif ye be wise,
Wi’ gude brown Ale.

Now by the Muses nine I swear,
Nae drink can match our briskin beer;
In Scotland ay frae year to year
May it prevail
An’ a’ her bairns enjoy the chear
O’ gude brown Ale.

Edinburgh August 9 1791.                                                                                 UT ANTEA


A coggie

Verse 1
drole – probably a variant of “droll”, meaning “slightly crazed”
chiel’ –  short for “chield”, meaning fellow, chap
canty – merry
Ait Cakes – oat cakes
rooze – variant of “ruise”, to praise or extol
ilk’ ane loes – everybody loves

Verse 2
lee lang – variant of “leeve-lang”, Scots equivalent of English “livelong”
gie’t – give it
fu’ – full
cap – wooden bowl
fit – foot

Verse 3
the bell ye bore – you had the lead, as the lead animal in a herd wears a bell
ay – always
a-fiel’– abroad
maws – stomachs
to store – to supply or fill, a sense that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is still in current use in standard English, though I hae ma doots about that, personally …

Verse 4
Sic – such
Wallace – William Wallace, Scots hero once played on big screen by Australian idiot
wicht – person
Wha’– who
rung – stout staff or cudgel
flicht – flight
louns – rogues, rascals
harness – “harnes”, defensive armour
dicht – clothed or arrayed
Frae – from
birkie – lively fellow
micht – might

Verse 5
Auld-farren – a variant of “auld-farrant”, “wise, witty, clever”
chantin – singing. The Dictionairs o the Scots Leid suggests this was an obsolete verb by the 18th century: evidently not.
hamely – simple
sangs – songs
The Mantuan – Virgil, Roman poet, born near Mantua in Italy
Spartan’s tale – probably a reference to Tyrtaeus, an elegiac poet active in Sparta, Greece in the seventh century BC
Apollo – the Greek god of music and poetry, as well as the sun
wanton – to overjoy, to cause one extravagant delight

Verse 6
pleugh – plough
stot – a young castrated ox, steer or bullock
hap – actually a standard English word, meaning “chance” or “fortune”, but now rare south of the Tweed except in the compound “mishap”
cast your coat/At heuk or stail –”heuk” looks to mean “hook” as in sickle, while “stail” could be a variant of “stiel”, handle of a plough. “Cast your coat at” is a vanishingly rare expression, but one can guess at it meaning something like “take up, engage in”. So the whole phrase probably means something like “take up labouring work on a farm”
synd – “wash out, rinse”

Verse 7
I rade frae Forris to Kinghorn – I rode from Forres, on the Moray coast in the north-east of Scotland, to Kinghorn, on the coast in Fife, some 110 miles as the Scots craw flies, perhaps 150 miles by road, which would be hard pushing indeed to complete in a day
Fu’ fair –  “fair” here appears to be “completely”: “fu’” I have struggled with. Normally it means “full”, but that does not seem to make any sense. ?Possibly it’s  “faugh”, “pale” or “fauchie”, “pasty-faced, sickly looking”
forlorn – in Scots has the meaning “utterly lost or destroyed”
outworn – exhausted
unco – extremely, remarkably
recruitit – repaired

Verse 8
Gif – if
ony – any
capernoity – irritable
carle – fellow
redd – put out or extinguish
janglings – noisy quarrelling, squabbling
bicker – beaker

Verse 9
Whan – when
Charlie Fox – Charles James Fox, prominent Whig politician of the period, famed orator and arch-rival of William Pitt
faes – foes
Willy – William Pitt the younger, Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time
aught –  anything
gainsays –contradicts or opposes
sorts him weel – “sort” in Scots can mean “deal with by way of punishment”, but “weel-sortet” is a phrase meaning “carefully looked after”. The whole verse thus seems to mean that when Fox is speaking, if Pitt tries to oppose him, then Fox sorts him out properly through the power of good brown ale.

Verse 10
Wae worth – woe befall
A vomiter – an emetic, something that makes you throw up
diel head – appears to be a variant of “de’il hae’t”, literally “devil have it”, which came to mean as an expression in Scots “not a whit”, “nothing”
short o’t – short of it. I struggle to find a meaning for “nothing it’s short of it”: perhaps “tea is nothing other than an emetic”.
Death’s daily peal – appears to mean that tea kills daily
Dowie –  sad, melancholy, dreary, dismal; dull, dispirited

Verse 11
Croudy – a mixture of oatmeal and cold water, eaten raw
Dinna – do not
orra – as a noun, “orra” means here “unoccupied space”
Coggy – a small “cog”, or wooden vessel made of staves held together with metal bands, with one or two staves longer than the rest to form a handle, a word related to keg

Verse 12
Make a maen – complain, grumble
Parritch – porridge

Verse 13
Auld – old
Brither – brother
nice – fastidious, overparticular
sklice – variant of “sclice”, Scots for “slice”

Verse 14
briskin – seems to mean “enlivening”, “stimulating”, from the Scots phrase “brisken up”, to stimulate
bairns – children
chear – merriment, entertainment, comfort

All definitions made with the aid of the online Dictionairs o the Scots Leid

2 thoughts on “A marvellous and stirring long-lost Scots ode to ale from the 18th century

  1. I suggest that briskin in this context means foaming, in the same sense that brisk meant well carbonated beer around the same time.

    Fu’ often means drunk but riding a horse in that state from Forres to Kingcorn would seem foolhardy.

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