Robert Burns, horseman

On the 25th January, all over the world people celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s famous poet, Robert Burns. Over 200 years after his death in his 37th year, Burns has a mighty and devoted following. At Burns Night suppers, whisky will be drunk and the “Great Chieftain o’ the puddin’-race”, the haggis, will be addressed and subsequently devoured. There will be more toasts, recitation and songs. Poet, exciseman, lover of the lassies and drinking with his cronies, ploughman, toast of Edinburgh, politician, social commentator, creator of scurrilous jibes, observer of nature and animals, mocker of the haughty, collector and writer of songs; this goes a small way towards describing Robert Burns. Every aspect of his life is still open to dispute and discussion.

Of one thing I’m certain, though: Robert Burns was a horseman.

“His grey mare, Meg”

Horses are the subjects of several of his poems and they were a significant part of his life. To take Tam o’Shanter as a starting point for this theme, where would the poem be without Tam’s grey mare Maggie? The poem opens with Tam enjoying an evening’s drinking in Ayr, whilst the weather worsens

The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle..

It’s time he left for home, but the company is good and so are the ales. Tam will drink along with anyone, the miller, his bosom buddy Souter (Cobbler) Johnnie, or the blacksmith, with whom on market days he matches a drink for every shoe:

That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on.

But, finally, reluctantly, Tam has to leave. He goes out into a night of violent storm:

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.

When they pass Alloway Church, Maggie, like her rider, is astonished to see blazing lights and hear the sounds of a riotous party going on:

But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight…

"But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd, Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd, She ventured forward on the light; And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight..." Tam and Maggie as imagined by Abraham Cooper

The church is full of witches and warlocks having a dance. “Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,” comments Burns dryly, “But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, put life and mettle in their heels.” When the witches strip down to their shifts, both Tam and the Devil (Deil), who is of course presiding over events, are most impressed by one of them, young Nannie. That’s Tam’s undoing. Full of whisky courage, he bawls out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” as she dances about in a very short shift indeed.

Remember Tam’s mare!

Luckily, his mare Maggie has some sense (and witches aside, the incidence of people getting home safely because of the intelligence of their horses is a regular theme in fact as well as in fiction and poetry). She takes off as though hell is at her heels, which it is, very shortly afterwards:

So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

"For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest"; as imagined by John Joseph Barker

Maggie and Tam are running for their lives towards a stream, which they both know no witch will cross. And with a last desperate bound, Maggie is just carrying her master to safety when the witch Nannie grabs at her tail and:

For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump..

So, suggests Burns, the next time you’re distracted by whisky, ale or short shifts: “Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear – Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

Burns was lauded in his own lifetime but financially he was constantly struggling. When working as an exciseman, for instance, he wrote to a close friend:

I know not how the word exciseman, or still more opprobrious, gauger, will sound in your ears. I too have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on this subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations. Fifty pounds a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow is no bad settlement for a poet.

Poor jaded Pegasus

It was whilst working as an exciseman that Burns rode many a mile throughout south west Scotland, finding himself in the middle of a cold winter at remote Wanlockhead with his horse in need of calkins to improve the grip on the frosty road. When the local smith would not come out to shoe Burns’ horse, which was his favourite, Pegasus, Burns hastily penned a poem to be presented to a local worthy who arranged to have the work done. The use of classical imagery is of course quite usual, but it’s possible there’s some deeper message in it:

With Pegasus upon a day
Apollo, weary flying,
(Thro’ frosty hills the journey lay)
On foot the way was plying.

Poor, slipshod, giddy Pegasus
Was, but a sorry walker,
To Vulcan then Apollo gaes,
To get a frosty calker.

Obliging Vulcan fell to wark,
Threw by his coat and bonnet;
And did Sol’s business in a crack,
Sol pay’d him with a sonnet.

Ye Vulcan’s Sons of Wanlockhead,
Pity my sad disaster;
My Pegasus is poorly shod,
I’ll pay you like my Master.

One another occasion, Burns and Pegasus were settled at “the only tolerable inn”, Bailie Whigham’s in Sanquhar whilst a “grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift,” as Burns wrote to a friend. In this letter it’s clear how much he relates to the horse as a comrade, not just a convenience for carrying out his work:

My horse and I were much both fatigued by the labors of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I were bidding defiance over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favorite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles further on, through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock…

Burns penned a bitter ode to the unpopular old woman whose corpse had caused him leave the comfortable inn and to “jade” his horse.

The Ploughman Poet

Much capital was – and is – made of Burns as the “Ploughman Poet”. For many, this conjures up the classic image of the ploughman with his team, working the land steadily with, perhaps a flock of birds following on behind feasting on the worms turned up by the ploughshare. The reality was rather different.

Firstly, the literati of Edinburgh (and beyond) were fond of creating romantic images around creative talents coming from a rural background – as with James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd”. Hogg was a shepherd and Burns was a ploughman, but the use of these terms as a convenient marketing tag has to be separated from the reality of the sheer hard labour involved. During Burns’ lifetime, there were major developments taking place in both agricultural equipment and methods. Scotland was at the forefront of these changes and the new two-horse plough was – apologies – cutting edge technology.

Whilst some Mediaeval and Renaissance images, particularly from Europe, show ploughs being drawn by a pair of horses, this still wasn’t the norm in Britain. Ploughing using the “primitive plough” was mostly done by oxen – this continued in some very rural parts late into the 19th century – and it took four or more oxen, sometimes augmented by horses, to drag the plough through the earth. Sometimes four horses would be used instead of oxen. It was also a communal effort, requiring a family or a ploughman and several labourers. Stones and weeds had to be cleared as it went along and it usually took two men at least to manage the plough, one to hold the hilts, or stilts (handles) and the other to apply weight so it cut through the ground. Someone had to lead or goad the team as well.

All that changed when James Small designed a new type of plough in the second half of the 18th century. That, along with the development of the Clydesdale in Scotland and the Shire in England, resulted in a revolution in ploughing that would lead to the heavy horse becoming the centre of farming life – but that’s a whole story on its own. What Burns understood by ploughing was the old form, not the new that was coming into being. Alistair Moffat, in his excellent book The Borders, writes:

The most famous ploughman who ever lived, Robert Burns, owned a copy of James Small’s treatise, but he never made use of it. Working alone in an outbye field with only his horses for company was not a prospect Burns ever relished. For him, the body warmth, the crack and the shared experience was a necessary part of the hard, hard work of farming.”

The life of a ploughman

As I was a-wand’ring ae morning in spring,
I heard a young ploughman sae sweetly to sing;
And as he was singin’, thir words he did say,—
There’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May.

The lav’rock in the morning she’ll rise frae her nest,
And mount i’ the air wi’ the dew on her breast,
And wi’ the merry ploughman she’ll whistle and sing,
And at night she’ll return to her nest back again.

Robert BurnsThe Ploughman’s Life

Salutations to old mare Maggie

For me the best example of Burns as a horseman comes from a lesser known poem, The Auld Farmer’s New-Year Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie, on Giving Her the Accustomed Ripp of Corn to Hansel in the New Year. A “hansel” is a payment, a gift, or hand grip, often used in betrothal. Here it’s an agreement between the old farmer and his mare, now very old. As he gives her a New Year gift of corn, he reminisces about their lives together, how he inherited her from his father twenty-nine years earlier. Her coat is now white with age but he remembers her when she was young and beautifully dappled:

Tho’ now thou’s dowie, stiff, an’ crazy,
An’ thy auld hide as white’s a daisy, I’ve seen thee dappl’t, sleek and glaizie,
A bonny gray…

His mare brought home his young bride on her back:

That day ye pranc’d wi’ muckle pride,
When ye bure hame my bonnie bride:
An’ sweet an’ gracefu’ she did ride,
Wi’ maiden air!

And Maggie has born him ten foals, some of which are in his plough team whilst others he has sold. In the poem, all his past, all his life is read in her and through her like a book. They have grown old together. Finally he assures her that she will always have a place with him and even of his last bundle of corn, she’d always have a portion, a “heapit stimpart” a generous quarter of a peck:

And think na, my auld, trusty servan’,
That now perhaps thou’s less deservin,
An’ thy auld days may end in starvin,
For my last fow,
A heapit stimpart,
I’ll reserve ane Laid by for you.

He promises to tether her out on a grassy ridge where she can “nobly rax her leather” – stretch her old body out – and rest. “Flit”, which has amongst its meanings “to tether” can also mean to die, to pass over. The sense, the feeling, that I draw from this is that even in death her body will be nobly buried, not cast aside. If you want to read the whole poem, try the Gutenberg Project where you will find the complete version and, indeed, all Burns’ works.

So, as you celebrate Burns Night remember Robert Burns the horseman too. Here’s to you, Rabbie! Cheers!

2 thoughts on “Robert Burns, horseman

  1. Do you know what kind of horse Pegasus was? From the looks of drawings I’ve seen, he looks to be a white Shire. Thanks for your answer.

    • Hello Janet! I don’t know of any images of Robert Burns’ Pegasus, although there are plenty of paintings and drawings of the grey mare belonging to Tam O’Shanter, the character created by Burns in his famous poem. Her name was Meg. Neither the Shire nor the Clydesdale breeds existed in Robert Burns’ time, although the breeding of local mares to larger imported Belgian stallions had begun in the middle of the 18th century in Scotland – these would form the foundation of the Clydesdale breed. It’s my opinion that both Tam O’Shanter’s mare Meg and Robert Burns Pegasus would have been of the famed Galloway breed.

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