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A Few Scattered thoughts on
Reply to a Trimming Epistle Received from a Tailor
Attributed to Robert Burns

Contributed by John Smith and David Brannan

Reply to a Trimming Epistle Received from a Tailor ("What ails ye now, ye lousie bitch") first appeared in Stewart & Meikle’s tracts in 1799, four years after Robert Burns’ death, together with the tailor’s letter.

The tailor was Thomas Walker, who lived at Poole near Ochiltree. "He was a rather eccentric character," says Scott Douglas, "and could string rhymes together fluently."

Walker’s friend, William Simpson, the parish schoolmaster of Ochiltree, had written a flattering verse epistle to Robert Burns in 1785, and Burns replied with Epistle to William Simpson of Ochiltree. Encouraged by the reply that Simpson received, Walker wrote Burns a long verse epistle, which Burns ignored. So Walker wrote another, this time attacking Burns over Jean Armour’s pregnancy and rumors that Burns was going to flee the country. It contained the following stanzas, besides another seven:

What waefu’ news is this I hear?
Frae greetin’ I can scarce forbear.
Folks tell me ye’re gaun aff this year,
Out o’er the sea.

Whaur thou art gaun, keep mind frae me,
Seek him to bear thee companie,
And, Robin, when you come tae dee,
Ye’ll win aboon,
An’ live at peace an’ amity,
Ayont the moon.

Some tell me, Rab, ye dinna fear,
To get a wean, an’ curse an’ swear;
I’m unco wae, my lad, to hear
O’ sic a trade.
Cou’d I persuade ye to forbear,
I wad be glad.

Interestingly, Scott Douglas claims that the manuscript of Walker’s epistle shows that William Simpson had a hand in its composition.

But the final twist is that Simpson may have also written the reply attributed to Burns. Though the poem is generally accepted as Burns’, no manuscript of the poem has been found, and James Paterson’s book Contemporaries of Burns claims that Simpson wrote the reply in Burns’ name, and later showed it to Burns, who said with a laugh, "You thrashed the tailor much better than I would have done."

If, in fact, the poem is Burns’, it is Burns at his most vitriolic, and also his most flippant.

The seventh stanza of the "Reply" uses the expression "Mess John" ("Mass John"):

Wi’ pinch I put a Sunday’s face on,
An’ snooved awa’ before the Session:
I made an open, fair confession --
I scorn’d to lie --
An’ syne Mess John, beyond expression,
Fell foul o’ me.

This elicits the following comment from William Ernest Henley and Thomas F. Henderson in their notes for The Centenary Burns (London. 1896-1897):

    Dating from before the Reformation, the nickname denotes, first, the small regard of the people for the old Catholic parish priest; and secondly, that after the Reformation the majority held in extreme derision the authority which the minister essayed to wield -- especially in respect of penal discipline. Writing in the opposite interest, Ramsay in his Address of Thanks from the Society of Rakes, thus dramatises the latter sentiment:

Down, down wi’ the repenting-stools
That gart the younkers look like fools
Before the congregation;

    and again in the same brisk copy of verses:

For those wha Kirk affairs engross
Their session books may burn all;
Since fornication’s pipe’s put out
What will they have to crack about
Or jot into their journal?

Thus proving that anticlericalism is an ecumenical and time-honored phenomenon. See also the short story by Burns’ brother-in-law, John Galt, "A Ministerial Debut."

As for the tailor, Thomas Walker, he was apparently not deeply wounded by the attack, having finally obtained the reply he sought from Burns -- or so he thought.

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Page last updated 5jun2000