Epistle To John Goldie, In Kilmarnock

O Gowdie, terror o' the whigs, Dread o' blackcoats and rev'rend wigs! Sour Bigotry, on her last legs, Girns an' looks back, Wishing the ten Egyptian plagues May seize you quick. Poor gapin', glowrin' Superstition! Wae's me, she's in a sad condition: Fye: bring Black Jock, her state physician, To see her water; Alas, there's grounds for great suspicion She'll ne'er get better. Enthusiasm's past redemption, Gane in a gallopin' consumption: Not a' her quacks, wi' a' their gumption, Can ever mend her; Her feeble pulse gies strong presumption, She'll soon surrender. Auld Orthodoxy lang did grapple, For every hole to get a stapple; But now she fetches at the thrapple, An' fights for breath; Haste, gie her name up in the chapel, Near unto death. It's you an' Taylor are the chief To blame for a' this black mischief; But, could the Lord's ain folk get leave, A toom tar barrel An' twa red peats wad bring relief, And end the quarrel. For me, my skill's but very sma', An' skill in prose I've nane ava'; But quietlins-wise, between us twa, Weel may you speed! And tho' they sud your sair misca', Ne'er fash your head. E'en swinge the dogs, and thresh them sicker! The mair they squeel aye chap the thicker; And still 'mang hands a hearty bicker O' something stout; It gars an owthor's pulse beat quicker, And helps his wit. There's naething like the honest nappy; Whare'll ye e'er see men sae happy, Or women sonsie, saft an' sappy, 'Tween morn and morn, As them wha like to taste the drappie, In glass or horn? I've seen me dazed upon a time, I scarce could wink or see a styme; Just ae half-mutchkin does me prime, - Ought less is little - Then back I rattle on the rhyme, As gleg's a whittle.


Bill Paterson

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It is read here by Bill Paterson.

More about this poem

It was in this poem of 1785 that Burns began to explore ways in which he could satirise bigoted religion through the adoption of a persona - a poetic method he would employ with gusto in Holy Willie's Prayer.

In the Epistle he employs the model of personification, as Robert Fergusson did before him, such as 'Sour Bigotry on his last legs / Girns and looks back' or 'Poor gapin', glowrin' Superstition!' which he couples with the motif of illness which he would later employ in 'Address to the Unco Guid'.

His quack doctor is 'Black Jock' or the Reverend John Russell of Kilmarnock, a frequently recurring persona, is one of the staunchest bigoted ministers. Jock's dignity is stripped from him as he is pictured examining the urine of superstition. The mock persona blames Dr Taylor of Norwich and John Goldie, the subject of the Epistle, both of whom are moderate 'New Lights'.

John Goldie or Goudie (1717-1809) was a miller's son from Craigmill, Galston. He was a virtuoso cabinet-maker and wine merchant in Kilmarnock who dabbled in speculating in coal-mining, canals and also was an amateur mathematician, astronomer and theologian.

Having published his own Essays on various Important Subjects Moral and Divine or 'Goudie's Bible' in 1780, he was able to act as financial guarantor to Burns during the publication of the Kilmarnock edition.

He was especially critical of the Auld Lichts or 'whigs' for their literal interpretation of the Bible and denying any symbolic value of the Scriptures. His ideas of original sin were progressive and appealed to Burns, who was taking an vocal interest in 'polemical divinity'.

Burns begins this humorous epistle by describing Goldie as 'terror of the whigs, / dread o' black coats and reverend wigs!' The term 'whig', after its application to the Covenanters in 1648 and the Exclusionists in 1679, became political in England but in Scotland it survives in application to the Presbyterians.

The darker side to these disputes is once again brought out by focusing on th eimgae of an empty tar barrel with two red peats, an image that would immediately call into mind the spectre of witch trials and martyrdom at the stake in Scotland's not-so-distant past.

It is possible to see Burns's own voice emerging from the mock Calvinist persona in the second half of the poem and some critics see this as less effective than his previous persona.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this poem

religion poetry drink

Locations for this poem


Selected for 13 August

A verse letter written in August 1785 is our chosen text for today.

Donny O'Rourke

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