Epistle to John Ranken


O Rough, rude, ready-witted Rankine, The wale o' cocks for fun an' drinkin! There's monie godly folks are thinkin, Your dreams an' tricks Will send you, Korah-like, a sinkin, Straught to auld Nick's. Ye hae sae monie cracks an' cants, And in your wicked, drunken rants, Ye mak a devil o' the Saunts, An' fill them fou; And then their failings, flaws an' wants, Are a' seen thro'. Hypocrisy, in mercy spare it! That holy robe, O dinna tear it! Spare't for their sakes wha aften wear it, The lads in black; But your curst wit, when it comes near it, Rives't aff their back. Think, wicked Sinner, wha ye're skaithing: It's just the Blue-gown badge an' claithing, O' Saunts; tak that, ye lea'e them naething, To ken them by, Frae ony unregenerate Heathen, Like you or I. I've sent you here, some rhymin ware, A' that I bargain'd for, an' mair; Sae when ye hae an hour to spare, I will expect, Yon Sang ye'll sen't, wi' cannie care, And no neglect. Tho' faith, sma' heart hae I to sing! My Muse dow scarcely spread her wing: I've play'd myself a bonie spring, An' danc'd my fill! I'd better gaen an' sair't the king, At Bunker's hill. 'Twas ae night lately, in my fun, I gaed a rovin wi' the gun, An' brought a Paitrick to the grun', A bonie hen, And, as the twilight was begun, Thought nane wad ken. The poor, wee thing was little hurt; I straiket it a wee for sport, Ne'er thinkan they wad fash me for't; But, Deil-ma-care! Somebody tells the Poacher-Court, The hale affair. Some auld, us'd hands had taen a note, That sic a hen had got a shot; I was suspected for the plot; I scorn'd to lie; So gat the whissle o' my groat, An' pay't the fee. But by my gun, o' guns the wale, An' by my pouther an' my hail, An' by my hen, an' by her tail, I vow an' swear! The Game shall Pay, ower moor an' dail, For this, niest year. As soon's the clockin-time is by, An' the wee powts begun to cry, Lord, I'se hae sportin by an' by, For my gowd guinea; Tho' I should herd the buckskin kye For't, in Virginia! Trowth, they had muckle for to blame! 'Twas neither broken wing nor limb, But twa-three draps about the wame Scarce thro' the feathers; An' baith a yellow George to claim, An' thole their blethers! It pits me ay as mad's a hare; So I can rhyme nor write nae mair; But pennyworths again is fair, When time's expedient: Meanwhile I am, respected Sir, Your most obedient.

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Stuart McQuarrie

About this work

This is an epistle by Robert Burns. It was written in 1784 and is read here by Stuart McQuarrie.

More about this epistle

John Rankine (d. 1810) was a tenant-farmer in Adamhill, Tarbolton, and a close friend of Burns during his time at Lochlie.

Rankine’s sister Margaret was the first wife of John Lapraik about whom Burns also composed an Epistle.

Rankine was one of the first to find out that Burns had impregnated Elizabeth Paton, and teased him relentlessly about it.

In response Burns composed this Epistle, which draws heavily on the image of a hunter ensnaring its prey, while the ‘Poacher Court’, (the Kirk Session) tries to exact its revenge after the affair comes to their attention.

Burns was known to be highly satisfied with the piece, and although he sent a copy to John Kennedy as late as 17 May 1786, he still included it in the Kilmarnock edition. The talented, yet vain, literary critic Hugh Blair (1718-1800) somewhat missed the point of the Epistle in his remarks about the poem.

"The description of shooting the hen is understood, I find, to convey an indecent meaning, tho' in reading the poem... I took it literally, and the indecency did not strike me. But... the whole poem ought undoubtedly to be left out of the new edition.".

Burns ignored this advice, and retained it for the Edinburgh edition.

Ralph McLean

Themes for this epistle

friendship drink nature poetry

Selected for 18 October

Today we conclude our sequence of poems written about and to John Ranken.This was the first of the verse letters the Bard addressed to his friend and neighbour. It accompanied a selection of Burns's latest verses. The poem makes mention of Bunker Hill. The American War of Independence fascinated and inspired the revolutionary and anti-Hanoverian Bard.

Donny O'Rourke

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