Contains some scenes of a sexual nature

Libel Summons

IN truth and honour's name.-Amen. Know all men by these presents plain, The fourth of June, at Mauchline given, The year 'tween eighty five and seven; We Fornicators by profession, As by extraction from each session, In way and manner here narrated, Pro bono amor congregated, Are by our brethren constituted, A court of equity deputed: With special authoriz'd direction, To take beneath our strict inspection, The stays unlacing quondam maiden, With growing life, and anguish laden, Who by the rascal is denied, That led her thoughtless steps aside; The wretch who can refuse assistance, To them whom he has given existence, He who when at a lass's by-job, Defrauds her wi' a frig or dry-bob, The coof who stands on clish ma claver, When lasses haflins offer favour; All who in ony way and manner, Disdain the Fornicators honour, We take cognizance there anent, The proper judges competent. First, poet BURNS he takes the chair, Allow'd by all his title's fair, And pass'd nem con without dissention, He has a duplicate pretension. Next merchant Smith, our worthy fiscal, To cow each pertinacious rascal, In this as every other state, His merit is conspicuous great. Richmond, the third, our worthy clerk, Our minutes regular to mark, A fit dispenser of the law, In absence of the ither twa. And fourth, our messenger at arms, When failing a' the milder terms;- Hunter, a willing hearty brither, Weel skill'd in dead and living leather. Without preamble, less or mair said, We body politic aforesaid, Wi' legal due whereas, and wherefore, Are thus appointed here to care for, At the instance of our constituents, To punish contraversing truants; Keeping a proper regulation, Within the lists of Fornication. Then, first, our fiscal by petition Informs us, there is strong suspicion That Coachman Dow, and Clocky Brown, Baith residenters in this town; In other words, you Jock and Sandy, Hae been at warks of Houghmagandy, And now when facts are come to light, The matter ye deny outright. First, Clocky Brown, there's witness borne, And affidavit made and sworn, Ae evening of the Mauchline fair, That Jeanie's masts there were seen bare, For ye had furl'd up her sails, And was at play at heads and tails; That ye hae made a hurly burly, About Jean Mitchell's tirly whorly; That ye here pendulum tried to alter, And grizzled at her regulator; And further still, ye cruel vandal, A tale might even in hell be scandal; That ye hae made repeated trials, Wi' dregs and drugs, in doctor's vials, Just as ye thought, wi' full infusion, Your ain begotten wean to poison; An' yet ye are sae scant o' grace, As dared to lift your brazen face, And offered to gie your aith, Ye never lifted Jeanie's claith. Next, Sandy Dow, ye are indicted, To hae as publicly been wyted, For clandestinely upward whorlan, The petticoats o' Maggy Borland, An' gae her cannister a rattle, That months to come it winna settle, And yet ye rascal ye protest, Ye never herried Maggy's nest, Tho' it's weel ken'd, that at her gavel, Ye hae gi'en mony a ketch an' kavel. Then, Brown an' Dow, above design'd, For clags an' claims therein subjoin'd, The court aforesaid, cite and summon, That on the fourth of July cumin', The hour of cause, at our court ha' At Whiteford's arms, ye'll answer a'; Exculpate proof ye needna bring, For we've due notice o' the thing, But as reluctantly we punish, And rather mildly would admonish, We for that ancient secret sake, You have the honour to partake, An' for that noble badge you wear,- You, Sandy Dow, our brother dear, We give you as a man an' mason, This serious, sober, friendly lesson, Your crime a manly deed we verit, As man alone can only do it; But in denial persevering, Is to a scoundrel's name adhering; Far best confess, and join our core, As be reproach'd for ever more; The best o' men hae been surpris'd, The dousest women been advis'd, The cleverest lads hae had a trick o't, The bonniest lasses ta'en a lick o't; Kings hae been proud our name to own, The brightest jewel in their crown; The rhyming sons o' bleak Parnassus, Were ay red wood about the lasses, And saul and body, all would venture, Rejoicing in our list to enter; E'en (wha wad trow't,) the cleric order, Aft slyly break the hallow'd border, An' show in proper time an' place, They are as ascant o' boasted grace, As ony o' the human race. Then, brother Dow, be not asham'd, In sic a quorum to be nam'd, But lift a dauntless brow upon it, An' say I am the man has done it,- I, Sandy Dow, got Meg wi' bairn, An' fit to do as much again. For you, John Brown, we gie ye notice, So deep, so great, so black, your faut is, Without ye by a quick repentance, Acknowledge your's and Jean's acquaintance, Remember this shall be your sentence:- Our Beagles to the cross shall tak' ye, And there shall mither naked mak' ye; A rape they round the rump shall tak', An' tye your hands behind your back, Wi' joost an ell o' string allow'd, To jink and hid ye frae the crowd; Then shall ye stand a lawfu' seizure, Induring Jeanine Mitchell's pleasure, So be her pleasure don't surpass, Five turnings o' a hauf hour glass; Nor shall it in her pleasure be, To turn you loose in less then three. This our futurum esse decreet, We mean not to be kept a secret, But in our summons here insert it, And whoso dare let him subvert it; This mark'd above, the date and place is, Sigillum est, per Burns the preses; This summons wi' the signet mark, Extractum est, per Richmond clerk; At Mauchline idem, date of June, 'Tween four an' five i' the afternoon, You twa in propria personae, Before design'd, Sandy and Johnny, This summons legally you've got, As vide witness under wrote, Within the house of John Dow, vintner, Nunc facia hog Gulielmus Hunter.


Robbie Coltrane

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It is read here by Robbie Coltrane.

More about this poem

Written in 1786, 'Libel Summons' is modelled upon, and humorously satirises, the disciplinary practices of the eighteenth-century Presbyterian Kirk Session. This poem has also been published as 'The Court of Equity' and 'The Fornicators Court', although manuscript evidence suggests that 'Libel Summons' was Robert Burns's chosen title.

It is commonly believed that 'Libel Summons' was written for the enjoyment of the Freemasons (of which Burns was a member), something that might be supported by Burns's references in the poem to Sandy Dow as a 'brother' and 'Man an' Mason'.

The poem is presented to us as a legal writ, 'Pro bono amor', perhaps in reference to the eighteenth-century Kirk Session's application to official courts for legally binding decisions about fornication and the legitimacy of 'irregular' marriages.

However, while Burns's imagined 'Court of Equity' claims responsibility for the regulation of extra-marital sexual relationships, it does not consider sex itself a transgression, but rather the failure to show respect for the act itself and for one's partner.

Failure to participate in instinctively human sexual behaviour, and reluctance to be accountable for the natural consequences of enjoying sexual relations, is to 'Disdain the Fornicator's honour'.

The poem establishes that the purpose of the Court of Equity is to uphold the rules of sexuality. According to Burns, a man should act when 'lasses haflins offer favour', and so we become aware of the typically Burnsian notion that sex is to be enjoyed and embraced as a natural phenomenon.

Most importantly for Burns, a fornicator must not 'refuse assistance/ To them whom he has given existence'. Hence the humorous, yet humiliating and sexually violent treatment of 'Clocky Brown' whose attempt to abort his own child, Burns exclaims, 'might even in hell be scandal'.

Burns here demonstrates a positive attitude towards pregnancy; an attitude that recurs throughout the poet's work, and not least in 'A Poet's Welcome to his Love Begotten Daughter'.

This parody of the eighteenth-century Kirk Session's seemingly compulsive voyeurism, and their relish in bringing sexual activity to public attention, is a humorous yet effective and skilful attack on eighteenth-century religious society's preoccupation with policing heterosexual relationships.

Pauline Mackay

Themes for this poem

humour seduction bawdry

Locations for this poem


Selected for 04 June

Today's poem relates to this date in 1786. It is a racy read and deploys legal jargon to amusing effect.

Donny O'Rourke

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