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The Twa Herds


O a' ye pious godly flocks, Weel fed on pastures orthodox, Wha now will keep you frae the fox, Or worrying tykes? Or wha will tent the waifs an' crocks, About the dykes? The twa best herds in a' the wast, The e'er ga'e gospel horn a blast These five an' twenty simmers past Oh, dool to tell! Hae had a bitter black out-cast Atween themsel'. O, Moodie, man, an' wordy Russell, How could you raise so vile a bustle; Ye'll see how New-Light herds will whistle, An' think it fine! The Lord's cause ne'er gat sic a twistle, Sin' I hae min'. O, sirs! whae'er wad hae expeckit Your duty ye wad sae negleckit, Ye wha were ne'er by lairds respeckit To wear the plaid; But by the brutes themselves eleckit, To be their guide. What flock wi' Moodie's flock could rank? Sae hale and hearty every shank! Nae poison'd soor Arminian stank He let them taste; But Calvin's fountainhead they drank - O, sic a feast! The thummart, willcat, brock, an' tod, Weel kend his voice thro' a' the wood, He smell'd their ilka hole an' road, Baith out an in; An' weel he lik'd to shed their bluid, An' sell their skin. What herd like Russell tell'd his tale; His voice was heard thro' muir and dale, He kenn'd the Lord's sheep, ilka tail, Owre a' the height; An' saw gin they were sick or hale, At the first sight. He fine a mangy sheep could scrub, Or nobly fling the gospel club, And New-Light herds could nicely drub Or pay their skin; Could shake them o'er the burning dub, Or heave them in. Sic twa - O! do I live to see't? Sic famous twa should disagree't, And names, like "villain," "hypocrite," Ilk ither gi'en, While New-Light herds, wi' laughin spite, Say neither's liein! A' ye wha tent the gospel fauld, There's Duncan deep, an' Peebles shaul, But chiefly great apostle Auld, We trust in thee, That thou wilt work them, ho an' cauld, Till they agree. Consider, sirs, how we're beset; There's scarce a new herd that we get, But comes frae 'mang that cursed set, I winna name; I hope frae heav'n to see them yet In fiery flame. Dalrymple has been lang our fae, M'Gill has wrought us meikle wae, An' that curs'd rascal ca'd M'Quhae, And baith the Shaws, That aft hae made us black an' blae, Wi' vengefu' paws. Auld Wodrow lang has hatch'd mischief; We thought aye death wad bring relief; But he has gotten, to our grief, Ane to succeed him, A chield wha'll soundly buff our beef; I meikle dread him. And mony a ane that I could tell, Wha fain wad openly rebel, Forby turn-coats amang oursel', There's Smith for ane; I doubt he's but a greyneck still, An' that ye'll fin'. O! a' ye flocks o'er a, the hills, By mosses, meadows, moors, an' fells, Come, join your counsel and your skills To cowe the lairds, An' get the brutes the power themsel's To choose their herds. Then Orthodoxy yet may prance, An' Learning in a woody dance, An' that fell cur ca'd Common Sense, That bites sae sair, Be banished o'er the sea to France: Let him bark there. Then Shaw's an' D'rymple's eloquence, M'Gill's close nervous excellence M'Quhae's pathetic manly sense, An' guid M'Math, Wi' Smith, wha thro' the heart can glance, May a' pack aff.

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Maureen Beattie

About this work

This is a poem by Robert Burns. It was written in 1784 and is read here by Maureen Beattie.

More about this poem

This, Burns's first published work and the earliest of the ecclesiastical satires, was called 'The Holy Tulzie' or 'An Unco Mournfu' Tale', 'The Twa Herds' was based on the fact that the Reverend Moodie of Riccarton and Black Jock of Kilmarnock, two 'Auld Licht' Calvinist ministers, had a scandalous quarrel at a time when the Patronage Controversy was at its height.

Their dispute over parish boundaries was taken up in the Prebytery of Irvine and during the debate, there were many lost tempers, personal attacks and much fiery rhetoric.

'Tulzie' means contention or contest, many of which took place at local fairs, and formed the subject of Burns' The Holy Fair.

The name of 'the Twa Herds' emphasised the division of congregations and also their animal-like behaviour, a common subject of beast fable which sought to highlight the tendency of 'rational' human beings to behave like animals at times. Burns was approaching the height of his poetic skill, having developed this medieval fable tradition to the point where evildoers are cast as polecats, badgers and foxes, including himself as a crossbreed 'ram'.

Of course the speaker of the poem is a sanctimonious and hypocritical persona who sympathises with the quarrelling ministers, bemoaning the fact that 'the best twa herds in a' the west' have fallen out amongst themselves and that this will give an advantage to the opposition, the 'New Light'.

Such 'New Light' characters were the University of Glasgow-educated William Dalrymple and Robert Duncan, both of whom are bad-mouthed by the 'Auld Licht' persona of the 'Twa Herds'. 'Duncan Deep' refers scathingly to Duncan' intellectual depth which enabled him to become Doctor or Divinity at Glasgow, the highest University Theological position, in 1806.

William Dalrymple was one of the ministers who was inevitably caught up in the dispute. Burns depicted Dalrymple as having been 'lang' in the 'fae' of the 'Auld Licht' faction, meaning that he was a moderate of whom the two disputing ministers would have disapproved for his liberalism.

In 'The Kirk's Alarm', Burns describes him as "D'rymple mild, D'rymple mild" painting his gentle characteristics in opposition to the harsh, black imagery he often used of the conservative Calvinists.

Theologically, the 'Auld Lichts' were 'orthodox' Calvinist - with traditional emphasis on the doctrines of original sin, election and predestination - stern in their discipline, evangelical and rhetorical in their preaching. The 'New Lights' were 'Arminian', Moderate liberal in their theology and moralistic in their preaching.

Burns' control of tone is superb, creating the apostrophe, 'O dool to tell!' and 'Who now will protect the pious flocks?' is much more effective than a direct attack and culminates in the pretence of deep surprise that the pillars of Calvinism have neglected their duty to their parishes.

Burns's political sympathies emerge also at the end of the poem in which 'that curst cur ca'd Common Sense' or Moderate 'New Light' theology, is condemned by the speaker to be banished to France, a reference to the political climate of liberty emerging in France before the French Revolution in 1789, a climate to which Burns was favourable.

Jennifer Orr

Themes for this poem

religion hypocrisy

Selected for 13 July

Whilst remaining sincerely Presbyterian, Robert Burns had many a quarrel with the sterner aspects of the faith tradition in which he was brought up. Here it is the right of landowners to pick pastors that galls him, a perquisite as much political as denominational. The local naming and shaming is all too literally parochial. But the sheer force of talent on display widens the satire's relevance and appeal.

Donny O'Rourke

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