Souter Johnnie's Cottage

The Bachelors' Club

A Short History of Robert Burns

Death and Doctor Hornbook→

Tam O'Shanter

John Barleycorn

Kirk Alloway

On the late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations

'The Antiquities of Scotland' by Captain Grose

When I asked  the Property Manager at The Bachelors Club, he recommended this superb poem from Burns. It draws together the activities of Burns, Tarbolton, and The Bachelors Club.

"Death and Doctor Hornbook" was written in 1785 by Burns after he had listened to John Wilson, secretary to the Tarbolton Masonic Lodge from 1782 to 1787, discussing his medical knowledge during a meeting of the Lodge. The Masonic Lodge met in the same building that Burns and his friends held their 'Bachelors' Club' meetings.

The son of a Glasgow weaver, John Wilson studied at Glasgow University and was appointed to the post of schoolmaster at Tarbolton in 1781. To improve his very modest income, he opened a grocer's shop. He come across some medical books and become a keen amateur medical enthusiast which led to him including the sale of some medicines in the shop. He also offered free advice on common ailments and advertised this service on a shop-bill he had printed.

After the meeting Burns passed the place where he had had an apparition of a meeting with Death (he described this apparition in a letter to Dr. Moore). The thoughts of death and the John Wilson's medical ineptitude led him to work on the poem on his journey home. A hornbook was a single sheet of parchment containing the Lord's Prayer and letters of the alphabet mounted on a board with a handle and protected by a thin sheath from the flattened horn of a cow. It was used in primary schools during the eighteenth century hence the link between Death and Dr. Hornbook.

Death and Dr Hornbook

A True Story

Some books are lies frae end to end
And some great lies were never penned
Even Ministers they ha'e been kenned
   In holy rapture
A rousing whid, at times, to vend
   And nail't wi' Scripture

But this that I am gaun to tell
Which lately on a night befel
Is just as true's the De'il's in hell
   Or Dublin city
That e'er he nearer comes oursel'
   'S a muckle pity

The Clachan yill had made me canty -
I was na fou, but just had plenty;
I stachered whyles, but yet took tent aye
   To free the ditches;
An' hillocks, stanes, an' bushes kenned aye
   Frae ghaists an' witches.

The rising Moon began to glower
The distant Cumnock hills out-owre;
To count her horns, wi' a' my power
   I set mysel';
But whether she had three or four,
   I could na tell.

I was come round about the hill
And todlin down on Willie's mill
Setting my staff wi' a' my skill
   To keep me sicker
Tho' leeward whyles, against my will
   I took a bicker

I there wi' Something does forgather
That pat me in an eerie swither
An awfu' scythe, out-owre ae shouther
   Clear-dangling, hang
A three-tae'd leister on the ither
   Lay, large an' lang
Its stature seemed lang Scotch ells twa
The queerest shape that e'er I saw
For fient a wame it had ava
   And then its shanks
They were as thin, as sharp an' sma'
   As cheeks o' branks

"Guid-e'en," quo' I, "Friend! hae ye been mawin
When ither folk are busy sawin?"
It seemed to mak a kind o' stan'
   But naethin' spak
At length says I "Friend, whare ye gaun
   Will ye go back"

It spak right howe "My name is Death"
'But be na' fleyed." Quoth I, "Guid faith
Ye're maybe come to stap my breath
   But tent me billie
I red ye weel, tak care o' skaith
   See, there's a gully!"

"Gudeman," quo' he, "put up your whittle,
I'm no designed to try its mettle
But if I did, I wad be kittle
   To be misleared
I wad na' mind it, no that spittle
   Out-owre my beard."

"Weel, weel!" says I, "a bargain be't
Come, gie's your hand, an' sae we're gree't;
We'll ease our shanks an' tak a seat
   Come, gies your news!
This while, ye hae been mony a gate
   At mony a house."

"Ay, ay" quo' he, an' shook his head
"It's e'en a lang, lang time indeed
Sin' I began to nick the thread
   An' choke the breath
Folk maun do something for their bread
  An' sae maun Death"

"Sax thousand years are near hand fled
Sin' I was to the butching bred
And mony a scheme in vain's been laid
   To stap or scar me
Till ane Hornbook's taen up the trade
   And faith, he'll waur me

"Ye ken Jock Hornbook i' the Clachan
Deil mak his king's-hood in a spleuchan!
He's grown sae weel acquaint wi' Buchan
   And ither chaps
The weans haud out their fingers laughin
   And pouk my hips

"See, here's a scythe, and there's a dart
They hae pierced mony a gallant heart
But Doctor Hornbook, wi' his art
   And cursed skill
Has made them baith no worth a fart
   Damned haet they'll kill!

'"'Twas but yestreen, nae farther gaen
I threw a noble throw at ane
Wi' less, I'm sure, I've hundreds slain
   But deil-ma-care!
It just played dirl on the bane
   But did nae mair

"Hornbook was by, wi' ready art
And had sae fortifyed the part
That when I looked to my dart
   It was sae blunt
Fient haet o't wad ha'e pierced the heart
   Of a kail-runt

"I drew my scythe in sic a fury
I nearhand cowpit wi' my hurry
But yet the bauld Apothecary
   Withstood the shock
I might as weel hae tryed a quarry
   O' hard whin-rock

"Even them he canna get attended
Although their face he ne'er had kenned it
Just shit in a kail blade and send it
   As soon's he smells't
Baith their disease, and what will mend it
   At once he tells't

"And then a' doctor's saws and whittles
Of a' dimensions, shapes, an' mettles
A' kinds o' boxes, mugs, an' bottles
   He's sure to ha'e
Their Latin names as fast he rattles
   as A B C

"Calces o' fossils, earth, and trees
True Sal-marinum o' the seas
The Farina of beans and pease
   He has't in plenty
Aqua-fontis, what you please
   He can content ye

"Forbye some new, uncommon weapons
Urinus Spiritus of capons
Or mite-horn shavings, filings, scrapings
   Distilled per se
Sal-alkali o' midge-tail clippings
   And mony mae"

"Waes me for Johnny Ged's Hole now,"
Quoth I, "if that the news be true!
His braw calf-ward whare gowans grew
   Sae white an' bonie
Nae doubt they'll rive it wi' the plew
   They'll ruin Johnnie!"

The creature grained an eldritch laugh
And says, "Ye needna yoke the pleugh
Kirk-yards will soon be till'd eneugh
   Tak ye nae fear
They'll a' be trenched wi' mony a sheugh
   In twa-three year

"Whare I killed ane, a fair strae-death
By loss o' blood, or want o' breath
This night I'm free to tak my aith
   That Hornbook's skill
Has clad a score i' their last claith
   By drap and pill

"An honest Wabster to his trade
Whase wife's twa nieves were scarce weel-bred
Gat tippence-worth to mend her head
   When it was sair
The wife slade cannie to her bed
   But ne'er spak mair

"A Countra Laird had ta'en the batts
Or some curmurring in his guts
His only son for Hornbook sets
   And pays him well
The lad, for twa guid gimmer-pets
   Was Laird himsel

"A bonie lass, ye kend her name
Some ill-brewn drink had hov'd her wame
She trusts hersel, to hide the shame
   In Hornbook's care
Horn sent her aff to her lang hame
   To hide it there

"That's just a swatch o' Hornbook's way
Thus goes he on from day to day
Thus does he poison, kill, an' slay
   An's weel pay'd for't
Yet stops me o' my lawfu' prey
   Wi' his damn'd dirt!

"But hark! I'll tell you of a plot
Tho' dinna ye be speakin o't
I'll nail the self-conceited Sot
   As dead's a herrin
Niest time we meet, I'll wad a groat
   He gets his fairin!"

But just as he began to tell
The auld kirk-hammer strak the bell
Some wee, short hour ayont the twal
   Which rais'd us baith
I took the way that pleas'd mysel
   And sae did Death.



The Scots Dialect Dictionary - compiled by Alexander Warrack MA


The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns with an appreciation by Lord Rosebery. 1902 - published by Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd.


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