Robert Burns and the “Creepie Chair”
On this day in 1786 twenty-seven-year-old Robert Burns served his third and last public penance for having “ante-nuptial fornication” with his eventual wife, Jean Armour. Burns had privately acknowledged his behavior and legally bound himself to Jean by giving an oral and written promise of marriage, but her parents would have none of it. They destroyed his note and had their daughter write one of her own to the church fathers, admitting pregnancy and naming Burns. The “fornication police,” as Burns called them, were empowered to impose both a fine and a public rebuke — though in his case Burns was allowed to stand in his usual pew rather than sit on the penitential stool or, again in Burns parlance, “the Creepie Chair.” Burns’s compliance was not based on contrition: the penance released him from marriage, and left him free to pursue his new plan of sailing for Jamaica, to oversee a sugar plantation. Though bitter at being judged an unworthy mate by Jean (or, more precisely, by her parents) Burns had every intention of providing for his “bastard wean”: he would publish his poems, his only asset and means of providing support. When Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was an overnight success, and when both Jean and the new twins proved to have greater claims on his heart than expected, the Jamaica plan was forgotten.
Not so Burns’s interest in other women, and his contempt for the Presbyterian snooping on it. Many of his more outrageous slaps at the local laity were kept out of the first edition of Poems, but a measure of payback was achieved with the inclusion of “The Holy Fair.” Such summery evangelical events were meant for devotion, but many attended in search of other opportunities; the speaker in Burns’s poem attends with “Fun-your cronie dear,” and with the intention of poking such at her two companions, the “wrinkled pair” of Superstition and Hypocrisy. Many “swankies young” and barefoot lasses attend with the same intention, paying their pennies to see how the preacher
…clears the points o’ faith
Wi’ rattlin an’ wi’ thumpin!
Now meekly calm, now wild in wrath
He’s stampin, an’ he’s jumpin!
Or how another-the poem takes aim at four local preachers, by name-tries “English style an’ gesture fine”; and how this one, who thinks it all “auld wives’ fables,” tries to hide his “carnal wit an’ sense” because he wants a Manse. The fire and brimstone “talk o’ hell” does make an impression on some:
The half-asleep start up wi’ fear
An’ think they hear it roarin,
When presently it does appear
‘Twas but some neibor snorin
But many of “The lads an’ lasses, blythely bent / To mind baith saul an’ body” are there to “steer about the toddy.” By the end, as many men and women have made romantic assignations as repentance, though Burns leaves the final outcome unresolved:
How mony hearts this day converts
O’ sinners and o’ lasses!
Their hearts o’ stane, gin [by] night, are gane
As saft as ony flesh is:
There’s some are fou [full] o’ love divine;
There’s some are fou o’ brandy;
An’ mony jobs that day begin,
May end in houghmagandie [fornication]
Some ither day.
Written By Steve King