Page:Merry Muses of Caledonia.djvu/135

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This youthful jeu de'sprit of the poet was composed in the Spring of 1786, before the publication of his poems brought him prominently before the world. At that time, his relations with Jean Armour, coupled with his former error with Elizabeth Paton, servant maid to the household at Lochlie, afforded ample material for the gossips and scandalmongers of Mauchline to "tease his name in kintra clatter." Along with his friends—John Richmond, law clerk; James Smith, merchant; and William Huner, shoemaker—all then resident in the village—he established a bachelors' club, which held stated meetings in the "Whitefoord Arms," a hostelry kept by John Dove, the "Johnie Doo" and "Johnie Pigeon" to whom he refers in other connections. One of the self-imposed duties of this secret association was humorously given out to be the supplementing of the efforts of the Kirk Session by searching out and bringing to book all transgressors who cultivated the "better art o' hiding." The poem professedly describes one of the sittings of this bachelors' club, at which it had constituted itself a "Court of Equity" for the trial of two alleged offenders—"Sandy," or "Coachman Dow," and "Jock," or "Clockie Brown"—against each of whom a "Libel Summons" was issued, in comical imitation of a regular court of law, Burns being designated president; Smith, fiscal; Richmond, clerk; and Hunter, messenger-at-arms.

Judging from the MS. copies which have been preserved, it does not appear that a final corrected copy was ever executed by the poet. That the piece is imaginary in some of its details is proved by the fact that John Richmond left Mauchline for Edinburgh about November, 1785. A version is preserved in the British Museum among the Egerton manuscripts; and in the same collection are to be found a fragment of the same version, and a curtailed version known as the "Additional MS."[1] Besides these, Mr. Scott Douglas evidently had access to another version, MS. copies of which he distributed amongst his friends when engaged on his magnum opus, the Edinburgh edition of the works of the poet. Concerning the origin of that version we have no information. In the transcript given here, we found

  1. Referred to in the textual notes as Eg. Ver., "Frag. MS.," and "Add. MS."