Thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense!


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It’s Burns Night, which means this evening, millions of people will celebrate the life and poetry of Scottish bard Robert Burns—born on this day in 1759—by reciting his work, not least Address to a Haggis; eating haggis, neeps and tatties; and drinking Scotch. It also means that I am obliged to send you the following two letters, both of which are amongst my favourite of all letters.

First, a magnificent note from Burns himself, written in 1791 in response to a recent review that criticised a supposed abundance of “obscure language” and “imperfect grammar” in Burns’s poetry. And below that, an equally fantastic letter from J. D. Fergusson—a Scottish artist known and celebrated for his vibrant paintings, and whose letters were often as vivid as his canvases—to his wife, Margaret, in which he passionately describes a butcher preparing haggis. (Possibly not suitable for the squeamish, I’d imagine.)

Enjoy x

Ellisland, 1791

Dear Sir:

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.


Robert Burns | Letter to a critic, 1791 | The Works of Robert Burns, Volume 4


19 October 1915

Dear Gosse,

My God, let me have artists for friends. I mean people who feel, even if they're grocers, coal-heavers, anything you like except people devoid of sense of time, colour and sound. The man I called on, on Sunday night, was discussing painting and has a real feeling for it. I mentioned Burns and he told me he was at a Golf Club dinner and a butcher who was a great admirer of Burns recited ‘Address to a Haggis'. He put so much into it that he nearly collapsed at the end.

Being a squeamy vegetarian, of course you'll think that most ludicrous and disgusting. I think it splendid and inspiring. The man making haggis, selling haggis and reciting the haggis address with real feeling of sympathy with Burns's understanding and sympathy, seems to me to be really getting near the real thing. I'm sorry you can’t see it. Think of this disgusting person, a dealer in meat! Worse still, a dealer in tripes—that is, entrails, innards, or guts. A stuffer of tripes, entrails, innards or guts. A maker of haggises, or haggi. That is, a person who stuffs intestines of animals, with chopped livers, in fact the large and small stomach-bags of sheep, stuffing them with a mixture of lights, liver, heart and oatmeal, Jamaica peppers and black peppers and salt and the juice the pluck was boiled in, stirred into a consistency and stuffed into the large stomach-bag, sewn up with a needle and thread and boiled for hours and prodded from time to time with a large needle to let out the gas and keep it from bursting.

Imagine him over a cauldron of boiling haggises, watching them and prodding them with a needle, moving them about rhythmically while Burns's words run in his head and at moments of intense emotion, at the sight of their fullness of form and the knowledge of their fullness of food, of real food that nourishes both through feeling and fact—at these moments, feeling the continuity of idea that comes from having conceived, created and completed the work—at these moments this frightful person will get into the fourth dimension, so to speak, and recite with the fullness of emotion derived from this comprehensive experience, marking the rhythm with the needle, and punctuating the time with prods.

The uncouth poem of the haggis-fed ploughman, my dear Margaret, is enough to make anyone brought up decently on Plato vomit. In fact no one but Chaucer, or a butcher, or I could be expected to stand it. Don’t tell any of your friends about this. Destroy this letter at once!



J. D. Fergusson | Letter to Margaret Morris | Letters of Note: Art



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