Anster Fair by William Tennant (1784-1848) is a remarkable poem which, though popular in the author’s own lifetime, is now practically unheard of. This is a shame, as once one gets used to its mock-classical language, it is enjoyable, impressive and even inspiring.
In the most recent edition of the poem (in The Comic Poems of William Tennant, ed Maurice Lindsay & Alexander Scott, Scottish Academic Press, Edinbugh, 1989) Tennant is described by his editors as “The most original Scottish poet of his period, in the generation following that of Scott and Hogg.” Born in Anstruther, family circumstances prevented him from completing his degree at St Andrews University, but his own motivation to learn made up for this setback to the extent that he ended his professional career, with its modest beginning as a village schoolmaster, as Professor of Oriental Languages at St Andrews.
Anster Fair was an early work, and remains his best-known. First published anonymously in 1812, it opened the door to his teaching career when its authorship became known. Tennant expands the simple tale of Maggie and Rob to “A Poem in Six Cantos” (3,544 lines of poetry), described in the SAP edition as “a brilliant example of literary cross-fertilisation, with Fife folk-poetry wedded to Italian art-poetry.” Though Tennant did write other poems in Scots, Anster Fair is in literary English with just a smattering of Scots words. Underpinned by a distinctly Scottish supernatural sub-plot of wizards, witches and fairies, and sprinkled with multiple references to classical literature and mythology, the poem is cast in the Italian ottava rima stanza, but not without a few rhymes which Cole Porter would have envied, as when Maggie is pondering the merits of her various local suitors:
What though there be a fund of lore and fun in him?
He has a rotten breath—I cannot think of Cunningham.
It is Maggie’s dissatisfaction with the local talent which leads her, on the advice of the fairy Tom Puck, imprisoned in Maggie’s mustard-pot by the wizard Michael Scott (we hear the full story in due course), to proclaim that she will wed the overall winner of four contests to be held on the next Anster Fair day: an Ass Race, a Sack Race, a Competition in Piping and a Competition in Story Telling. Rob the Ranter, “a border laird of good degree”, destined to win Maggie’s hand, has been prepared for the contests by Madam Puck, imprisoned in Rob’s pepper-box. The two fairies are reunited at the joyful conclusion of the tale, when the wizard’s spell which had separated them for centuries is broken by the union of Maggie and Rob:
“Nor meet Tom Puck and Madam Puck agen,
Until the fairest maid of Scottish land
Shall to the supplest of all Scotland's men,
Charm'd by his jumping, give her bed and hand.”
Beneath the poem’s playful surface of joyous exaggeration there is real craft in the way the natural and supernatural elements are woven into a unified narrative: the tale of the fairies who bring about the events is the tale which Rob tells for the storytelling competition; the tune he plays for the piping competition is the tune which Madam Puck had played for him on her “little dangling silver lute”, and which Tom Puck had played for Maggie on his silver fairy bagpipes.
The piping competition Tennant describes takes place in a world not quite as this one. Even more remarkable than the presence of mermaids in the audience (offshore, of course) is that the result is determined by supernatural intervention rather than the foibles of an all-too-human judge and the enforcement of a musically irrelevant time-limit. When all the pipers except Rob begin playing at once rather than in turn, they are called to order by the king and a globe of fire suddenly descends from the firmament and consumes their instruments. Only Rob’s pipes are unscathed, and before beginning his tune
A space he silent stood, and cast his eye
In meditation upwards to the pole,
As if he pray’d some fairy pow’r in sky
To guide his fingers right o’er bore and hole.
Of course Rob wins, being the only piper left, and he does it in style. All the company dance to his playing as though entranced:
So on they trip, king, Maggie, knight, and earl,
Green-coated courtier, satin-snooded dame,
Old men and maidens, man, wife, boy, and girl,
The stiff, the supple, bandy-legg’d, and lame.
Canto IV closes thus:
But from that hour the monarch and the mob
Gave Maggie Lauder’s name to Robert’s tune,
And so shall it be call’d while o’er the globe
Travels the waneing and the crescent moon:
And from that hour the puissant piper Rob,
Whose bagpipe wak’d so hot a rigadoon,
From his well-manag’d bag and drone and chanter,
Obtain’d the glorious name of Mighty Rob the Ranter.
Tennant’s poetic vision gives an interesting origin to Maggie’s tune: it is played to Maggie on fairy pipes, but it enters the world of human piping when it is played by a fairy on her silver lute to a Border piper. Tennant names this piper as Robert Scott (Robert Scot in the first edition), a plausible name for a “a border laird of good degree”. In his paper read to the Hawick Archaeological Society in October 1913 Rev W A P Johnman identifies him more closely:
“Tennant in “Anster Fair” says his name was Robert Scott, and that he was a native of Hounam, on Kale Water.”
I have found no mention of Hounam or Kale Water in the editions of Anster Fair I have seen. Perhaps our reverend gentleman had privileged information, perhaps he was angelically inspired, or perhaps he was away with the fairies? Matters are hardly clarified in his November paper, where he identifies Rob the Ranter as “the redoubtable Robin” Hastie, successor to his uncle John Hastie as Toun Piper of Jedburgh.
Whichever Rob you choose, it makes a good story, and it chimes with the song: Hounam and Jedburgh are both “upo’ the Border”. Following the line of Tennant’s story, Rob’s subsequent and immediate residence in Anster as Maggie’s husband explains why the tune has not featured in the known Border piping repertoire, while the presence of so many other pipers from all airts at Rob’s victorious performance explains how it passed into the Irish, Highland and Northumbrian piping traditions.
Before exploring these, though, we will look at how the tune fared among fiddlers, as they began writing down their versions long before any pipers.
1.Intro . 2.Songs . 3.Anster Fair . 4.Fiddle . 5.Irish Pipes . 6.Highland Pipes . 7.Northumbrian Smallpipes . 8.Border Pipes . 9.Conclusion
Back to Introduction