Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Incident of the Poem at the Festival

It wasn’t my fault.

I was eight years old, a natural mimic and I always did as I was told.

The only thing I remember about the whole affair is the poem itself, which I can still – over half a century later – recite without hesitation, complete with actions. Most of what I know about ‘The Incident’ came down to me via my mother, who used to enjoy regaling people with the story whenever two or more parents were gathered together, comparing the accomplishments of their respective offspring. I imagine that ‘Mine once nearly had us thrown out of Scotland’ was a bit of a show-stopper even if, as a statement, it owed more to hyberbole than strict accuracy. In fact, I think it caused a bit of huddle behind the scenes at a minor arts festival and a few ruffled feathers in the village where we lived at the time … but not much else. It’s still a good story though.

We were living in a small village in Fife, where my mother ran the village shop and chip shop, directly across the road from the primary school.

Every year, the school entered several of its pupils in the poetry recitation competition at a local arts festival, which may have been in Edinburgh or St Andrews or possibly somewhere completely different (my mum wasn’t entirely sure which it was, and all I can remember is a coach journey to somewhere with a hall and a stage).

As I understand it, the first part of the process was for the whole class to memorize a poem (with actions) and perform it for the teacher, who then despatched the best to strut their stuff in front of the Headmaster, who in turn chose one performer from each year to represent the school at the festival.

The poem in question was a slightly truncated version of The Laird O’ Cockpen by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, and it went like this:

The laird o’ Cockpen, he’s proud an’ he’s great,
(Stand proudly, chin up, disdaining the masses.)
His mind is ta’en up wi’ the things o’ the State;
(Rest chin on back of hand in Rodinesque ‘Thinker’ fashion.)
He wanted a wife, his braw house to keep,
(Sweep arm expansively around the ‘braw hoose’.)
But favour wi’ wooin’ was fashious to seek.
(Mime dramatic sigh, place hands on hips.)

Down by the dyke-side a lady did dwell,
(Pick up hem of skirt and curtsey prettily.)
At his table head he thocht she’d look well,
M’Leish’s ae dochter o’ Clavers-ha’ Lea,
(Simper some more.)
A penniless lass wi’ a lang pedigree.
(Mime a fisherman lying about the size of his – er – fish.)

His wig was weel pouther’d and as gude as new,
(Point to head.)
His waistcoat was white, his coat it was blue;
(Tug at imaginary waistcoat, then spread arms like a scarecrow.)
He put on a ring, a sword, and cock’d hat,
(Mime putting on ring, placing sword in scabbard and tilting an imaginary hat at a rakish angle.)
And wha could refuse the laird wi’ a’ that?
(Assume outrageously camp pose.)

He took the grey mare, and rade cannily,
(Monty Pythonesque galloping without a horse.)
And rapp’d at the yett o’ Clavers-ha’ Lea;
(Knock at non-existent door.)
‘Gae tell Mistress Jean to come speedily ben, –
(Wave hand peremptorily in air.)
She’s wanted to speak to the laird o’ Cockpen.’
(Reassume camp pose.)

An’ when she cam’ ben, he bowed fu’ low,
(Bow fu’ low. But make sure you straighten up and don’t deliver the next line to the floor.)
An’ what was his errand he soon let her know;
(Smile confidently, waving hand around.)
Amazed was the laird when the lady said ‘Na’,
(Shake head emphatically.)
And wi’ a laigh curtsie she turned awa’.
(Curtsey and half turn from audience.)

Dumfounder’d was he, nae sigh did he gie,
(Open eyes wide, then assume implacable expression.)
He mounted his mare – he rade cannily;
(Cue more Monty Python miming.)
An’ aften he thought, as he gaed through the glen,
She’s daft to refuse the laird o’ Cockpen!
(Toss head in haughty defiance.)

(Curtsey. Milk applause until dragged off stage by organizer.)

Being an outrageous show off and utterly convinced of my own importance in the general order of things (I mean, my mummy ran the Sweetie Shop, how much more important could you get?) it came as absolutely no surprise to me when I was selected to go forward to the festival to represent my year.

Off we went in the coach  – competitors, teachers, families and hangers-on – and up onto the stage I clumped in my white blouse, kilted skirt, long white socks and black patent leather buckle shoes.

Without a trace of nerves (as my mum always told it) I flounced, I simpered, I bowed, I waved my arms around like the hammiest of ham actors and (thanks to my natural talent for mimicry) delivered the poem in perfect Lowland Scots.

And I won.

I believe the problems – such as they were – only started when I clambered back onto the stage to accept my prize (a book of poetry, of course) and the Very Important Scottish Person who was awarding the prizes leaned down to me and asked me where I came from. Assuming, in my childish simplicity, that I was being asked where I was born, I replied,


There wasn’t exactly a riot or anything, but mum said that the sudden silence followed by a collective intake of breath from both the audience and those on the stage was hilarious. As she always told it, the Very Important Scottish Person looked as if he briefly considered snatching the prize back from my chubby little English fingers. (Being the child that I was, I’d probably have kicked him with my shiny shoes if he’d tried it.) I, of course, was quite oblivious. I stomped back off the stage in my usual inelegant way, clutching my prize, and went home blissfully unaware of having caused a moment of Anglo-Scottish tension.

Although there was some muttering about ‘sassenachs’ from the more curmudgeonly and nationalistic villagers, we were quite well liked in the area and most people actually found it quite funny. I even enjoyed a brief flurry of local fame, I think, because I can remember repeating my party piece frequently at various gatherings for some time afterwards.

I no longer have the book that I won: it fell victim to one of my father’s occasional ‘we must get rid of all this junk’ purges, but when I recently came across this recording of The Laird O’ Cockpen (Lady Nairne wrote the words to fit an old folk tune), I was immediately back in that hall, wherever it was, bowing fu’ low …


(Picture credit: ‘The Laird O’ Cockpen’, by Watson Gordon.)

2 comments on “The Incident of the Poem at the Festival

  1. Simon T
    May 21, 2017

    Hilarious! Both the actions and the eventual Croydon moment – you English, colonising poetry competitions all over the world!

  2. kirstyjane
    May 23, 2017

    I keep rereading this and laughing. Somehow, and you could not have planned it if you tried, Croydon adds just the right touch of bathos.

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This entry was posted on May 19, 2017 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction, Poetry, Poetry Week and tagged , , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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