The Deil’s awa wi the exciseman – a look at the paradoxical heart of Robert Burns.

Robert Burns

Imagine if you can a wild, stormy and seemingly endless winter’s night. You are child in a very small village on the west coast of Scotland. The year is 1754 and by the light of the fire in your small cottage, you listen spellbound, as your mother paints a picture of bogles, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, wraiths, and, as the master of ceremonies himself, the Deil! As the flame flickers images dance and twist in your mind. The storm rages outside, but inside you are spellbound, hearing centuries worth of stories passed from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons: stories meant for such a night.
Robert Burns would have been five years of age in 1754 and already by this age he would have been very familiar with the darker aspects of storytelling. His mother, Agnes Broun, was the teller and main inspiration of stories and song to young Burns. From her he developed his innate sense of rhythm, of place and inspiration. As Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews says:

“Poets learn through their ears. Burns grew up in a family and community which quickened what he called ‘my early attachment to ballads’. Oral culture shaped his imagination, even when he went against its wisdom: ‘advice which my grandmother, rest her soul! often gave me, and I as often neglected – “Leuk twice or ye loup ance!” (Look twice before you leap once)’. (1)

An image and a theme that Burns heard about time and time again when he was a child was that of the Deil (Devil). Burns used the image of the Devil in his storytelling and his songwriting many times. We get a sense of the power from the images he heard about in his cottage when he was young in so many of his poems and songs. One such song that features the Deil is ‘The Deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman’.
Burns himself was an exciseman from 1789 until he died in 1796. An exciseman was someone who worked for the government collecting taxes and intercepting illegal goods. It is fair to say that excisemen were not seen as popular figures! Plus ça change!

As with so often with Burns there is a delicious paradox at the heart of this song. The year 1792 is the first time this song appears. It is also the year that Robert Burns gets promoted to a more senior and better paid position within the excises, that of the Dumfries First Foot-walk. If this is not enough, Burns also receives a letter and a diploma on April 10th to say that he has been accepted as a member of the King’s ceremonial bodyguard in Scotland, known rather grandly as the Royal Company of Archers. And yet, here he is writing a song that attacks the very establishment he is employed by. Even these steps were not enough for Burns. He sends a copy of The Deil’s awa to one of his supervisors in Edinburgh and tells him that he has already sung it at one of the ‘Excisecourt dinners’ (2) in Dumfries!
The song tells the story of the exciseman being taken away by the Devil to join him in hell. The opening verse of the song contains these lines:

“The deil cam fiddlin’ thro’ the town,
And danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman;
And ilka wife cries, Auld Mahoun,

I wish you luck o’ the prize, man.”

The Deil from Tam O’Shanter 

As with so many images of the Devil in Burns’ work, we see him providing the music. In Burns’ poem, ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ the Devil’s music ability doesn’t stop at being able to play the fiddle;

“Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.”

For Burns The Deil’s awa offers a deep truth as he sees it in his life: the figure of the exciseman represents the control of the state, over the people. When he, the exciseman, is within the midst of the people they are restrained, controlled. When he is absent, the people rejoice, laugh, drink and dance. Laughing, drinking and dancing were some of Robert Burns’ favourite activities! Despite the strong hand of presbyterian faith in Scotland at this time Burns has the Devil being cheered on by “ilka wife”, every wife, who cries “Auld Mahoun” which is an old medieval name for the Devil with some unfortunate connotations linked back to a negative image of the prophet Muhammad.
The chorus of the song is as thus:

The deil’s awa the deil’s awa, The deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman, He’s danc’d awa he’s danc’d awa He’s danc’d awa wi’ the Exciseman. 

The song is merriment writ large, with a joyous, jaunty feel, warm and inviting like a large class of single malt whisky. And yet it is important to understand how subversive this song was. It is another wonderful example of Burns’ ability to use song as a radical tool to influence his peers. As mentioned this song first appeared in 1792. There were still major tensions across the United Kingdom after the French Revolution in 1789. Indeed there is a story told by Burns biographer, J.G. Lockhart in his book written in 1828 of how Burns bought four cannons and sent them via Dover to the revolutionaries in France. While this story has been disputed, Burns’ clear sympathy with the ideals of the French revolution has not.
Returning to the song we see that the pace has picked up; the celebration is getting wilder.

The second verse contains the sheer joy that is felt by the people when the hated exciseman is taken away:
We’ll mak our maut, and we’ll brew our drink,
We’ll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man;
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,
That danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman. 

No government figure was going to stop the people from making malt and enjoying it! And an extra special thanks to the Devil for taking away the exciseman!

Robert Burns knew he was taking great risks for his livelihood and yet he was driven, almost relentlessly to express himself and his beliefs regardless of their impact. Indeed Burns seemed to flourish in it. In the same year, 1792, he sends a letter to his publisher, William Creech, who just happens to be a magistrate in Edinburgh. In the letter he ends,

“ quoting four lines of ‘The De’il’s awe’ and using the French Revolutionary salutation ‘Ça ira’, the bard knew he was indulging in a wild, risky, flourish.” (3)

The final verse brings home the vastness of the celebration that is felt by the people who are participating in this party. Burns states:

There’s threesome reels, there’s foursome reels,
There’s hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance ere came to the Land
Was, the deil’s awa wi’ the Exciseman.

The paradox again for Burns showing itself as the more he becomes part of the establishment, the more he wants to rebel against it. For him, the best dance that ever came to the land was when the devil took away the exciseman.

Robert Burns takes the imagery from his childhood tales, whispered, sung and weaved to him by his mother, and uses them to carve out masterpieces celebrating the humanity of the people he loved against the establishment he was part of, and spent most of his days rebelling against.

An original imaging of the story by fingling8 from Youtube with music by The Tannahill Weavers.

(1) p17, The Bard, Robert Crawford. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.
(2) p139, The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J. De Lancey Ferguson. 2nd edn, ed. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.
(3) p356, The Bard, Robert Crawford. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.

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