Ear-Rhyme, Eye-Rhyme and Traditional Rhyme: English and Scots in Robert Burns’ s Brigs of Ayr

Jeremy J. Smith


I

In comparison with many other languages, English notoriously lacks rhymes. The position was well put by Edward Bysshe (Art of English Poetry, 1702):

I dare almost affirm, that the Difficulty of finding Rhymes, has been the unlucky Cause that has frequently reduc’ d even the best of our Poets to take up with Rhymes that have scarce any Consonance, or Agreement in Sound 1.

And yet the evidence is that, until comparatively recently, English poets have generally managed to connect words whose syllabic peaks and codas sounded at least approximately the same. As H.C.Wyld put it many years ago,

... it is hardly too much to say that the vast majority of the rhymes of Sackville, Spenser, and Shakespeare are not merely such as would pass muster now, but are of a kind in which the most careful ear could find no flaw 2.

And despite recent research which suggests that assonance - so-called ‘near-rhyme’ - was rather more common in Middle English verse than has been allowed hitherto, the impression remains that medieval poets strove - even though occasionally failing - to produce accurate ear-rhymes 3.

However, during the course of the Early Modern English period, and especially in the century after Bysshe wrote, alternative rhyming practices, where a markedly divergent pronunciation is accepted, can be detected in contemporary poetry: the eye-rhyme, and the traditional rhyme. Traditional rhymes are those such as (in Present-Day English Received Pronunciation) sea: way, where the codas of the two words were once pronounced the same but have since diverged; eye-rhymes, a sub-category of traditional rhymes, are pairs of words in which the codas are pronounced differently but are spelt in the same way, e.g. the Present-Day English pair though: tough. The proof that such rhymes were no longer acoustically accurate in the spoken mode of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is to be found through philological analysis of the writings of the orthoepists and early phoneticians of the period, many of whom were excellent observers of contemporary usage, and whose evidence has been subjected to careful modern scrutiny 4. The evidence suggests that these traditional rhyming-practices were entirely acceptable in literary verse of the period, sanctioned by the authority of poets from the past.

The appearance of traditional rhymes and eye-rhymes depends, of course, on the existence of a particular kind of poetic reception, in which the encounter with poetry is made primarily through reading rather than through listening. In medieval conditions, there is good evidence that poetry — even literary verse, such as that composed by Chaucer — was, rather than read by a solitary reader, more commonly communally performed to a listening audience. The famous ‘Troilus portrait’ in the Corpus Christi College Cambridge manuscript of Troilus and Criseyde 5, for instance, however formalised it may be as a depiction of contemporary conditions of literary publication, nevertheless indicates something of this oral world: the poet reads his work aloud to an assembled audience of notables, a situation made explicit by the address to Richard II and his court at the end of the poem. And although we are told at one point that Pandarus appears ‘to looke upon an old romaunce’ (i.e. to engage in silent reading), elsewhere we hear how Criseyde and her ladies are entertained by a spoken performance of the old verse-epic, The Siege of Thebes. We need not follow the Victorians in conceiving of the Middle Ages as primarily a time of bardic recitation within the barbaric hall, but it is certainly true that medieval literature existed in a context where orality was much more central to literary publication than it is now. In oral conditions the markedly inexact rhyme would have been foregrounded, salient in a way which the poet would not have intended. It is no coincidence that the best poets of the late medieval period, Chaucer and Gower, seem to have striven to avoid inexact rhymes; Chaucer’ s rhyming practice, indeed, seems to have become purer as his poetic career developed 6.

However, towards the end of the Middle Ages it is possible to detect a change. The fifteenth century saw the appearance, in texts written for widespread public circulation, of a standardised English spelling-system, based upon contemporary London usage; and the appearance of such a system is a strong indication that literacy, especially in the vernacular, was becoming a more prominent part of contemporary culture; the pragmatics of increased and increasing literacy demanded such a form of the written mode in which gross variation was suppressed. It appears, furthermore, that printing succeeded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because it responded to a contemporary desire for cheap reading materials; as seems to be invariably the case in technological advance, supply followed demand rather than the other way about. Standardised spelling and the arrival of printing are significant developments for the argument of this paper, because they point to the existence of a reading public for whom poetry was primarily a private and literary experience. The older, oral and communal performance of verse became socially less significant; whereas Chaucer performed his poetry before King Richard II, the court poets of Stuart times circulated their verse in written form for the private delectation of their readers. It is not surprising that critics have pointed to the growth of ‘an individual voice’ in the centuries after the Middle Ages; the medieval poet catered for communal experience, the Renaissance poet (in however posed a fashion) an individual one.

One result of this respect accorded to written as opposed to spoken discourse was to make acceptable the eye-rhyme and the traditional rhyme. As has recently been pointed out by L.Mugglestone,

...veneration was ... increasingly accorded to the written word above the spoken, a circumstance which led to the escalating use and acceptability of eye-rhymes depending for their identity on correspondences which are visual rather than phonemic 7.

Thus literary poets since the late eighteenth century have increasingly felt free to use eye-rhymes and traditional rhymes which were and are not good ear-rhymes in contemporary speech; examples are sea: way (Cowper), love: prove (Tennyson), have: crave (Blake).

These literary poets were well aware of the disappearance of the old oral traditions, and thus it is not surprising that they often make direct or indirect reference to it in their verse. Scott’ s Lay of the Last Minstrel (first published 1805), with its elegiac reference to ‘the last of all the Bards’, is, as is well-known, simply one of the most explicit of a whole group of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poems which celebrate an older (if to a large extent imaginary) culture either through self-conscious references to ‘bards’ and ‘minstrels’, e.g. Gray’ s The Bard (composed 1755-1757) and Beattie’ s The Minstrel (second and final volume published 1774), or through quasi-medieval narratives, e.g. Keats’ s La Belle Dame sans Merci and Eve of St Agnes (both published 1820). Such texts mirror the passion for artificial recreation of the ‘Gothick’, which runs from the eighteenth century into the Pre-Raphaelite movement of the Victorian period.


II

Robert Burns (1759-1796) was not immune from this cultural development. One of his lesser-known poems, The Brigs of Ayr, although written largely in Scots, begins with the following English verse inscription to John Ballantine of Ayr:

The simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough,
Learning his tuneful trade from ev’ ry bough;
The chanting linnet, or the mellow thrush,
Hailing the setting sun, sweet, in the green thorn bush;
The soaring lark, the perching red-breast shrill, 5
Or deep-ton’ d plovers, grey, wild-whistling o’ er the hill;
Shall he, nurst in the Peasant’ s lowly shed,
To hardy Independence bravely bred,
By early Poverty to hardship steel’ d,
And train’ d to arms in stern Misfortune’ s field, 10
Shall he be guilty of their hireling crimes,
The servile, mercenary Swiss * of rhymes?
Or labour hard the panegyric close,
With all the venal soul of dedicating Prose?
No! though his artless strains he rudely sings, 15
And throws his hand uncouthly o’ er the strings,
He glows with all the spirit of the Bard,
Fame, honest fame, his great, his dear reward.
Still, if some Patron’ s gen’ rous care he trace,
Skill’ d in the secret, to bestow with grace; 20
When B[allantine] befriends his humble name,
And hands the rustic stranger up to fame,
With heartfelt throes his grateful bosom swells,
The godlike bliss, to give, alone excels 8.


* - ’Swiss soldiers were in the habit of hiring themselves to any country that chose to pay for their services ...’ 9
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This extract, like most of Burns’ s poetry in Augustan English, has been neglected; we are taught to see such passages as conventional pieces of competent versification, and no more. As K.Wittig’ s still-standard survey of Scottish literature holds, ‘Burns’ s own variety of literary neo-classical Augustan English ... was diametrically opposed to his own genius, and it alone rings false’ 10; and more recently A.Bold has stated that ‘none of the English poems ... is much more than a literary pastiche’ 11. And yet analysis of this passage in the light of the discussion in section I above reveals a sophisticated handling of rhyme for which Wittig’ s comment does not prepare us, and which is of interest for our understanding of the contemporary relationship between Scots, Scottish English and English.

The poem is written in couplets, and two pairs of words here stand out as conventional eye-rhymes in Present-Day English Received Pronunciation: thrush: bush (lines 3-4), and Bard: reward (lines 17-18). In the prestigious spoken language of eighteenth-century England, the first pair was pronounced much as in its present-day equivalent; the two vowels were in late Middle English probably pronounced as in Present-Day Northern English (ie. [U]), but a distinction between /U/- and /Ã/-phonemes emerged in southern dialects in the seventeenth century. The latter pair of words in England probably, as in most varieties of Present-Day English, contained different stressed vowels in the late eighteenth century, since [w] had by that date caused rounding of vowel-segments immediately following in most words where the sequence occurred 12. It seems therefore fairly certain that the pairs thrush: bush and Bard: reward were eye-rhymes, and not good ear-rhymes, in prestigious English speech at the end of the eighteenth century.

The status of these two pairs as rhymes in eighteenth-century Scotland is less certain. The situation is complicated by there being in Scotland at that date, as now, three varieties of Anglo-Saxon-derived speech for the poet to reflect in writing: Scots, Scottish Standard English, and Standardised Southern English. The first, the traditional-dialect variety spoken in southern, central and north-eastern Scotland, was (as now) essentially the preserve of the rural peasantry and the urban working-classes; Burns’ s best-known poetry (e.g. Holy Willie’s Prayer, most of Tam O’ Shanter) was largely written to reflect this variety 13. It is distinctive at all levels of language: accent, grammar and vocabulary; and a distinctive orthography, derived from medieval practice, had sprung up to reflect it. The second variety is in present-day Scotland generally spoken by the middle classes; it differs from Standardised Southern English by including a few lexical and grammatical items derived from Scots, but more especially by being spoken in a distinctively Scottish accent. There is evidence that something like it — a prestigious Scottish usage which differed from the contemporary Southern English prestigious norm especially in accent — was beginning to emerge, purged of so-called vestigia ruris, in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the eighteenth century. This variety was transmitted in the written mode in Augustan English, ie. in an orthography indistinguishable from that used in England to reflect contemporary prestigious English speech 14. It is thus certain that (as now) this precursor of Scottish Standard English was in close contact (if not in competition) with contemporary Standardised Southern English. In twentieth-century Scotland, this last variety is in general the preserve of certain groups of English incomers, and of the English-educated Scottish aristocracy.

In Scots, the rhyme-pair bush: thrush did not exist; the contemporary Scots for the former was buss (pronounced [bÃs]), and, for thrush, either mavie or throstle 15. Bard: reward were probably acceptable as ear-rhymes in eighteenth-century Scots. The Scottish National Dictionary records the pronunciations [berd] (beside [bard]) and [r´:we:rd]; but a following [rd] is a frequent lengthening environment in many dialects of Present-Day Scots, and the rule which predicts such lengthenings was already operational in Scots in Burns’ s time 16. However, in the incipient Scottish Standard English of the eighteenth century the situation is rather less clear-cut. The pair Bard: reward was probably not a good ear-rhyme in Scottish Standard English at that time 17, and the pair bush: thrush was certainly not; recent work by C.Jones 18 suggests that the two vowels in these latter words would have been realised as distinct phonemes, even if the precise realisations were rather different from those which generally obtain in present-day Scottish Standard English. Thus Sylvester Douglas (A Treatise on the Provincial Dialect of Scotland, 1799) distinguishes between a ‘simple’ and a ‘smothered’ pronunciation of the grapheme <u>, and this distinction is confirmed by Jones’ s analysis of a recently-discovered text written in a specially-developed orthography, Alexander Scot’s The Contrast 19. The ‘simple’ / ‘smothered’ distinction seems to be phonemic between /u/ and /ƒ /; the reflex of the latter is /Ã/ in twentieth-century Scottish Standard English. Extrapolating from these findings, it may be presumed that bush: thrush would not have made a good ear-rhyme in eighteenth-century Scottish Standard English, just as they fail to rhyme in its present-day equivalent.

Of course, the direct evidence for Burns’s own pronunciation is very slight. But the indirect witness of his poetry, combined with our knowledge of his life-story and some contemporary references, suggests that, like most people, he had the ability to ‘codeswitch’, i.e. to shift from one register or variety of language to another in accordance with the social situation of his speech - in his case between Ayrshire Scots and ‘polite’ contemporary Scottish Standard English 20. In this practice he would be exemplifying the linguistic behaviour typical of a middle-class person with working-class roots — a description which would accord well with his humble origins in an Alloway cottage in Ayrshire, his subsequent lionisation in polite Edinburgh society, and his later career in the public service as an exciseman. In twentieth-century Scotland, the written reflection of differences between Scottish Standard English and Standardised Southern English is minimal. Similarly, Burns’s written Augustan English could reflect either accent.


III

The introduction to The Brigs of Ayr is written not in Scots but in Augustan English, without any of the special spellings and other usages (notably of vocabulary) which Burns uses when signalling his use of Scots. So why is his use of conventional rhyme in this passage of interest?

In answering this question, it is useful to look again at the opening lines of the poem:

The simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough,
Learning his tuneful trade from ev’ ry bough;
The chanting linnet, or the mellow thrush,
Hailing the setting sun, sweet, in the green thorn bush;
The soaring lark, the perching red-breast shrill, 5
Or deep-ton’ d plovers, grey, wild-whistling o’ er the hill;
Shall he, nurst in the Peasant’ s lowly shed,
To hardy Independence bravely bred,
By early Poverty to hardship steel’ d,
And train’ d to arms in stern Misfortune’ s field, 10
Shall he be guilty of their hireling crimes,
The servile, mercenary Swiss of rhymes?

As is invariably the case in the historical study of language, it is worth investigating the context of the linguistic forms in question. The body of The Brigs of Ayr is a debate poem between two river-bridges: the Auld Brig, which ‘appear’ d of ancient Pictish race’ and the New Brig, which ‘was buskit in a braw, new coat,/That he, at Lon’ on, frae ane Adams, got’ 21 - an interesting contrast between Scottish tradition and an English-focussed Enlightenment, even though both Brigs speak in Scots. The two Brigs proceed to debate their respective merits; their arguments can be roughly summed up as to do with tradition (the Auld Brig) and innovation (the New Brig). Their discussion (‘clishmaclaver’) becomes heated, and would, we are told, have resulted with ‘bloody wars, if Sprites had blood to shed’; but they are interrupted by a fairy procession, which Burns uses as an opportunity to pass some elegant comments on various local worthies and personal friends in allegorical guise. The prefatory epistle to Ballantine uses the modesty topos or diminutio, in which the poet states that, in his rural simplicity, fame is the only reward to inspire him and that the relationship between him and his patron is not venal but (a fine medieval touch, this) one of ‘grace’ - ie., a gift relationship of the kind approved of by pre-modern political economists 22.

That the passage is elaborately organised in terms of style does, of course, suggest that the claim of rural simplicity on the part of the Bard (Burns’ s persona) is to be treated with a degree of irony. Burns’s pose was indeed noticed by contemporaries. For instance, Dr Robert Anderson, who met Burns in Edinburgh, wrote as follows:

It was, I know, part of the machinery, as he called it, of his poetical character to pass for an illiterate ploughman who wrote from pure inspiration. When I pointed out some evident traces of poetical inspiration in his verses, privately, he readily acknowledged his obligations and even admitted the advantages he enjoyed in poetical composition from the copia verborum, the command of phraseology, which the knowledge and use of the English and Scottish dialects afforded him; but in company he did not suffer his pretensions to pure inspiration to be challenged, and it was seldom done where it might be supposed to affect the success of the subscription for his Poems 23.

As A.Bold puts it 24,

Burns used his humble birth to implant a sense of guilt in others who could expiate their sins by bestowing patronage on the unfortunate poet. ... there is, superficially, the sound of submission; on a deeper level, though, the authentic voice is authoritative.

It is in this context that the rhyming practice of the passage is significant. The ‘simple Bard’ of line 1, the ‘singer’ of line 15 who ‘throws his hand uncouthly o’ er the strings’, soon reveals himself as a conventional rhymester and rhetorician, happy to employ rhetorical devices such as alliteration, assonance and consonance within the verse-line, and quite complex metaphorical conceits (e.g. ‘The servile, mercenary Swiss of rhymes’). To employ eye-rhymes appropriate to literary Augustan verse while asserting the oral setting of the traditional (and Scots-speaking) ‘simple Bard’ is a key to understanding the poem’ s effects.

These effects are perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the final set of rhymes analysed here: the sequence rough, plough and bough in

The simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough,
Learning his tuneful trade from ev’ ry bough (lines 1-2)

The foregrounded word here is rough; that Burns considers the word important is signalled not only by alliteration (with rustic) but also by its appearing, within an overall metrical scheme of iambic pentameter, as the stressed element within a substituted trochaic foot.

Sylvester Douglas, in his ‘Table of words improperly pronounced by the Scotch, showing their true English pronounciation [sic]’, comments on the pronunciation of rough and (by implication) bough:

ROUGH: This word is, to the ear, the same with ruff, and rhymes exactly with stuff, muff, tough. Perhaps it was formerly pronounced as bough 25 .

Rough, therefore, did not rhyme with bough in incipient eighteenth-century Scottish Standard English. However, an archaic variant form of ‘rough’ [rux] and a still-current form [bjux] ‘bough’ are recorded in the Scottish National Dictionary and in the Concise Scots Dictionary 26; both rhyme with the current Scots variant [pljux] ‘plough’.

Thus a comparison of Douglas’ evidence and that of present-day Scots dialects suggests that, as with thrush: bush, there would have been three sets of pronunciations for these words in the eighteenth century. In Scottish Standard English and Standardised Southern English the pronunciations must have been much as in their present-day reflexes, and the word rough would not have formed an ear-rhyme with plough, bough; however, in Scots pronunciation the rhymes would be acoustically accurate. If the Bard were truly simple, he could be expected to have rough: bough: plough as ear-rhymes; but, if the Bard were in reality a metropolitan sophisticate, the first in the sequence would be merely an eye-rhyme with the couplet. And, of course, the distinction correlates further with the oral/literary contrast between simple Bard and sophisticated litterateur.

The particular conclusions which can be drawn from this discussion are that Burns’s employment of Scots and English was more delicately attuned than has been hitherto noticed to take account of contemporary concerns about the transition from oral to literate culture, and that his handling of Scottish Standard English (as opposed to Scots) deserves more study than has hitherto been devoted to it. There is, in fact, room for further work on Burns’s rhymes in both his Scots and his English verse, in the light of our developing knowledge of contemporary eighteenth-century pronunciation; such a study would benefit from comparisons with the practice of Burns’s immediate predecessors, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson 27. A more general conclusion, and one sometimes ignored by literary scholars, is that an understanding of contemporary patterns of pronunciation enables a deeper appreciation of the relationship between form and function in the verse practice of poets in the past.


NOTES

1 - Cited in E.Stanley ed., The Owl and the Nightingale (Manchester, 1972) p.vi.
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2 - H.C.Wyld, Studies in English Rhymes (London, 1923) p.1.
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3 - For recent research on Old and Middle English rhyming practice, see E.Stanley, "Rhymes in English Medieval Verse: from Old English to Middle English," in Medieval English Studies presented to George Kane, ed.E.D.Kennedy, R.Waldron and J.S.Wittig (Woodbridge, 1988) pp.19-54. Although Professor Stanley draws attention to a number of places, notably in authorial holographs, where assonance and consonance are used instead of true rhymes, it is the present author's opinion that he does not give sufficient weight to the existence of dialectal variation within the speech-repertoires of authors.
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4 - Notably by E.J.Dobson and, more recently, by L.Mugglestone. See E.J.Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (Oxford, 1968), and L.Mugglestone, "The fallacy of the Cockney rhyme: from Keats and earlier to Auden," Review of English Studies, new series 42, 1991, 57-66. A new important and major survey is MugglestoneŐs :Talking Proper: The Rise of the Accent as Social Symbol (Oxford 1995)
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5 - MS Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 61.
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6 - See Stanley, "Rhymes," pp.52-53.
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7 - Mugglestone, "The fallacy of the Cockney rhyme," p.57.
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8 - J.Kinsley ed., Burns: Complete Poems and Songs (Oxford, 1969) pp.226-227.
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9 - W.Wallace ed., Poetical Works of Robert Burns (Edinburgh 1990) p. 216.
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10 - K.Wittig, The Scottish Tradition in Literature (Edinburgh, 1958) p.203.
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11 - A.Bold, A Burns Companion (London, 1991) p.146.
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12 - Dobson, English Pronunciation, p.717.
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13 - It has, however, often been pointed out that even Tam O'Shanter contains Augustan English as well as Scots usage. In this poem, Burns seems to have distinguished between narrative description, written in Scots, and philosophical reflection, written in Augustan English. The following passages might be compared:

lines 13-16:
This truth fand honest Tam O'Shanter
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter;
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses
For honest men and bonny lasses)
(Kinsley ed., Complete Poems and Songs, p.443)

lines 59-66:

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.

(Kinsley ed., Complete Poems and Songs, pp.444-445)
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14 - See C. Jones ed., Sylvester Douglas: A Treatise on the Provincial Dialect of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1991), and C.Jones, "Scottish Standard English in the late eighteenth century", Transactions of the Philological Society 91, 1993, 95-131.
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15 - See references in W.Grant and D.Murison, The Scottish National Dictionary (Edinburgh, 1976), and also I.Macleod, P.Cairns, C.Macafee and R.Martin, The Scots Thesaurus (Aberdeen, 1990) pp.30 and 1-2 respectively. According to the latter authority, buss is now found only sporadically in the dialects of Caithness and Kirkcudbrightshire.
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16 - See A.J.Aitken, "The Scottish Vowel-Length Rule," in So meny people longages and tonges: philological essays in Scots and mediaeval English presented to Angus McIntosh ed. M.Benskin and M.L.Samuels (Edinburgh, 1981), 131-157, esp. p.147.
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17 - The evidence is that polite speakers of contemporary Scottish Standard English produced a rounded vowel in the environment of a preceding [w]; see Jones ed., Sylvester Douglas, p.231 sv. WATER.
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18 - See note 14 above and references there cited.
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19 - Jones ed., Sylvester Douglas, pp.19-20; Jones, "Scottish Standard English," p.113.
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20 - See R.Hudson, Sociolinguistics (Cambridge, 1980) pp.56-58 and references there cited.
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21 - The reference is to the celebrated architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) who, though born in Scotland, was buried in London's Westminster Abbey. The Auld Brig dates from the thirteenth century, and is still standing; the New Brig had to be pulled down after flood-damage in 1877, and was replaced.
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22 - See further R.F.Green, Poets and Princepleasers (Buffalo, 1981) passim.
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23 - Cited in J.Kinsley ed., The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Oxford, 1968) pp.1537-1538.
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24 - Bold, A Burns Companion, p.154.
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25 - Jones, Sylvester Douglas, p.220. Douglas goes on to back up this evidence with an amusing story:

I knew a schoolmaster in Scotland who was fond of general rules, and thought because tough was pronounced like stuff, ruff, huff, that bough should be so pronounced likewise. He taught his schoolchildren to pronounce it in that manner. But this sounded so ridiculous, even in their ears, that they gave him the knick-name [sic] of Buff, which, if alive, he probably retains to this day.
(Jones, Sylvester Douglas, p.176)
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26 - M.Robinson ed., The Concise Scots Dictionary (Aberdeen, 1985).
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27 - It is noticeable, for instance, that Burns can be inexact in his rhyming practice in his Scots verse as well. Dr J.Corbett reminds me of the rhyme in the following lines from Tam O'Shanter (lines 11-12):

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

This rhyme would only work in incipient Scottish Standard English or in Standardised Southern English. However, it could be argued that these lines - metrically deviant and written in an orthography indistinguishable from Augustan English - are somehow separate from the Scots lines preceding them because they express a complex metaphor rather than "simple" description; cf. note 13 above. I propose to pursue this issue in future studies.
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