The Incident of the Poem at the Festival


As I recall, 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. 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’. As she always told it, the Very Important Scottish Person looked as if he briefly considered snatching the prize back from my chubby little fingers. 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. (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. (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. The Incident of the Poem at the Festival
It wasn’t my fault. 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 was eight   years old, a natural mimic and I always did as I was told. (Toss head in haughty defiance.)
(Curtsey. 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. 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. Related (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 rade   through the glen,
(Ditto.)
She’s daft to refuse the laird o’ Cockpen! (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,
(Simper.)
M’Leish’s ae dochter o’ Clavers-ha’ Lea,
(Simper some more.)
A penniless lass wi’ a lang pedigree. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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 …
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(Picture credit: ‘The Laird O’ Cockpen’, by Watson Gordon.)
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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. 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. It’s still a good story though. And I won. 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. 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. Assuming, in my childish simplicity, that I was being asked where I was born, I replied,
‘Croydon’. 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. (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 hands 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?