“A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.”
In Burn’s day, provision for the poor was provided by individual parishes. Poor Laws required parishes to carry out an ‘inquisition’ into the circumstances of individual poverty to determine whether the poor were able to work or whether they had any other persons who might assist them. ‘Public nuisances’, such as begging or vagrancy, were outlawed. However, at a time when half of the population were living at subsistence or bare survival level, begging was some peoples only option.
The parishes’ solution? A ‘beggar’s badge’. People could apply for a badge and when issued with one would be allowed to beg within their parish on one day each week. Each badge was marked with a unique number and was to be worn pinned onto the shoulder. Begging without a badge was forbidden and those caught doing so were whipped and turned out of town.
Here at the museum we have a beggar’s badge dated 1773. We don’t know who the badge belonged to as recipients were only given a number and no names were recorded.
Burn’s thoughts on the beggar’s badge we don’t know exactly but we have glimpses into his views on the treatment of transient folk. In March 1784, he wrote:
“I have often observed, in the course of my experience of life, that every man, even the worst, has something good about him… For this reason I have often courted the acquaintance of that part of mankind commonly known by the ordinary phrase of blackguards… Though disgraced by follies, nay, sometimes stained with guilt, I have yet found among them the noblest virtues… magnanimity, generosity, disinterested friendship and even modesty.”
And, of course, we have his raucous cantata ‘The Jolly Beggars’, written after a chance visit by the poet to the ‘doss house’ of Poosie Nancie. Here Burns introduces us to a host of characters revelling at this low dive in Mauchline; a ‘sodger and his drab’, a ‘Merry Andrew’, a ‘raucle carlin’, a ‘pigmy scraper’ and a tinker. Encapsulating his democratic spirit and sense of brotherhood, each story further emphasises Burns’ point that beggars are as good a subject for poetry as any other.
Although it is now considered one of his finest works, it clearly didn’t make such a big impression on Burns himself – it appears he forgot he wrote it until a friend reminded him many years later!