Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

The Deil's Awa Wi The Exciseman

by Robert Burns 
Tune: The Hemp Dresser

The Deil cam fiddling through the toun
An danced awa wi th’ exciseman,
An ilka wife cried, “Auld Mahoun,
I wish you luck o the prize, man

The Deil’s awa, the Deil’s awa,
The Deil’s awa, wi th’ exciseman,
He’s danced awa, he’s danced awa,
He’s danced awa wi th’ exciseman

We’ll mak oor maut an we’ll brew oor drink
We’ll laugh, sing an rejoice, man,
And mony braw thanks tae the muckle black Deil
That danced awa wi th’ exciseman

There’s threesome reels, there’s foursome reels
There’s hornpipes an strathspeys, man
But the ae best dance that cam tae oor land
Was “The Deil’s Awa Wi The Exciseman”       

Words:
Ae: one, single
Deil: devil
Exciseman: collector of tax on alcohol and other imported goods; prosecutor of smugglers, illegal still makers and unlicensed brewers
Ilka: every
Mahoun: name for the devil
Maut: malt, ingredient and other name for ale
Reel: dance using a figure of eight
Strathspey: dance slower than a reel
Wife: woman

Gordeanna McCulloch brought this song to Sangschule.
The tune first appeared in Playford’s Dancing Master of 1675.

Burns took work as an exciseman to bolster the income he struggled to get from his farm but, according to The Canongate Burns, P.xi, his excise duties were no escape from physical drudgery. Burns is quoted:

‘I am jaded to death with fatigue. For these two months or three months, on an average, I have not ridden less than two hundred miles per week.’  The paper work of the Excise also ate into not only his time but his spirit”. The editors quote Burns on this topic: “Fine employment for a poet’s pen! …Here I sit, altogether Novemberish…my soul…like a wild Finch caught amid the horrors of winter and newly thrust into a cage.” Burns also had problems of principle in becoming a servant of a political regime he loathed. 

Nevertheless, Burns carried out his duties as an exciseman, and one such episode led to a popular story about the origins of the song.  John Loesberg in his The Scottish Songs of Robert Burns says:

“There are two conflicting stories about the origins of this song. In the first and most dramatic, Burns, the exciseman, finds himself awaiting reinforcements from Dumfries before boarding a French brig to impound her cargo. After several hours waiting in the wet salt marshes Burns was getting increasingly impatient and was heard to abuse his colleague Lewars, who had galloped off with the message. One of the waiting men suggested that the devil should take Lewars for his pains and that Burns should write a song about his fellow exciseman while they waited.  After walking along the shore a while, Burns returned and recited these verses. Later the group was successful in boarding and taking the smuggling ship. The Canongate Burns editors regard the story as myth but give the name of the smuggling ship as the Rosamund and its location as the Solway Firth.

John Loesberg continues with the “second and more down to earth version” which “has Burns simply writing the verses for a toast at an excisemen’s dinner” and this tallies with a Burns’ letter of 1792 (letter 500 in The Complete Letters of Robert Burns ed. Mackay) mentioning the Excise-court dinner where he sang this song. However Loesberg concludes that it is possible that both stories are true – the song Burns recited at the dinner could have first been written out on the marshes.

Nigel Gatherer in Songs Of Dundee, explains that one reason for the importance of access to cheap alcohol and those who made or smuggled it after the union of 1707, was “the appalling water supply. Even the Church, which preached against spirits, approved of beer as ‘strengthening’”. Many people felt the new tax on ale was going towards English debts, and smuggling of spirits became widespread. “This made spirits cheaper than the taxed ale”.