Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fair Fa Ye - the story of a traditional greeting: "'we doubt whether her Majesty be yet so far initiated into Lowland Scotch as to comprehend the precise meaning of these loyal aspirations for her happiness"

This large stone artwork was installed in Dunloy in County Antrim many years ago - the photo above dates from 2006. "Fair fa' ye" or "Fair faa ye" is a traditional greeting which, like so much Scots language, is best known from its usage by Robert Burns in the immortal introduction to 'Address to a Haggis' –

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!

The expression predates Burns and has also been used in historical Ulster-Scots printed literature. The HathiTrust online archive has 143 returns for it (see here). A spin through the British Newspaper Archive produces a wonderful array of usages with over 40 references. The earliest one there is the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 11 January 1779

Fair fa' ye, canty Reverend Sir,
Your humour blyth, like guid auld fir
To calriff thumbs, clears up wi' Vir
Our dowie Hours;
Thy pleasand Verse, wi' Mirth sae rair,
Dull thought devours

The Scots Magazine of 1 November 1788 has a long tribute poem to Burns which begins –

Fair fa' ye, honest rhyming Rab,
For a' your dainty well-turn'd gab
It gars me claw as we' the scab
For very glee;
A plack mair than wi' ony knab
I'd drink wi' thee

It's in the song My Collier Laddie from the Scots Musical Museum of 1797– "fair fa' my Collier laddie". The Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song of 1810 includes "fair fa' the hands whilk gie".

When Queen Victoria visited the village of Cochran beside Kincardine O'Neil on her famous tour of Scotland in 1848, the locals had built a series of arches to greet her. One of these bore two large red flags, one of which had the message 'Fair Fa' Ye' and the other 'Guid Gae Wi' Ye' (Aberdeen Press and Journal 13 September 1848). The Belfast Presbyterian newspaper the Banner of Ulster's report of the same event had the second slogan as 'Guid Guide You' but it went on to say 'we doubt whether her Majesty be yet so far initiated into Lowland Scotch as to comprehend the precise meaning of these loyal aspirations for her happiness'.

It crops up in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald on 6 March 1858 – 'fair fa' ye, my bonnie laddie'; the Dunfermline Saturday Press on 17 December 1859 – 'peace be wi' ye; fair fa' ye a' my bairns'. 

A gardener poet called Alick Murray (bio here) in the Aberdeen People's Journal of 19 June 1886 wrote a poem about the Home Rule movement and he implored William Gladstone

Heave awa' Wullie! Ne'er mind that they ca' ye;
Ye'll stan' best and best when it come to the poll
Return wi the Country's mandate – Fair fa' ye!
An' gie to 'Ould Oirland" the right o' Home Rule!

The Sussex Agricultural Press of 21 January 1898 reported on a wedding where a house was bedecked with 'Fair Fa Ye' in white letters on a red banner at the wedding of Rev Arthur Hamilton Boyd of Roxburghshire and Penelope Blencoew of Bineham in Sussex. It crops up in the New Ross Standard of Wexford in 1903.

The Ulster-Scots usages are many - Strabane/Lifford poet William Starrat's poem written by renowned Scots poet Allan Ramsay in 1722 included the lines –

Fair fa’ ye then, and may your Flocks grow rife,
And may nae Elf twin Crummy of her Life.

In his 1798 rebellion poem 'Donegore Hill', James Orr of Ballycarry wrote –

What joy at hame our entrance gave!
“Guid God! is’t you? fair fa’ ye!
’Twas wise, tho’ fools may ca’t no’ brave,
To rin or e’er they saw ye.” —

In his 1897 Border Reivers novel The Outlaws of the Marches, Tyrone-born Lord Ernest Hamilton (1858-1939; Wiki here) includes a character called Agnes who, on page 193, cries out "Fair fa' ye! watch your feet and haud up well to the right. There's a glog hold down ablow the big stane yonder." (see link here). Hamilton also wrote The Soul of Ulster in 1917.


The counter to all of these happy greetings is "Foul fa' ye" – that's another post for another day.