Translating an English Limerick into Scots - Swinburne and Sawney Bean

Algernon Charles Swinburne

Painting by William Bell Scott
Painting by William Bell Scott

It started with a joke

Some of us, in our small community of poets, enjoy games, challenges, exercises. They help us flex the poetic muscle to keep it fit and in good shape for the Great Inspiration that will surely arrive in time. Recently, one such challenge was to render a well known English limerick into modern Scots. Easy, I thought, little dreaming down what depths of depravity this path was going to lead me. The limerick, which most will recognise, reads:

There was a young fellow called Dave
Who kept a dead whore in a cave
He said, "It's disgusting.
I know it needs dusting,
But think of the money I save".

Translation, even between such similar languages as English and Scots, is never a simple exercise of word substitution, especially when the integrity of a verse form must be preserved. So, a first, and superficial, effort might yield something along these lines:

There wis a wee fella caad Davie
Wha keepit a hoor in a cavie ...

And already we are encountering several problems. Though wee fella is good idiom, we have unjustifiably substituted size (wee) for age (young). Perhaps this doesn't matter. Davie is certainly a good substitution, being the preferred Scots diminutive of David. But the rhyme cavie is deeply suspect, locating the poem firmly in the North East, and in a very quaint corner of it too.

We also see that in correctly using the standard Scots past tense keepit we have had to drop dead (or rather, deid) for metrical reasons. As this detail is central to the narrative, we must correct the error. One possibility is:

Wha keepit deid hoors in a cavie

But the plural raises questions of its own. Are we depicting some grim Sawney Bean* scenario with corpses everywhere, or are we suggesting that, with some measure of fastidiousness, Davie would occasionally replace an old one with a new one? Neither option is particularly palatable, and here we should take a step back and do what we should have done from the outset - examine the sources.

Sawney Bean

Sawney Bean's cave is on Scotland's South Ayrshire coast. Some 500 years ago, Bean was the head of a family of cannibal outlaws and footpads who murdered innocent wayfarers for their flesh, under cover of darkness, dismembering, cooking and eating the victims in their cave.

My research turned up many versions of this limerick, mostly dating from late Victorian England. Versions are known to exist in the United States, but all appear to be of later date. Commentators have long wondered if the thematic material has any factual basis. In particular, is 'Dave' anyone real? One popular and recurring idea is that the limericks are inspired by the decadent poet Swinburne. Some have gone so far as to say that Swinburne is to be identified with 'Dave', and that the name was chosen as much for his protection as for the rhyming punch line.

Certainly, Swinburne cultivated his decadent image during his lifetime. Several of his poems deal with death, and beauty in death, and there is no doubt he had a fascination with morbidity. He even, on more than one occasion, declared himself an acolyte of the Marquis de Sade. However, he was well aware that decadence sells, and current academic opinion considers his decadence to have been, for the most part, playing to the gallery.

In spite of all this speculation, no-one has been able to pin a charge of genuine 'practical' necrophilia on him - until now!

My own research finally took me to the village of Tyndrum in Scotland's Rannoch Moor, now popular with tourists but in Victorian times surely as remote a spot as one could wish to find. It was here, in the local public library, that I made an astounding discovery - an inept but telling Clerihew, unpublished of course. An anonymous manuscript tucked into the flyleaf of a volume of Swinburne's 'Century of Roundels'. The Clerihew reads:

found in Tyndrum Library
found in Tyndrum Library

Charles Algernon Swinburne
took a cottage in Tyndrum
to be a necrophile
quietly for a while.

Tyndrum (correctly pronounced tyne drum, not tin drum) is a particularly poor rhyme for Swinburne, and the writer has also misordered the poet's forenames, but both of these details merely add veracity to the Clerihew. Though we cannot know who penned it, or why, who can doubt its ring of truth?

And now we understand there was no cave. A cottage in Tyndrum, in those days as secluded as anywhere in the Kingdom. Where better for a society poet to escape the limelight and the prurient eyes and indulge in a little practical research? All in the name of Art, of course.

And finally...

Lest there be any doubt - this entire hub was a flight of fancy. Lies and damned lies from beginning to end. Swinburne's reputation is big enough to take it and besides, he would probably have enjoyed the attention. All rumours are good rumours. BUT:

  • There is some truth in the Sawney Bean Legend.
  • Swinburne was an aficionado of the Marquis de Sade
  • Tyndrum is where the devil said goodnight.

Sleep well, and thanks for the read!

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Comments 12 comments

robie2 profile image

robie2 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

Ahhhh Paraglider--I love your academic persona. I think this hub is worthy of presentation at some effete literary society gathering--preferably a very provincial one where a collation is offered after the lecture LOL. For the record, the American version of that limerick is:

There once was a hermit named Dave

Who kept a dead whore in his cave

He said I'll admit

I'm a bit of a sh**

But think of the money I save

Another thumbs up for you--but not for Dave. :-)

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi Robie - Thanks. I've seen that version too, and maybe it's really the original, because the hermit and the cave go together naturally. But why spoil a good story with the truth ;)

ColdWarBaby 8 years ago

I’m torn Paraglider. Your lyrical style can be seductive. However, I fail to see the purpose of such diversions in these desperate times. Perhaps it’s a lesson in recognizing disinformation or a subtle message about our mainstream media. I don’t honestly know what to make of it. I have noticed that there is seemingly a great effort by almost everyone posting here to produce Hubs that will enhance the commercial aspect of Hub Pages. Everyone is concerned first with trying to make a buck without any real concern for the fact that the pursuit of the almighty dollar is what’s gotten us in this mess. I’m truly sorry to the black sheep of Hub Pages. Quite frankly, it bruises ones’ ego. But the ego is largely responsible for our addiction to the dollar. Are we all so desperate now that we must feed the beast that is consuming us? Seems a bit paradoxical to me.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Hi CWB - Thanks for the read & comment. Interesting points. Personally, I'm harbouring no ambitions to make money on hubpages. I make enough as a broadcast technologist. Also, I'm not even much interested in generating traffic. If I were, I'd be rabbiting on about sexy 'celebrities', not about Swinburne and Sawney Bean. So, what is the purpose of a hub such as this? None whatsoever, except, to use your word, a diversion.

But isn't that purpose enough? If you take someone along for an imaginative ride, aren't you demonstrating that it's not necessary to spend all your waking hours getting and spending? Perhaps showing evidence of an alternative outlook is as effective in the long run as a campaign of harranguing? I don't know.

While not wanting to make exaggerated claims for them, I see hubs like this and the whole Paranormal Hotel blog exercise as my 'art' - a creative outlet, like my poetry. As such, it is an end in itself. It's pleasing if I pick up a few fans along the way, but it's not the motivation.

As for the 'revolution', I think that must come from the individual, through a change in lifestyle and leading by example. So, I choose not to own a car and buy almost nothing except food, drink and essential clothes. But I have to fly a lot for business, so my world footprint is still too big. Probably I should campaign more. I'll give it some thought. Thanks!

ColdWarBaby 8 years ago

Your points are well taken and you have answered my questions thoughtfully and without rancor. I could ask nothing more.

Thank you.

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

My pleasure :)

jgrimes331 7 years ago

You blow me away...

Please retire soon! Julie

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Let's get through this recession first, then maybe think about retiring...

heyju profile image

heyju 7 years ago

First I was laughing then I was totally grossed out!! lol Loved it. And that Sawney Bean character, whew wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley or cave lol. Thanks!!

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

heyju - thanks for touring a few of my hubs this morning :) Sawney Bean's cave was just down the coast from my childhood home. Fortunately, he was long dead!

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 7 years ago from US

Hi Dave! Sawney beans cave, (eerie, nechrophiliac), now you have introduced me the rumor, limericks and some cool words etc, I am learning, learning and learning, always a good hub!

have a good day always, maita

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland Author

Maita - I doubt if Sawney Bean took the time to consider necrophilia. All the history and folklore suggests that he was a good honest cannibal - he killed strangers to feed his family! Don't walk alone on the Girvan road ;)

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