"A Pig's a Pig for a' That": The Scottish Lineage of Piggy*

by I.S. MacLarden


     But the talk was still of the beauty of hogs. And the question of turning hogs into poetry.—Robert Kroetsch, “In a Pig’s Eye” (2)

In terms of her œuvre, the Scottish heritage of Mrs. Walter Buchanan has been paid curiously little attention in previous commentaries on Piggy.1 This neglect is dismaying in view of “the depth of Scottish influence . . . [on] the Canadian literary imagination” (Williams 1) in both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. What E.J. Pratt says of the Scots who built the C.P.R. could be said of countless Canadian writers: “Oatmeal was in their blood and in their names. / Thrift was the title of their catechism” (347). Elspeth Cameron has recently suggested the presence of Hugh MacDiarmid’s “First Hymn to Lenin” in Earle Birney’s “David” (65) and, as Flora Alexander has recognized, one of Piper Gunn’s outbursts in Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners—“Dolts and draggards and daft loons and gutless and gutted herring you are”—“has the alliterative energy of a medieval Scottish flyting” (85). Sir Walter Scott “created the literary climate . . . for the appreciation” (46) of historical romance in Canada, observes John Lennox à propos Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s Les Anciens Canadiens, and Danielle Schaub concludes of Mavis Gallant’s fiction that “the Presbyterian influence on English Canadian culture appears in all its oppressive and alienating reality” (125). Since even Northrop Frye had Scottish ancestry, there can be little doubt that the Scots were responsible for creating the “garrison mentality,” the “terror of the soul,” and the “[a]dolescent dreams of glory [that] haunt the Canadian consciousness (and unconsciousness)” (Frye 827, 830). It is surely no more fortuitous that The Wacousta Syndrome is by Gaile McGregor, than it is that Len Findlay continues to receive sympathetic hearings from audiences of Canadian academics.
     It is indeed curious that no critic, scholar, or theorist has hitherto recognized the relation between Buchanan’s penchant for cross-rhymed quatrains and the design of the Buchanan tartan—a design dominated, like all her poems, by rectilinear forms, measured spaces, and lines of unequal width and length. Buchanan’s resolute refusal to permit enjambement at the end of the second line in any of her stanzas points up just how faithfully her verse form weaves into itself her family’s heraldic identity. In view of the distinct possibility that Buchanan’s maiden name was MacLarden (MacLarden 37; the neglect of Buchanan by the DCB/DBC is particularly lamentable in this regard) it can be argued that the seeds of this formalistic fidelity were firmly planted early in the poet’s life, for nowhere more obviously than in the MacLarden clan’s tartan can be found the alignments that, it must be said, the Buchanan tartan by comparison only faintly adumbrates (New Alignments, passim). In short, if anyone could uncork a pig’s tail/tale, a MacLarden could.
     So strong are the tartanocentric qualities of Buchanan’s work that one hesitates to suggest they could possibly be overstated. In view of Frye’s observation that Scottish “[c]ivilization in Canada, as elsewhere, has advanced geometrically across the country, throwing down the long parallel lines of the railways, dividing up the farm lands into chessboards of square-mile sections and concession-line roads” (829), it may not be too far-fetched to observe the parallel between Buchanan’s penchant for the quatrain and the location of the Buchanan homestead: at the crossroads of the fourth concession of the Township of Collingwood and Grey County Road Four (Clarksburg). One does not need to be a numerologist to remark and ponder (leave alone publish on) the significance of this connection. The correspondence between the Buchanans’ address and the form of Piggy is no more coincidental than for any other Canadian poet of Scottish descent. As Mary Jane Edwards has observed of Alexander McLachlan: “In March 1846 he received a patent for his father’s Caledon lot. . . . In 1846 [his] first volume of poems . . . was printed. . . . All the poems exhibited conventional characteristics of romantic poetry” (661).
     Nor are these the only literary ramifications of Buchanan’s Scottish “links” (and notice the resonances of the very word with two other Scottish inventions: golf and sausages), for Piggy is interlarded with that quintessentially Scottish trait of simultaneous concerns for pragmatism, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other. (And it is important, in the face of current critico-cultural trends, that one ascribe this trait justly, to Scottish and not to Cree lifeways.) As if tutored by both Adam Smith and James Beattie, Buchanan incarnates poetically the refutation of abstract reasoning for which the greatest of Scottish thinkers, David Hume, is renowned, by deftly managing in as small a compass as the first four stanzas of her poem to hail not only porcine indispensability—“we can’t very well do without him”—and companionship—“a friend that will last to the end”—but also succulence—“juicy meat”—and exotic flair—“a pard.”1 It is difficult, if not impossible, to read these sixteen lines without their bringing to mind such decisive and incisive statements of Hume as, “Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions”(MacLarden 44:4).2
     One cannot help (not really) remarking that Buchanan’s Scottish heritage—particularly from the Presbyterian tradition of dissent—was probably responsible even for her choice of subject matter. While it is certainly the case that at least as many Dissenters could be found in, say, England, China, or Oka as in Scotland in the middle and late nineteenth century, when the ideas by which Buchanan (née MacLarden) was raised were in gestation, it cannot be doubted that it was from a dissenting lineage that this poet came. Who else would have had the intestinal fortitude to tackle this subject matter so blatantly, cavalierly, and—a possible indication that, like Milton, she was a member of the Devil’s party without knowing it—good naturedly? Indeed, it is safe to say that in Piggy she exhibits antinomian leanings, for only a believer in the view that moral lapses result from God’s occasionally withholding grace could permit herself to go before the reading public with a poem of this nature.
     But for one lapse, however, Buchanan is shrewd about her theme. Although she mentions many of the pig’s body parts and attributes, she sedulously avoids any mention of the particular deficiency which gave rise to the biblical injunction against its being consumed:

     Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.
     Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof; as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
     And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
     And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean to you.
     And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.
     Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you (Lev. 11: 3-8).

Buchanan’s one lapse, of course, is her failure to avoid the word “carcase” (1.7). The resulting allusion to the biblical text leaves the poem and its author open to the stern charge of exhibitionism and the sterner one of idolatry. A sympathetic reader may see in this lapse some evidence that metrical, rather than casuistical, exigencies made the higher claim on Buchanan’s art. Nevertheless, the sensual imagery that infects her second stanza touches her predominant theme of economy with a hint of the debauchery that, according to no less a reliable authority than Bliss Carman, led Charles G.D. Roberts to coin the term “Buchanalia.” To say the least, Buchanan is flouting a biblical text that could not help but be at the forefront of readers’ minds in her day. To her infinite credit, however, she goes on to observe that her “porkers” and “corkers” dig, root, and loot (1.17) and are “on mischief oft bent” (1.29). Did Ronsard do better? One might as well ask, Why don’t they brand pigs?
     It may well be that the poet’s “Buchanalian” disposition derives from Burns as much as Hume. Despite the frequent misprinting of “hamely” as “homely” in its opening line, one of Burns’s uncharacteristic misspellings, decidedly his most famous verse champions the porcine cause:

What though on hamely fare we dine,
     Wear hodden-gray, and a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
     A man’s a man for a’ that . . . (Anthology 4)3

As a further commentary on the raw sensual power of Piggy (has it been mentioned that Robert Kroetsch’s forebears farmed in the same district as the Buchanans before resettling in the West?), it may be noted that Buchanan strives in her apostrophe to the pig to recuperate the ‘porcinicity’ that had, more that 150 years earlier, been misappropriated in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” With a subtlety worthy of Margaret Atwood or Robin Mathews, Buchanan’s verse tears a strip, as it were, off Swift’s rancid comparison: “the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables, which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well-grown, fat, yearling child” (qtd. S. MacLarden and T. MacLarden 4). Even without the brilliant addition to her argument of “snowy lard,” Buchanan achieves a devastating attack on the Irishman, dismissing him without even mentioning him by name.4 Only F.R. Scott in “Ode to a Politician”—where the target of the attack also remains unnamed—can be said to have written more successfully in what deserves to be recognized as a uniquely Scottish-Canadian satirical mode: militant anominalism (But Sandra Djwa [passim] claims that Frankie confessed as much to her years ago.).
     It is consistent with the extraordinary subtlety of Piggy, that the poem spurns such easy devices as onomatopoeia (grunts, squeals), the prosaic e-i-e-i-o of the nursery ditty, any echoes forward to Danny Kaye’s risible refrain (Anthology 14), and other such gratuitously spare ribs. A lesser Canadian poet might have been tempted by the affinity between, for example, hock and hockey, but Buchanan aims higher, soaring on the viewless pig’s wings of her poesy, but never forgetting her Scottish ‘roots’ (1.17). The result is a bold, memorable art that is at once transcendental and descendental, Dantean and Wordsworthian, Modern and postmodern—in short, a not unremarkable instance of doubleness that reinscribes even as it redeems piggybacking as both vehicle and figure. One can do no more than echo the remark made in the first review of this work: “It is undeniable: Mrs. Buchanan is the first to recognize how much ink has to do with (and can do for) oink, and vice versa” (Bay). (In this perception, Smaro Kambourelli would find an early and dangerous rival, even if the poem would remain “ideologically inert” [37] for her.)
     It must be left to others to elucidate those aspects of Piggy that serve as a “link” between the Scottish heritage examined here and the recent developments in pork modern Canadian literature and culture studies. It is impossible to conclude, however, without suggesting that the sheer power of Mrs. Buchanan’s poem—its complete appropriation of the pig as unothered subject—may account for the absence of pigs in the poems of the McGill Group and those of Pauline Johnson. What Milton was for Keats, Mary Buchanan must have been for her successors. It is understandable that her radical treatment of porcinicity silenced A.M. Klein, but the same understanding does not extend to the poets of Contact or to the earle Birney in search of concrete, if not earthy subject matter. Moreover, to consider artists in another medium, what of Tom Thomson, who painted in nearby Leith and, therefore, must have heard of the fellow Grey County artist who, like him, was self-taught? Did the burden of her genius expel him to Algonquin Park? Surely Thomson’s major technique—the screen of foliage and trees in the immediate foreground—could have provided the ideal backdrop for pink pigs.5 Only the cynical would suggest that they were there, but, in a stroke of envy, were entirely concealed by Thomson in the scenery. Certainly, pink would have accorded well with some of the other colours in Thomson’s art nouveau palette. And what of Robert Bateman, today’s great slaughter-and clearing-house of animal paintings? The absence of pigs in his work is especially scandalous, not least because he was born in Toronto.6

* Hiberian Studies 52 (Summer 1992): 427-34. [back]


This paper was originally prepared for a conference on Piggy, organized by W.J. Kouth (see his “Piggy: A Survey of Current Scholarship,” elsewhere in this collection), and scheduled by the University of Toronto to be convened at its Clarksburg campus (it had to be moved to Hogtown at the last minute). Unfortunately, however, this paper was rejected in favour of a potentially more nutritional offering bearing the title, “A Scots Reading of Piggy: An Alternative to Haggis,” a paper that, in the organizers’ eyes (which, like their snouts, were directed towards the SSHRCC conference trough), promised a greater return. One hopes to see the supposedly superior paper trotted out soon in Essays at Canadian Writ(h)ing or elsewhere.

  1. The note to the second edition of this poem (Bailey and Bentley 22) is not as enlightening as one might wish. For too long, “a pard” has been incorrectly interpreted as Buchanan’s sop to her American friends. Surely, however, this stalwart Canadian of Scottish origin would not deign to pollute her verses with American slang. Partner/pardner is not the meaning whatsoever intended by her usage; rather, it is the connection between the genus Sus and the genus Panthera pardus that Buchanan plainly wants to make. Indeed, although it must be left for another article, it is a nice question whether Buchanan pioneered a trough of zoological research or merely swilled contemporary thought by breeding this connection between two animals that, it must be conceded, have not much beauty about them. See also Frye, in the Literary History of Canada, on other zoological aspects of Canadian literature: “this book . . . [could] have been only a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity. . . . The literary, in Canada, is often only an incidental quality of writings which, like those of many of the early explorers, are as innocent of literary intention as a mating loon” (821-22). [back]
  2. A further, far more direct, allusion to Hume, it may be argued, can be found in the insistently repeated acknowledgment (11.4, 14) of the pig’s unattractive appearance. When retired to a life of ease at the close of his diplomatic career, Hume, it was remarked by no less a compatriot than Adam Smith’s wife, had no choice but to strive to lead as perfect a life of virtue as human frailty would permit, because he “wasn’t much to look at, all in all” (S. MacLarden and T. MacLarden 4). [back]
  3. After some little thought, I have chosen to quote in this instance from the first known version of this work. Aware of the mindset of our age, however, this paper is titularily indebted to the second version, that of 1799, which, sadly, was not printed in the Anthology. Clearly, Buchanan was working with the benefit of both versions. [back]
  4. Perhaps it was Swift’s Irishness that caused the animosity, but not all evidence points toward an aversion to the Irish on Mrs. Buchanan’s part. See, for example, the penetrating discussion offered by Séamus O’Toole of her little-known years spent in Galway, elsewhere in this collection. See, but beware; O’Toole, in a spirit that renders improbable his living long enough to have another book remaindered, proceeds in typical Irish fashion, rehashing rumour rather than explicating evidence. [back]
  5. This is neither the time nor the place to ask it, but, still, it may well be asked: If we cannot be certain even about where poor Tom’s body lies, can we take anything for granted about his art? [back]
  6. I leave for another occasion the investigation of the suspicious coincidence of Thomson’s mysterious demise and the publication in the same year of poems such as Piggy and “Duckies,” which are so fraught with the prospect of, if not death, then an early harvest. One wonders if it is not now time to follow through on Judge Little’s hunch (Little) concerning the need to exhume the body in what ostensibly is Thomson’s grave in Leith, in order to verify both that there is a body buried there and that it is the painter’s. It’s a corker. [back]

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