William McGonagall’s Silv’ry Tay

I think (after much agonising, for there is stiff competition here) that my favourite bit of William McGonagall – widely regarded as Britain’s worst ever poet – is this verse from The Ancient Town at Leith, purely for the scrupulous attention to numerical accuracy:

Then as for Leith Fort, it was erected in 1779, which is really grand,
And which is now the artillery headquarters in Bonnie Scotland;
And as for the Docks, they are magnificent to see,
They comprise five docks, two piers, 1,141 yards long respectively.

In case you’re not familiar with him, William Topaz McGonagall was a self-educated hand loom weaver from Dundee, who decided in 1877 that he had a vocation as a wandering bard. His innumerable public performances produced much mirth, audiences routinely howling with laughter at his tragic poems and pelting him with rotten vegetables and so forth. He was blissfully oblivious to the derision, in which respect I suppose he is a sort of forerunner to those poor deluded souls who appear in the early stages of The X Factor, convinced that they are singing sensations and utterly dumbfounded when the judges inform them of their error.

McGonagall’s poems are invariably written in a succession of dreary but intrinsically funny rhyming couplets, with certain oft-repeated phrases, notably: “most wonderful to be seen”, and “the Silv’ry Tay.” You can read his entire oeuvre here, but The Tay Bridge Disaster is a good introduction. I reproduce it here in all its tedious glory.


The Tay Bridge Disaster

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

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4 thoughts on “William McGonagall’s Silv’ry Tay

  1. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    July 24, 2011 at 16:03

    The buttresses bit at the end still makes me laugh!!

  2. fchantree@yahoo.co.uk'
    Gadjo Dilo
    July 25, 2011 at 06:10

    Yes, the repetition of banalities, the irregularities and even the appalling lack of regard to metre are mere appetisers to the buttresses!

  3. jameshamilton1968@googlemail.com'
    James Hamilton
    July 25, 2011 at 10:38

    When the train left Edinburgh
    The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow

    That’s a poem on its own. I know just how they must have felt, and their disappointment when they realised they weren’t on a London train.

    The Old Etonians (football) were touring Scotland at the time, and had played a match in Glasgow in appalling weather the day before. Major Marindin, the government’s railway safety expert and Old Etonians head honcho, was spending the night with Lord Kinnaird (the philanthropist who, with Marindin, would push through the legalization of professionalism in football six years later, who would eventually become head of the FA and persuade the royal family to begin attending FA Cup Finals) at his country seat near Perth when the news of the Tay Bridge disaster arrived by telegramme late in the night.

    Marindin spent the next week in a series of hairy expeditions out to the site of the disaster examining the bridge and attempting to raise the train from the bed of the Tay. In this, they were ultimately successful: the locomotive (an NBR 224 class) was repaired and ran until 1919.

    Wouldn’t have happened on the Great Western Railway, which is why Hardy was just plain wrong to situate his unhappy boy on that magnificent line when the whole thing was clearly the work of the L&YR or LBSCR. Any boy worth his salt travelling on the GWR at midnight to Paddington would be hanging out of the window, cheering.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 26, 2011 at 08:12

      Brilliant stuff, James.

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