Scotland’s national poet, the Bard, Robert Burns, died in Dumfries on the 21st of July, 1796.
Burns’ Night is on the 25th of January, but Burns’ Day? The 21st of July should really be known as Burns’ Night, because that’s when he departed this mortal coil for the Forever-evernight. And the January date should be re-christened Burns’ Day, don’t you think? In the sense that Burns’ Night with its ‘Burns Supper’ is a celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, it could be held at any time – as if an excuse was needed. In fact, the first celebrations were held by Burns’ friends on the anniversary of his death and it wasn’t until the first Burns Club, ‘The Mother Club’, was founded in Greenock that the first ‘Burns Supper’ was held on the date of his birth. At least, they thought it was his birthday. Until they checked the Ayr Parish Records in 1803, they thought he was born on the 29th of January, when in actual fact, he was born on the 25th of January, 1759. Since then, tradition schedules the ‘suppers’ in January, which is probably for the best as haggis isn’t really a dish for the summer.
Rabbie Burns, the Ploughman Poet, is regarded by Scots as our national poet and, apart from reigning Kings and Queens, is one of the few personages to be known simply by designation – the Bard. He is celebrated home and away, near and far, in many countries throughout the world. Many folks no doubt sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at New Year’s Eve who may not know its connection with Burns, but they aye ken his poems and songs in one way or another. He is the best known of the many poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is also in English.
One of my favourite Burn’s poems is ‘MacPherson’s Farewell’ or MacPherson’s Lament’. That tells the story of the execution, in 1700, of James MacPherson, who became the last man to be hanged in Banff. Apart from being a fiddler of renown, MacPherson’s fame rests not on the manner of his life, but on the way he died. When stepping up to the gallows, he read a farewell poem and played a wee bit tune of his own. Then, dramatically, he offered his fiddle to anyone who could play. When no one took up his offer, he smashed the instrument over the hangman’s head and leapt off the ladder. Poor MacPherson suffered his fate, despite a reprieve being on the way, because the magistrates had put the town clock forward by a quarter of an hour. Here’s a verse that’s been attributed to Burns:
“There's some come here to see me hanged
And some to buy my fiddle
But before that I do part wi' her
I'll brak her thro’ the middle.”
Here’s a favoured stanza from my 1974 Collins edition of ‘Poems and Songs of Robert Burns’:
“Oh, what is death but parting breath?
On many a bloody plain
I’ve dar’d his face, and in this place
I scorn him yet again!”
Burns lived in an age that has been called the second ‘golden age’ of Scotland; the first being in the 15th Century, when Scots wrote some wonderful poetry. That age, let’s say the hundred years between 1730 and 1830, is also known as the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ and produced such great poets, artists, philosophers, men of letters, scientists, engineers and architects as Robert Tannahill, Henry Raeburn, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Walter Scott, John Gibson Lockhart, John Playfair, Robert Adam, and Robert Stevenson. Men like these were responsible for making 18th Century Edinburgh the most distinguished intellectual centre in Europe. No wonder that Burns was inspired; there was something in the ‘watter’.
The social, cultural and political forces in Scotland at the time were shaped by events like the Union of the Parliaments, in 1707, and the Jacobite Rebellion, of 1745-6. Sir Walter Scott drew upon the character of the Scottish landscape and people, restoring some semblance of self worth and inspiring a fresh identity in a nation whose culture had been submerged by over two hundred years of neglect, which began when Jamie Saxt ‘shauchled ower the border’ in 1606 on his way to London. Burns shared a similar role, but perhaps more deliberately, more idealistically, more sympathetically rooted in the concerns of common folk; certainly less wistful than Scott’s aristocratic romances. Burns belonged to a nation that had lost its independence, but it was the manner of the loss that galled as can be read in ‘Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation’. Here’s a taste of his view of that noble disgrace; no complacent reflection for Burns, rather an impassioned outpouring of patriotic outrage:
“What force or guile could not subdue
Thro’ many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages.”
I don’t know why Scotland produced so many important men of science and the arts, but there must be something in the idea that they were stimulated to a form of subconscious retaliation. Martial conflict was out of the question, but Scotland could win the battle for preeminence. Scotland undoubtedly put the ‘Great’ into Britain and Burns was one of those responsible. He wasn’t a great philosopher like David Hume, nor a scientist such as James Hutton, but his brand of philosophy has stood the test of time just the same. His contribution to the arts is no less valid, nor should it be valued any less, than say, Adam Smith’s ‘invention’ of economics. Robert Burns was peculiarly responsible for a revival of Scottish-ness, helping to rediscover Scotland’s traditions, its literature and its folksongs, and developing those sources in his own unique style.
Here’s my plagiarism at work in a tribute to Burns, written in 1974:
‘Lines written on a beer mat’
Wae worth thy power, thou curs’d drink!
Rerr cure to a’ my woe and grief,
For now that I have lost my lass,
It’s due to her I raise this glass!
I see ahead the road to addiction
Aided by this cursed affection.
I’ve seen the barman’s sardonic smile,
At my drunken, begging wile;
As for a dram I’ve vainly sought,
To crush this nagging in my gut.
It’s due to thee I leave this much lov’d shore
Ne’er, perhaps, to greet old Scotia more.