Burns day…

Today is Burns day.

For the uninitiated, this is a big day up here in Scotland. There will be many a haggis piped in and much raising of whisky glasses along with ceremonial readings of Burns poetry. It is possible that somewhere in this wonderful world that there are other great poets whose memory is celebrated by a national day all of their own – the poets of ancient Persia perhaps – but if so, I do not know of it. This fact alone singles out Burns as special.

(There is an interesting article in the Guardian today about William Barnes, a Dorset poet, also a farmers son who wrote in his own dialect.)

Burns was a man who packed an awful lot into his 37 years of life. Before he died in 1796 he had been a farmer, a book keeper on a Jamaican slave plantation, a tax man, a part time soldier, a song writer and (of course) a poet of power, subtlety and gifting who was able to speak with an authentic voice.

Burns personal life was no less colourful. Jacobite, Freemason, Socialite, Womaniser (who is said to have had many illegitimate children.) Lover whose poems immortalised Highland Mary, whose statue stands above her (and my) home town still –

Burns died young after living hard. He was a man of many contradictions; a supporter of revolution who collected taxes; a campaigner for liberty and justice who worked on a slave plantation; a socialite and friend of the rich and powerful whose wife and many children lived in real hardship, particularly after his death.

Why did his poetry endure? How did it become to be so identified with Scottish culture?

Burns was a fierce nationalist, and his Jacobite leanings had become very fashionable in the century after his death thanks to the Victorian romantic vision of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and the reinvention of Highland heritage and regalia by Sir Walter Scott, who had known Burns. Although Scott, a Unionist, would certainly not have approved of this one;

The other force that propelled his on going fame was the establishment of Burns nights by friends of Burns shortly after his death. The huge popularity of Freemasonry at the time carried this tradition all around Scotland and into Northern Ireland, as Lodges began to celebrate Burns night with food, whisky and poetry.

Burns endures because his poetry capture something of what Scotland believes and hopes itself to be – fierce, proud, simple, direct, passionate, defiant, independent minded. The fact that he was a bit of a rogue does him no harm either.

But enough of this- time for some poetry. I confess not to find Burns easy but then how many of us read Shakespeare for fun? But occasionally something lyrical and beautiful breaks through. I tend to find myself drawn to the songs he wrote-

A Fiddler in the north

Amang the trees, where humming bees,

At buds and flowers were hinging, O,

Auld Caledon drew out her drone, And to her pipe was singing, O:

‘Twas Pibroch, Sang, Strathspeys, and Reels, She dirl’d them aff fu’ clearly, O:

When there cam’ a yell o’ foreign squeels, That dang her tapsalteerie, O.


Their capon craws an’ queer “ha, ha’s,” They made our lugs grow eerie, O;

The hungry bike did scrape and fyke, Till we were wae and weary, O:

But a royal ghaist, wha ance was cas’d, A prisoner, aughteen year awa’,

He fir’d a Fiddler in the North, That dang them tapsalteerie, O.

Tapsalteerie=topsy turvy. Work the rest out for yourself!

Then there is this beautiful song (with Dick Gaughan’s version of the lyrics below.)

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Among the blooming heather
Now waving grain, wild o’er the plain
Delights the weary farmer
And the moon shines bright as I rove at night
To muse upon my charmer

The partridge loves the fruitful fells
The plover loves the mountain
The woodcock haunts the lonely dells
The soaring hern the fountain
Through lofty groves the cushat roves
The path of man to shun it
The hazel bush o’erhangs the thrush
The spreading thorn the linnet

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander
Avaunt! Away! the cruel sway,
Tyrannic man’s dominion
The sportsman’s joy, the murdering cry
The fluttering, gory pinion

But Peggy dear the evening’s clear
Thick flies the skimming swallow
The sky is blue, the fields in view
All fading green and yellow
Come let us stray our gladsome way
And view the charms of nature
The rustling corn, the fruited thorn
And every happy creature

We’ll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shines clearly
I’ll grasp thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer

And finally, a quote from Thomas Carlyle, speaking of Burns

Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy… but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.

Burns travels far.


3 thoughts on “Burns day…

  1. Reblogged this on Margo Roby: Wordgathering and commented:
    This was not my original post for the day, but as many of us are either poets and Scottish [ancestrally], or, poets or Scottish, how can I not give a nod to Burns’ Day. I was helped in this decision, by Chris Goan’s post on his blog site: this fragile tent, a blog I have followed for some time.

    This is my first reblog, therefore I have no idea of what is about to happen [like Alice and the rabbit hole, rather]. Enjoy the post and maybe do some wandering of your own through Burns’ poems and songs.

    See you tomorrow on the Friday Freeforall. Happy wandering and writing, all.

  2. Thanks for this, Chris. You are my first reblog, as there are so many of us who have ties to Scotland and who love Robert Burns. I miss the Burns suppers we attended while overseas. Am off to listen to the Corries singing Burns.


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