Happy Burns Night to you all
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has often led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to Victory!
Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour,
See approach proud Edward’s power –
Chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha for Scotland’s king and law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fa’
Let him follow me!
By oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free.
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do or die!
Robert Burns, Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn
Burns Night again, when Scots the world over – and many, many others, from Cuba to Moscow – celebrate the life and work of Rabbie Burns, the national bard of Scotland. Burns, often a womanising and hard-drinking rascal (but then a good poet should be, shouldn’t he?) was heavily influenced by the period of revolution in which he lived. He much admired the ethos of the American Revolution (and was admired by many an American, and indeed, still is). He believed fervently in liberty and freedom – his poem and song Is There For Honest Poverty makes clear that, as Jefferson so eloquently put it, “all men are created equal” when he talked of nobles with their garter, laces and ribbons, compared them to the honest but poor worker or humble man of learning and wondered who really was the rich and noble man – a man’s a man for aw that (sung, incidentally, at the opening of the new Scottish parliament – a gentle Caledonian reminder to the Queen and others of the social-political elite that a free Scot considers no-one his superior).
He also drew heavily on traditional Celtic music, verse, folk tales and myth. In the case of the above poem he managed to fuse his love of liberty and freedom with real Scottish history, celebrating the famous victory over the English army of Edward II at the hallowed turf of Bannockburn in the summer of 1314. A small but determined and heavily trained army of Scots faced the biggest and most successful army in Europe of the time. Heavy cavalry, hundreds of knights, longbowmen, pikemen… The Scots knights, including Templars who had fled papal persecution in Spain and France and the Bruce himself dismounted and fought on foot amidst the rank and file of their army – the message was clear, they would fight with their people and for their people and they would stand or fall together.
Before the battle proper English scouts encountered Bruce on horseback examining the lay of the land. Eager for glory, one English knight lowered his visor, raised his lance and charged the Scots king. Bruce really should have retreated and let his guards deal with this, but that was not his way. A man on a heavy charger with a lance facing a man on a small but sturdy pony, armed only with axe and sword. Should be a foregone conclusion, except the Bruce was ranked as one of the top three knights in Christendom (some French knights fought for Edward purely for the chance to face him). He made his little pony sidestep the charging knight’s lance, raised himself in his stirrups and smote his opponent with such a blow that his axe broke in twain. Bruce was said to be annoyed at breaking his favourite war axe. All of this was in view of his men, before the battle. You can imagine the effect it must have had on the Scots, eyeing up the vast war host arrayed against them. They must have looked on in a new light and thought they couldn’t lose while they followed such a man.
The arrogant might of the oppressors was indeed broken, shattered. Edward had to flee, pursued by vengeful Scots, leaving behind everything, even his Royal seal. Bruce, a believer in knightly chivalry, returned it to him since he did not think a king should be without his seal. He was not thanked for his honourable action. He did however take the monks who Edward brought north to scribe down his tale of victory and promised them their freedom and rewards if they would instead write of the Scots great victory (they did). There were many more battles between England and Scotland over the long centuries until James VI became James I of a new entity called Great Britain in 1603, but Scotland’s unique, independent nature, history and culture were protected by the sacrifices made at Bannockburn (where the Templars still hold a ceremony each year to mark the battle).
With this poem he celebrated the political revolutions sweeping Europe and America and the liberty the seemed to promise for all, while drawing on myth-historical wellsprings of his native land to remind us of the great sacrifices that had been made to secure those liberties and gently remind us of the eternal obligation this inheritance places upon us.
Enough pontificating – before I go off to pour a very generous dram of 21 year old single malt (don’t even think of mentioning ice you barbarous Sassenachs wae nae palette!) to toast the Bard I would also like to remind you of one of the other sides of dear, dear Rabbie; the first song he ever wrote as a young farm lad in Ayrshire on Scotland’s west coast was written with pretty much the express aim of getting him into the neighbouring farmer’s daughter’s knickers. You gotta love him!