Burns Night

A happy Burns Night to you all; its the night Scots and millions of others around the world celebrate our national bard, Robert Burns. Burns Suppers will be held from the Highlands of Scotland to the sunny climes of Australia, from America to Russia (he’s very popular with the Russians, who see him, correctly, as a man of the people). I think its rather wonderful that the life and work of a poet from centuries past brings people together the world over each January 25th to recite verse and song and enjoy food and another great Scottish contribution to world culture, the fine single malt. Here’s a wonderful rendition of one of my favourite Burns works, A Man’s a Man For ‘a That, sung by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament here in the heart of Edinburgh:


I especially liked when she got the normally boring old politicians to join in towards the end, not something you see in the House of Shame at Westminster. There were some cringeing royalist toads who whined that the choice of song could be viewed as an insult to the Queen as its a well loved libertarian anthem, explicitly celebrating the equality of all and pointing out the be-ribboned aristocrat may have rank and station but he’s no better than anyone else and his estates and rank and status are worth far less than the words of the man who is free in thought and deed. Amen to that. Just remember please, if you are having haggis tonight, to make sure its a free range haggis, given the run of highland slopes and not some battery farmed haggis.

Happy Burns Night

It’s January the 25th when Scots at home and the many-times that number of Scots and those of Scots blood abroad celebrate the life and art of our national bard, Robert Burns. Actually more than Scots – Burns is one of that handful of writers, like Austen, Borges and Cervantes, who cross the centuries, national boundaries and language to become a writer who belongs to the world. A Makar, as we would say, an old term which implies more than a writer, but a maker of words, ideas and worlds, one who translates notions, symbols, thoughts and feelings into that magical form we call words so others can share them.

There’s nane that’s blest of human kind,
But the cheerful and the gay, man,
Fal, la, la, &c.

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.”

“A bottle and friend”, Robert Burns, 1787

This year the city of my birth, Glasgow, has taken this day to mark another great Scots poet as well, the bard I personally consider the greatest living Scots poet and my personal favourite, the quite wonderful Edwin Morgan. Sadly Eddie, now in his mid 80s and suffering from cancer, isn’t up to taking part but nonetheless some 15, 000 free copies of one of his collections of poetry is being given out over a 24 hour period in Glasgow with poets doing readings all over the city and ordinary folks in the street being encouraged to explore a part of their culture and heritage that many of them perhaps don’t think about too much.

Actually, even among many book folks I often hear the ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response from people all the time. That’s usually from people who never bother their arse to actually try reading some different types of poetry. Its like saying I don’t like jazz, I don’t like Indian food, I don’t like… Well, you get the idea – dismissing a whole and very diverse area without exploring it, or rubbishing it on perhaps one or two tiny looks. Its a sign of a closed mind and that’s a shame because poetry is one of the finest ways I know to open minds and expand not only the imagination but the senses and the ability to perceive more with them; good poetry reaches beyond what even the best prose can do (and some of the best prose feels poetic), it interacts with our intellect but also our spiritual side and connects us, ideas, dreams, the world and the other worlds behind the one we see with our ordinary eyes.

Still say you don’t like poetry? Think about it next time you are listening to some beautiful piece of music that moves you in a way you didn’t think anything could and then realise you’re listening to another form of poetry, told in notes and beats. Poetry is music, its words, its rhythm, its life.

But now, if you will excuse me, my personal Burns Supper awaits – something a little different this year, vegetarian haggis samosas in chili sauce! (if you are wondering how you get a veggie haggis, you take an ordinary wild haggis and feed it on tofu) Thus combining two great Scottish traditions, the haggis and Indian food, on one meal and of course a very fine single malt to toast the Bard. Slainte!

Sonsie face

Once more Burns Night is upon as, where Scots and a lot of others the world over celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. Rabbie’s first stabs at poetry and composing song were an aid to trying to get into the pants of a neighbouring lass – now that is a real poet! In the days leading up to Burns Night the glens of Bonnie Scotland echo to the excited shrieks of the wild Haggis. A true Scotsman is forbidden by ancient tradition reaching back to before the time of Saint Middenface to use weapons on the Haggis hunt.

No rifles, no spears, no bow, not even a knife. Instead the hunter must engage the Haggis in conversation and establish a comfortable rapport with the beastie, before persuading it to join him in a wee dram of malt (it must be a proper single malt as no Haggis will drink a blend). When the Haggis has drunk its fill and becomes sleepy the hunter persuades the Haggis that his sporran is the perfect place for a wee nap and thus is the cunning trap finally sprung. Life is certainly easier when you are a vegetarian. Personally I skip it all and proceed directly to single malt stage and will shortly be pouring myself a generous dram from my single malt collection to drink in honour of Rabbie. Happy Burns night, folks!

Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and tow’rs,
Where once, beneath a Monarch’s feet,
Sat Legislation’s sov’reign pow’rs:
From marking wildly scatt’red flow’rs,
As on the banks of Ayr I stray’d,
And singing, lone, the lingering hours,
I shelter in they honour’d shade.

Here Wealth still swells the golden tide,
As busy Trade his labours plies;
There Architecture’s noble pride
Bids elegance and splendour rise:
Here Justice, from her native skies,
High wields her balance and her rod;
There Learning, with his eagle eyes,
Seeks Science in her coy abode.

Thy sons, Edina, social, kind,
With open arms the stranger hail;
Their views enlarg’d, their liberal mind,
Above the narrow, rural vale:
Attentive still to Sorrow’s wail,
Or modest Merit’s silent claim;
And never may their sources fail!
And never Envy blot their name!

Thy daughters bright thy walks adorn,
Gay as the gilded summer sky,
Sweet as the dewy, milk-white thorn,
Dear as the raptur’d thrill of joy!
Fair Burnet strikes th’ adoring eye,
Heaven’s beauties on my fancy shine;
I see the Sire of Love on high,
And own His work indeed divine!

There, watching high the least alarms,
Thy rough, rude fortress gleams afar;
Like some bold veteran, grey in arms,
And mark’d with many a seamy scar:
The pond’rous wall and massy bar,
Grim-rising o’er the rugged rock,
Have oft withstood assailing war,
And oft repell’d th’ invader’s shock.

With awe-struck thought, and pitying tears,
I view that noble, stately Dome,
Where Scotia’s kings of other years,
Fam’d heroes! had their royal home:
Alas, how chang’d the times to come!
Their royal name low in the dust!
Their hapless race wild-wand’ring roam!
Tho’ rigid Law cries out ’twas just!

Wild beats my heart to trace your steps,
Whose ancestors, in days of yore,
Thro’ hostile ranks and ruin’d gaps
Old Scotia’s bloody lion bore:
Ev’n I who sing in rustic lore,
Haply my sires have left their shed,
And fac’d grim Danger’s loudest roar,
Bold-following where your fathers led!

Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and tow’rs;
Where once, beneath a Monarch’s feet,
Sat Legislation’s sovereign pow’rs:
From marking wildly-scatt’red flow’rs,
As on the banks of Ayr I stray’d,
And singing, lone, the ling’ring hours,
I shelter in thy honour’d shade.

“Address to Edinburgh”, Robert Burns, 1786