Only a few years after the death of Robert Burns in 1796, local enthusiasts began to hold celebrations on or about his birthday, on 25 January, called Burn’s Night. These have continued ever since, spreading from Scotland across the world. From the earliest occasions, a focal point of the Burns supper was, of course, the haggis:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Although its origins have been disputed, and even attributed to the Romans, haggis is the quintessential Scottish dish, and Burns is famous as the poet of Scotland, both of its history and of its landscape. Once heard, few can forget the triumphalism of “Robert Bruce‘s March to Bannockburn:”
Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,—
Or to victorie.
But Burns also has a more lyrical side, making him a great favourite with Scottish tourist boards and advertisers:
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.
Those lines, as can be easily seen, are in standard English, but Burns wrote most of his verse in Scots, the Scottish dialect, which has become commonly associated with his name. He not only wrote of his love for the Scottish highlands, and is also particularly remembered for his love poetry, often adapting old Scottish songs in his own style:
O, my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
A few years ago, Jeremy Paxman caused a storm by describing Burns as “the king of sentimental doggerel,” but his scope is much wider than that suggests. Some of his lines have even entered the common language. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft a-gley,” “Man’s inhumanity to man,” “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us!,” and “A man’s a man for a” that’ are all so frequently quoted as to have become clichés.
One thing all of these sayings have in common is their political and humanitarian aspect, reflecting Burns’ own revolutionary interests – he supported the aims of the American Revolution, and in his poems he debates the excesses and inequalities by an aristocracy and an unrepresentative Parliament. However, his fellow Scot Hugh MacDiarmid thought that Burns had been called upon in support of too many causes:
Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.
But the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson found him more truly influential: “The Confession of Augsburg, the Declaration of Independence, the French Rights of Man, and the ‘Marseillaise’ are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns.”
Burns himself took a less serious view of his vocation:
Some rhyme a neebor’s name to lash;
Some rhyme (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun.
Certainly, one of the folk songs he worked on remains a favourite both internationally and in Scotland at the turn of the new year.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Eilean Donan, Castle, Fortress’ by tpsdave, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.