Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Ach, Scotch spirit not only warms, it burns

Today marks Robert Burns Day and will be commemorated by Scots (and Scot wannabes) world-wide whether they are enjoying a hearty McEwan’s ale or a McCallum single-malt scotch and, alas, even if they are stone-sober. Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on January 25, 1759 to William Burness, a poor tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun.
When his father died in 1784, Robert and a brother became partners in the farm. Robert, however, was more fascinated by the poem than the plow and after having fathered several illegitimate children, he planned to abandon Scotland and abscond to a Caribbean island. Serendipitously for Scotland, his first collection of verse “Poems-Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” was published at this juncture and received much critical acclaim. He thus remained in his homeland, touring the country before eventually arriving in Edinburgh, where he mingled with the illustrious artists and writers who were blown away by the “Ploughman Poet.”
Jamaican writer Mervyn Morris said some years ago that, “One values greatly the creole because it expresses things about the Jamaican experience which are not available for expressions in the same force in Standard English.”
Burns expressed this same concept when he wrote a letter to friend George Thomson that stated “If you are for English verses , there is, on my part an end of the matter ... I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. In fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.”
By Burns’ lifetime the ancient Celtic language of the Scots had been reduced to a mere dialect and Burns took it upon himself to resurrect Scots to its halcyon level of yesteryear. Many of Burns’ finest poems are composed, at least partially, in Scots and thus helped re-validate the time-honoured tongue of his forefathers. Burns read the works of his predecessors, Ramsay, Fergusson and others,and he wrote that he had been roused to “string a new my wildly-sounding lyre with emulating vigour.Aside from these influences, Burns was inspired by the folk-songs of the common people that he describes as possessing “a certain happy arrangement of old Scotch syllables.And it is from folk songs that Burns his mastery of the rhythms of Scots. He adopted a turgid unlyrical 17th century song which ran:
Should old acquaintance be forgot/And never thought upon/The flames of love extinguished/And freely past and gone?/Is thy kind heart now grown so cold/In that loving breast of thine,/Than thou canst never once reflect/On old-long-syne?
Burns improved the lyric by simplifying the language and in the process created a visceral and tangible lyric that helps us bring in the new year. His first two verses are:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, /And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And days o' auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp!/ And surely I'll be mine!
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,/ For auld lang syne.
The last years of Burns' life were devoted to penning some poems such as A Red, Red Rose, Sweet Afton and Tam O'Shanter. He died when only thirty seven, of a heart disease perhaps exacerbated by the arduous agricultural work he undertook in his early youth.
Here is the opening stanza from Burns’ masterpiece Tam O’Shanter (with translation notes for Scots and archaic English ):
When chapman billies (peddler fellows) leave the street,
drouthy (thirsty) neebors meet;
As market-days are wearing late,
An folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit
bousing (boozing) at the nappy (strong ale),
An getting
fou (full-drunk) and unco (very) happy,
We think na on the
lang (long) Scots miles,
The mosses, waters,
slaps (gates), and styles,
That lie between us and our
hame (home),
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
Burns’ simple yet eloquently evocative verse, with its celebration of life, speaks to people everywhere. So let’s all raise a glass of fine single malt in honour of Robert Burns. Personally, though, I’ll forgo the haggis.

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