Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Celebrating Burns' Night

by M.M. Bennetts

One of the great mysteries of life to non-Scots is haggis. Did I say haggis? Sorry.

What I meant to say was, today is the birthday of the great Scots poet and national hero, Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1759, the elder of two sons of a tenant farmer.

Although as a lad, Burns had little in the way of formal education--probably two to three years in the local school--he was taught by his father and grew up devouring whatever books came his way, reading all of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. He learned some French. Significantly too, he learned firsthand the traditional ballads, legends and songs of Scotland.

At this period, Scotland was very much under the thumb of England, with many repressive laws prohibiting expressions of Scots culture--the wearing of tartan was banned and the use of Scots Gaelic had been outlawed, for example--all in response to Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed rebellion in 1745-6. There was a heavy presence of troops quartered on the population and anti-Scots sentiment ran very high among the English overlords--English slang of the period refers to Scotland as Scratchland.

Nevertheless our lad, Rab, grows up, starts falling in love with pretty girls (a life-long habit), goes off briefly to study surveying in Kirkoswald, then moves with his family to a farm near the villages of Tarbolton and Mauchline...and by 1783, begins writing poetry.

A couple of flings and a farming failure later, he's being urged by a friend to write for publication. He also meets Jean Armour and things get serious. Jean's father doesn't think much of him, denies that they're married, and eventually has the pair of them publicly reproved in open church for their relationship. Nice. Still, in that same year, 1786, Burns' first book, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, is published in late July, and in September, Jean gives birth to twins.

So, instead of emigrating to Jamaica as he had planned, Burns visits Edinburgh to arrange for a second edition of his book. There, he finds himself the toast of the Edinburgh literati.

Edinburgh in the late 18th century is at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, and is known throughout the western world as a centre of intellectual culture. It's not just that it's home to such writers and thinkers as David Hume or Adam Smith, it also has one of the world's top medical universities, and it has--despite the onerous anti-Scots laws of the age--this vibrant literary salon culture, one conversant with the recent success of the American Revolution and the works of the radical, Thomas Paine. And Burns, for all that he is a peasant's son (and yes, he does make clanking social mistakes and occasionally is too blunt-spoken for anyone's comfort) is seized upon by this crowd of intelligentsia as the voice of the genuine Scots.

He's not the first to write in the Scots vernacular (he writes in Lowland Scots, a.k.a. Lallans)--there had been Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson before him. But in a way, Burns and his work embody the 18th century enlightened ideal of the nobility and honesty of the 'natural man' as expressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher and author.

Burns' poetry is vibrant, often funny, a celebration of the world of the 'people', running the gamut of emotion from alehouse humour to profoundest love. Though not unlettered, he is wholly without the 'steeped in classical tradition' artifice that characterises much of the literary work of other 18th century British poets.

He doesn't idolise or worship the natural world, it's just part of life. He's scathing in his attacks on the rigid fundamentalism of the Presbyterian elders of the Kirk (Address to the Unco Guid [uncommonly good]). He mocks pretension and hypocrisy wherever he encounters it. Others may write of high sentiment; he writes To a Louse, on seeing one on a lady's bonnet at church.

And when he writes of love, which he does frequently (he had a lot of practice), his is the voice of all the longing, beauty, lust and tenderness combined together. We may think "My love is like a red, red rose..." sounds twee or clichéd today, but within the context of the 18th century, its undiluted purity of tenderness and affection stopped readers short, redefining the vocabulary of love for at least the next century.

The Edinburgh edition of Burns' Poems is published in April 1787, earning him £500. And this enables him to tour the Borders and the Highlands.

And, whilst he is travelling about (falling in and out of love), he starts collecting Scottish songs--often Scottish fiddlers' songs for which he writes memorable lyrics--and which he contributes to The Scots Musical Museum, a publication which over the next few years prints some 200 of Burns' contributions. So in a very real sense, he preserves Scotland's folk and musical heritage which without him would most certainly have been lost...

In 1788, he acknowledges Jean Armour as his wife, and she gives birth to a second set of twins.

By 1791, his inventive narrative poem, Tam o' Shanter, has been published, and Burns has given up farming to move with his family to Dumfries to work as an exciseman.

Burns is probably best known for his poems or songs such as Auld Lang Syne, My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose and Tam o' Shanter. But he also wrote the anthems of Scots national pride, Scots Wha Hae wi' Wallace Bled, and Is There for Honest Poverty with its oft-repeated line, "A man's a man for a' that" (which incidentally is just a kind of compilation of French Revolutionary slogans--and for which he was investigated by the authorities and nearly lost his position with the Excise and Custom.)

In July 1796, Burns died of a rheumatic heart condition. He was only 37.

But the story doesn't stop there, because his work was taken up by the fledgling Romantic movement of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It also became a powerful element in the Scottish fight-back against Anglicisation as led by Sir Walter Scott in the early years of the 19th century: Defying the law, the gentry and aristocracy started wearing plaid again. Deliberately. And having their portraits painted wearing the kilt and clan badges.

Gradually though, his work was subsumed into the cult of the tartan and genteel Scottiphilia of the Victorians as led by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Burns wasn't fully recognised until the end of the 19th century. In 1885, there were only eight affiliated Burns Clubs. By 1911, there were 200 of these clubs and Burns was seen as the antidote to the romanticised history of Scotland, and the voice of the ordinary Scots.

Which brings us back to the haggis...Because every year, as befits the national poet and hero, Burns' birthday is celebrated with a fierce national fervour throughout Scotland and abroad with a traditional Burns' Supper--a meal designed to commemorate his humble beginnings as a ploughboy laddie.

(Although the 'observance' used to be stricter--it used to be men only--now it's slightly more relaxed, though many of the elements remain the same.)

The meal is made up of three courses and they're traditional 'peasant' fare: cockie-leekie soup (chicken and leek soup), followed by haggis (Burns wrote a cheeky poem, Address to a Haggis), mashed neeps (mashed turnips) and bashed tatties (mashed potatoes), with oatcakes and cheese to finish.

In between each two plates, all around the table, a single bottle of whisky is placed to be shared.
(And before I tell you what haggis is and how it used to be made, may I point out that 18th century Scotland was a poor country, and farmers were desperately poor throughout Europe anyway. Hence, unlike today when we throw lots of everything away, they didn't. They used every part of a slaughtered animal. They couldn't afford not to.)

200 years ago then, haggis was made up of the less than desirable parts of a sheep--the brains and whatever else was left. This is ground and mixed with oatmeal and spices (usually a lot of pepper). The whole is then put into a sheep's intestine and boiled until cooked through. Nowadays, with EU health and safety legislation, it's no longer the off-cuts, but regular mutton that's used. And most local butchers have their own closely guarded secret recipes for the spices.

So that's the menu. The men wear their kilts. Obviously. When the haggis is brought in from the kitchen on a platter, it's accompanied by a piper and piped in. Then comes the solemn honour of piercing the haggis-beastie--which I've seen done with a sword.

Once everyone is served, another of the evening's traditions begins: during the meal, each of the guests is required to recite a Burns poem. Or sing it.

Now the most sensible of guests requests early the privilege of saying grace--and it's Burns' own Selkirk grace which is used. "Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it, but we hae meat and we can eat, sae let the Lord be thankit." And then he settles back to enjoy his meal and his whisky as over the course of the evening, the recitation of the poetry and songs becomes more and more uproarious (due to the quantities of whisky consumed).

And truly, it's a meal and an evening's entertainment where, should Burns himself wander in, he'd find himself most at home.

Finally as befits a host of one of these fine gatherings, I'd like to provide a rendition of my most favourite of Burns' songs: Ca' the Yowes [Call the Ewes...]. It's a modest poem, mostly talking about the herding of sheep actually, but in Burns' hands, this is turned into the most heart-felt of love songs, ending with the verse: "Fair and lovely as thou art, Thou hast stown my very heart: I can die--but canna part, My bonnie dearie."


M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at


  1. Very interesting article, MM! One of my mother's favorite events was a Burns' Night Dinner-A framed print of Burns' portrait hung over the fireplace, Scottish attire was worn, and Burns' poetry was quoted and read. (I think they drew the line at haggis-ingredients probably not available in the area!) At any rate, a fine time was had by all and, by all accounts, the memory is still green! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Love the article! 'My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose' and 'Scots Wha Hae' were some of the first poems to develop my admittedly barely-there taste for poetry. Scottish Burns Night sounds like a great festive evening and not even haggis would scare me off as I happen to like it from the few times I've sampled. Learned some things from your article. Thanks!

  3. Great article. I like haggis, and while I've never been to a Burns supper I do often have a wee bit of it on Burns night (and on St. Andrew's Day, too). Unfortunately, I missed out on it this year.

  4. Just come across this letter from Burns to a critic, and thought it deserved to be shared here:


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