Thursday, January 31, 2013

Celebrating the Bard

Robert Burns
Right now, Scots and descendents of Scots around the world are donning their finest kilts, raising a glass and cutting into a steaming hot haggis in celebration of the 259th birthday of Scotland’s favorite son, Robert Burns. (Or if you are Scottish…”favourite son Rabbie Burns”).

Why the celebration

Great question. Pull up a chair and a wee dram (that’s a glass of whiskey to you non-Celts) and prepare to be entertained and impressed.

Affectionately referred to as “Rabbie” by those who hold him in great esteem yet have never met him, Robert Burns (1759-1796) is one of the most beloved people of Scotland – in fact, he is so well loved by his countrymen and women that he was chosen as the Greatest Scot in a vote on Scottish television in 2009.  Not bad for a man who’s been dead for over 200 years.

Robert Burns was, first and foremost a Scot and a patriot. But what he’s best known for is his contribution as a bard. In the days of yore, a bard was a man who made his living as a poet. Yep, a bard was the guy you see in old pictures sitting at the feet of the King, waxing poetic on how great he is and how wonderful his legacy will be. But that wasn’t exactly how it played out for Rabbie.

In his short life Burns penned or had a part, in penning over 800 poems and songs. And should you think he had no impact on your life, think again. Chances are you’ve sung at least the first verse of Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. Burns penned the song that is sung by New Year’s revelers around the globe.  Auld Lang Syne is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language, just in case you were wondering.

An Interesting Life

Every writer needs a muse - someone or something that inspires them to put pen to paper. In the case of Rabbie Burns, you don’t have to look too hard at his life to see where his inspiration came from. His reputation as a ladies man is well documented by his own hand. And the fact that he was loved by the ladies is probably one of the reasons he’s so admired by men today. 

Or so I’m told by men today.

But in this area he was also his own worst enemy, leaving a string of broken hearts, broken promises, and 12 children in his wake. In fact, his love life reads like a snarky romance novel: Falls in love on a farm, has an affair with a servant while embarking on a relationship with another gal. Both become pregnant at the same time, one with twins. He eventually marries the mother of the twins, but eventually falls in love with another gal he spotted while at a church service. From there he has a relationship with a separated woman, before moving on to her servant girl.

And those are just the ones we know about.

It could be argued that the problems in his love life could be laid at the doorstep of his childhood. He grew up in poverty and hardship, a manual laborer on a farm. And as all good stories go, he also met his first love down on the farm. And from that first love, came his first attempt at poetry, “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass.”

There are anecdotes around his writing that have been passed down through the centuries that help us better understand the heart and spirit of Burns.

“There’s a story of him writing Tam O’ Shanter in one afternoon. He asked his brother Gilbert to work the farm and in one afternoon he wrote the best poem in history. Gilbert heard Robert laughing loudly as he sat at the banks of the river Nith. He put all he has learned in life into the story, liars, whores, warlocks, witches, ghosts and goblins, the is by far the greatest poem that was ever written.” - Dougie Smith, Falkirk
His writings also have inspired other writers. The novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” was based on the poem, “Comin’ Thro the rye,” and the title of “Of Mice and Men” was taken from Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse.”

Celebrating Burns at a Burns Supper

So, back to the celebrations I mentioned. “Burns Suppers” are held around the world and most all of them, from Edinburgh to Dunedin, Florida – follow the same basic format. For the sake of space I won't include everything that happens at a Burns Supper. But here are a few highlights - I think you will get the picture. 

Usually a Burns Supper starts with a general welcome and announcements, followed with Selkirk Grace:
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.

(I failed to mention that Burns wrote in the language of the time: Auld Scot. Don't even try to understand it. I'm convinced this is the reason they serve Scotch at dinner...) 
Some have food and cannot eat,
And some would eat that lack it,
But we have food and we can eat,
So let God be thanked.

After the grace comes the piping (as in bagpipes) and cutting of the haggis. And to me, this is the best time of the night. Because if you are lucky, you will have someone with a very thick Scottish brogue give Burns's famous, “Address to the Haggis.”  

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

(Needless to say there's more but in the interest of time, space and understanding, I suggest you google the Address to the Haggis. And you'll need a translator for sure.)

Then the haggis is cut open and served. It actually tastes better than it looks, really. Think ground beef with a bit of a liver flavor. Okay, it tastes better than it sounds as well. 

At the Burns Supper’s I’ve attended, there is then the “Salute to the Lassies,” given by a man. And then the response by the women, “Salute to the Laddies.” Both or these are typically tongue-in-cheek addresses, cynical and endearing all at the same time.

I'm forever fascinated by the rich depth of Scottish history and tradition.

Robert Burns is just one of the many Scottish contributions to world culture for which we should all be grateful. And I'm proud of those who are of Scottish descent who work hard to carry the stories and traditions forward so that coming generations never forget from whence they came.

Let them all be thankit.

Other Interesting Burns Facts
  • There are more than 50 memorials dedicated to Robert Burns around the world. Excluding religious figures, only Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus have more dedicated statues.
  • Burns’ skull was bigger than the average man’s. After he died and was buried in St. Michael's Churchyard in Dumfries in 1796, Rabbie’s body was exhumed in 1815 to be placed in a new mausoleum in the town. While the body was above ground, a plaster cast was taken of his skull for study and measured. Forensic experts also recreated a 3D depiction of his face for a STV documentary.
  •  Through his twelve children, Burns has over 600 living descendents today.