I was going to say “great to be here”, but to borrow from Keith Richards on surviving the seventies, these days it’s just great to be anywhere.
Two hundred and sixty-three years on and counting, Burns is the gift that keeps on giving.
By that, I mean that even if, like me, you’ve been thinking and writing and speaking about Burns for about three decades in my case, there’s always something new and fresh and interesting about his life and his legacy.
I can’t think of any person, alive or dead, who’s had so much written about him – and the danger is that we get swamped in a Tsunami of themes and debates and ideas.
The pandemic enforced absence of Burns suppers has given me a chance to revisit my thoughts on Scotland’s most famous son, and has forced me to ask a really important fundamental question.
Like: Why, in 2022, two hundred and twenty six years after be died at the tender age of 37, are we still talking about him? Why does he fascinate?
Why does he matter?
The Burns canon, if you like, is immense and I wish to neither lengthen the evening nor shorten the winter, so let’s instead explore a few of the themes through the prism of a couple of his poems – like To a Mouse.
“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a pannic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
It’s interesting that the first verse is written entirely in Scots, and the second verse entirely in English. It shows that Burns was bilingual. Actually, he was trilingual because he was a fluent French speaker too. And passable in Latin.
His famous book, known as the Kilmarnock Edition but to give its proper name “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” was really important for many reasons. The biggest one being, arguably, that it was written almost entirely in Scots, not English.
And that’s really significant. Because it wasn’t always certain that it was going to be.
I’ve long believed that Burns’ enduring appeal is partly down to the timing of birth and life. Born in 1759, only thirteen years after the ‘45 ended in disaster at Culloden – and with it the last chance (until now) to get out of the union with England of 1707 that had come about after the Noblemen of Scotland sold out a Scottish parliament (and saddled Scotland with the debt) to recover the money they’d squandered on the disaster that was Darien. A parliament, incidentally, that wasn’t reconvened until as recently as 1999.
So the debate about Scotland’s constitutional arrangements that we have today isn’t a new thing. It was very much a live issue when Burns was alive. And that’s an interesting historical parallel that echoes in the chambers of Holyrood and Westminster today.
Burns was born into a Scotland in the still early days of an identity crisis and in the midst of a cultural approbation which saw the kilt banned and the language sneered at – we were being rebranded as “North Britain”. In such an era, it was considered rather vulgar, not to say commercially unwise, to publish in Scots. Indeed, Burns received a famous letter from Dr John Moore, a regular correspondent, in which he was advised to write in English to broaden his appeal.
It’s estimated that 9.5m people over 2500 different events will celebrate Burns this season. You’d have to say that Burns made the right call in ignoring the advice of a well-meaning friend. And while Dr Moore’s advice hasn’t aged well, the mindset – that Scots is in some way an inferior language and not one that an ambitious Scot should seek to employ – has unfortunately lasted rather better. Indeed, as the comedian Frankie Boyle has pithily remarked, It wasn’t all that long ago that Scotland was a country where a child could get a certificate for speaking Scots in a Burns recital of a Friday, and the belt for being so impudent as to use those same words on the Monday.
Such is the dichotomy of the Scottish psyche. We boast, then we cower. We beg for a piece of what’s already ours. No wonder Jeckyl & Hyde was written by a Scot. It’s practically our very DNA.
Not Burns though, who took a conscious decision to write in Scots.
There are, I think, several reasons.
Firstly, even heroes have heroes.
Just as such luminaries as diverse as Bob Dylan, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Mohammed Ali, Maya Angelou and Abraham Lincoln all adored Burns, similarly Burns knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants.
One such colossus was the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, who wrote wonderful poems like Ghaists and The Daft Days – in Scots. Burns was hugely influenced, not least because Fergusson wrote in his native language.
Indeed, when Burns visited Edinburgh in the winter of 1787 the first thing he did was use some of the money that he’d made from the publication of the book to pay for a proper gravestone for Fergusson, who was to that point lying in a pauper’s grave, and to erect a plaque commemorating the great man.
Burns knew he owed a huge debt to Fergusson, and this was him, in Edinburgh, literally and figuratively, paying his dues.
And like his hero Fergusson. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he saved the Scots language, and he spend the latter part of career collecting old Scots songs that would otherwise have been lost.
Burns was a Janus like figure who looked back as well as forward. I often think of him as an important signpost in our history. He’s born not long after the ‘45 which was kind of the last of the old Scotland but also was born into an Enlightenment Scotland full of new ideas, not least in agriculture where Burns was a keen student of farming improvements. And his more enlightened religious views were partly influenced by his his reading of Adam Smith’s Theory of Modern Sentiments. He was timeless, but also very much a man of his time.
But I think there’s perhaps a second reason why Burns chose to write in Scots.
In the culture wars of 18th Century Scotland, Scots may have been in retreat but it was still the dominant language. Much of what Burns wrote reads more like performance art than poetry. Poems like The Holy Fair, The Jolly Beggars and Tam o’ Shanter were written to be performed live as much as to be read. So as he was writing for the people in the pubs of Ayrshire, it made perfect sense to write in his, and their, native tongue.
But let’s return to To a Mouse. Although the poem was written a couple of centuries ago its themes are as relevant now as they were then – maybe more so.
As always, context is everything.
It’s November 1785. Burns is ploughing in the front field at Mossgiel. He’s not long into his career as an independent farmer but it’s already a struggle. There’s been a series of failed harvests so money is tight and he might not have enough good seed to plant for next year. And he’s behind with the rent.
He’s still a year away from getting his book published so the farm is his only source of income. Meanwhile, his future with Jean is far from a done deal, not least because Jean’s father James Armour hates Burns with a passion. On top of all that, he’s lost his father, William, and his younger brother, John. He’s seriously considering emigrating.
To use the modern vernacular, he’s in a bad place. So when he inadvertently destroys the wee mouse’s house, this symbolises his own concerns and, in fact, the concerns and shared fate of the whole world.
It’s a poem about big, important, universal, timeless themes. Life. Death. Love. Mortality. The environment. Climate change. Mental health. Human relationships.
These are themes that we talk about now, but here was an Ayrshire farmer writing about them in eighteenth century Scotland. He was so far ahead of the curve in the stuff he was saying. He said in eight stanzas what philosophers couldn’t articulate in eight volumes. It was just ridiculous.
And these themes are relevant in whatever language you choose to write in, which is why he’s been translated into dozens of languages, and why his songs were the favourite anthems of revolutionaries from Germany to China, and why we are here, more than two centuries on, talking about them today.
“But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!”
But perhaps Burns’ greatest legacy is that he saved hundreds of old Scots songs and words that might otherwise have been lost. The true joy of reading Death and Doctor Hornbook is the treasure trove of the words of the Scots tongue. “Spleuchan” (a tobacco pouch) and “Eldritch” (an otherworldly, sinister cackle) are just two examples in a poem replete with them.
Scots is a beautiful language, and it should be more than just Burns Night and a gift shop curiosity that we bring out of a drawer and dust down on January 25th every year. If we don’t use it, we lose it and the fact that it endures is, I think, largely down to an Ayrshire farmer and exciseman and his decision to write in his own language, even when he was being advised not to.
In the words of A Mans A Man For A That ”the man o’ independent mind, he looks and laughs at all that” He was, and he did.
Ah yes. Auld Lang Syne. Literally, “a long time since”.
If you’ve been to a Burns Supper or brought in the new year at Hogmanay, you’ll probably have sung it. We actually hold hands while doing so.
And that’s a symbolically important detail.
Because it reminds us that we are all equal, that we depend on each other, and that society only thrives if we have faith in our capacity to look after our fellow citizens and faith that they will do the same for us.
It’s a powerful, timeless message that you don’t need to read Burns to understand. A message that flies in the face of austerity and neoliberalism and reminds us that there is such a thing as society. And that another, better Scotland is possible.
And it’s why I believe that, while we are still holding Burns Suppers, and still holding strangers’ hands, then maybe, just maybe, we still have a chance.
And that, truly, is immortality.