The End of an Old Song

Kirkcudbright Burns Club votes to end men only membership policy

This is long overdue and really good news, and I hope all male only clubs follow suit. Personally, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable speaking at places where more than half the population of the world are excluded. And, more than that, these suppers are never as good. How could they be?

While we’re at it, here’s a few other things that need reformed or consigned to history’s dustbin.

A fundamental principle for Burns is that all people are born equal. So every Burns supper where a glass is raised for a royal toast are suppers out of kilter with the poet’s views. And yet we do it, unthinkingly, in a country where support for “yon birkie called a lord” is lukewarm at best. And Burns supported both the French and American revolutions. He drank claret – not whisky – in solidarity with the French republicans he identified with. The line in Scots Wha Hae – “let us do or die” – is borrowed from a cry from the rebels as they stormed the Bastille. This was one seriously radical dude, one who believed in liberty and equality. Every time we doff our caps to some toff who got where he is through accident of birth, I hear the guy birling in his grave. Please, can we not let the man rest in peace?

“I have often said to myself what are the boasted advantages which my country reaps from a certain Union that counterbalance the annihilation of her Independence, and even her very name”! Burns detested the political class that bought and sold Scotland for English gold. “Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation”, he wrote. Burns was one hundred percent a Yes man, something that sat completely comfortably with his belief in international brotherhood. Then, as now, these ideals are natural – maybe essential – bedfellows. I once sat at a supper with a woman – wearing lots of tartan, unionists always do – who told me that Scotland was, basically, shite. And then she stood up and gave a toast to Auld Scotia during which she told us all how brilliant we were. Then I called a taxi. It was the personification of the Scottish Cringe. We boast then we cower. Your identity should be a living thing, something that you wear, lightly but proudly, every day of your life. Scots words aren’t something that should only be used in January (and is there a better word anywhere than “dreich?) and your nationality isn’t something you take out a drawer once a year, before putting it back after singing Auld Lang Syne, lest it offend the unionists across the street. And, anyway, it’s good for business. Burns was advised by his friend Dr Moore that writing in Scots was commercial suicide. Burns ignored him. I wonder how that worked out?

Politics. It was a matter of deep pride to Burns that his recent ancestors had to moral bravery to give asylum to those were seeking persecution. In the seventeenth century, to Covenanters fleeing religious persecution. And, in the mid-eighteenth century, to Jacobite soldiers fleeing the state sponsored genocide enacted in the Highlands after Culloden and the ‘45 rebellion. Christ alone knows what he’d make of the tartan clad bores singing A man’s a man for a’ that and then voting for parties that want to send vulnerable people to Rwanda. Where do you even begin to unpack that? There’s some serious cognitive dissonance here. Look in a mirror. Have a word with yourselves.

Some other, lighter, suggestions.

Stop calling him Rabbie. Nobody every called him that – apart from folk who were jealous of his talent and good looks. In the Ayrshire vernacular of the day, a “Rabbie” was a “fool”. Hardly a term of endearment. He was always “Robin” to the family, Robert to his pals.

The final line of the Selkirk Grace is “and sae the lord be thankit”. Not, “so let the lord be thankit”. Jesus, it’s four lines. Can we no’ get it right?

Auld Lang Syne. It’s “syne”. Not “zyne”. Jesus wept.

Haggis is not a starter. Cock a Leekie is. Haggis for main. Cranachan for pudding. Claret to drink. End of.

Maybe this overdue bit of progression will help us to, in the words Burns, see ourselves as others see us:

“It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!”

Slainte, good people. I’ll meet you further on up the road. AR.

This is in the Portrait Gallery of the Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin.

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4 replies »

  1. Wonderful piece, Alec. Would you be interested in writing something on Liberation.Scot and Salvo? We are the Scottish Liberation movement seeking to reclaim our sovereignty as embodied in the Claim of Right.

  2. I’m sure Burns would have wanted audiences at Suppers to enjoy themselves, rather than be preached at.

  3. Thank you Alec – I know it’s only a little thing, but that business of referring to him as ‘Rabbie’ always makes me wince.

    I can’t claim to be a ‘pal’ of his – but I call him Robert – because it suits him.

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