2007 - 2021

Burns Night – An Immortal Memory

Illustration by John Faed

My father, among a number of other—possibly better—life-decisions, once memorised Tam O’Shanter in its entirety. This may have made some sense at the time. The general bourgeoiseness of the medical profession makes Burns Night an inevitable yearly event on the calendar for Scottish doctors of a certain generation. These days, memorising poetry is widely-accepted to be an activity that’s at least as good for your mental health as it is detrimental to your social life. Burns Night, however, is the one night of the year where reciting poetry at length is encouraged, and so my father’s recitation of Tam became a popular yearly fixture among the medics. Sadly, he would be plagued with anxiety before every performance, as before most other public speaking events. I have a vague recollection of one of his rehearsals; a slew of unintelligible, guttural syllables heard from another room, the strange flow of it all only ceasing when his memory did. This memory of mine, which I may have made up, must have been my first encounter with Scots. I soon began to hold the poetry of Burns with the same kind mystique that I reserved in my developing brain for the books I wasn’t allowed to take out of the library, for post-watershed television, for Terminator on VHS.

I definitely recall, a little later in life, watching my father reciting Tam at a Burns Ceilidh hosted by some friends of ours (FYI: a Burns Ceilidh is a much more fun affair than a Night, and possibly a better description of what Burns ‘Night’ ought to be.) I was a teenager at the time. Dad reached the point in the poem where a drunken Tam, having borne witness to some witchy goings-on in a forest outside of Alloway, can hold himself no longer:

Even Satan glowr’d, and fidg’d fu’ fain,
And hotch’d and blew wi’ might and main;
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a’ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark

On yelling “Cutty-sark!”, my father, like some kind of panty-stealing magician, pulled some frilly lingerie out from his sleeve. The crowd went wild. I hung my head, and vowed to myself that I would never become a poet—or, at least, not the kind of poet that resorts to such cheap tricks in order to entertain the masses. I vowed that this would be my last encounter with that set of lingerie, if not with lingerie itself. The bar, however low, was set.

Fast forward to exactly a year ago, and my second Burns Night engagement as a poet. I was reading along with three other poets. After a brief discussion about who was to address the haggis, the task fell to me. It wasn’t my first address; I had done so once before, half-cut, at a Burns Night when I was a student. I remember this strategy working quite well: so well indeed that I thought to repeat it on this occasion by getting firmly wired-in to the bevs as soon as my set was complete. Sadly, this proved not to be a recipe for repeat success. After bumbling my way through the address, I returned to my table, miffed at having not read particularly well, but comforted by the fact that my fee for the evening was assured.

After our dinner, a senior member of the SNP rose to give the Immortal Memory. The speech they gave was a bit of a rollercoaster. It began with some awkward observations about the global popularity of Burns. I recall the speaker talking about the large quantity of Burns statues across the world. “There’s a statue of Burns in Fiji,” apparently. That’s got to be one of the least interesting statues in Polynesia, I thought to myself, and retained very little else of the speech up until the ending, which, quite expectedly, received a standing ovation. (This Burns Night, I should mention, was occurring in another member-state of the EU; the sort that might be convinced, one day, that Scotland ought to rejoin.) The speaker from the SNP duly reminded us that Scotland was being taken out of the EU against our will, that the current government would do everything they could to fight against our disenfranchisement. Recycling a quote from one of our more distinguished ex-EU parliamentarians, they requested our host country to “leave a light on for us.” At this, the final, emotive line of the speech, a huge confetti cannon went off, coating the audience in sparkly paper, and ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ by The Smiths starting playing at wall-shaking volume. As the whole room went wild, the speaker whipped out a pair of frilly lingerie from his sleeve, and started twirling them around his wrist, and whooping. And then—strangest of all—he started to wink at me as he twirled and whooped; twirled, whooped and winked; winked, whooped, twirled; and so I ran from the venue, in disgust, past a row of tweeded, twerking octogenarians, exiting into the streets, howling my anguish at the night sky. No matter how far I ran, I couldn’t escape my own memory; of that Burns Ceilidh as a teenager; of what had just happened; of the lingerie (my mother’s? my father’s?), inextricably linked in my mind with every other Burns Night hitherto; everything that this occasion could mean to me as a poet now utterly tarnished. I had set the bar low, and failed to clear.

Ever since then, my burning hatred of Burns Night has known no bounds. I promised myself that I’d stop at nothing to expunge the occasion from the calendar of the nation I held dear. I had to wait but a year, and beg the editor of a well-known Scottish media platform for a few column inches: but that’s by-the-by. Now, the coup-de-grace…

*

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that fighting against the despoilment of Scotland’s status as a European nation and pulling out a pair of knickers for rhetorical effect are the exact same gesture. Not at all. All I’m saying is, very few politicians on Earth are quite as adept at Scottish ones in co-opting poetry (and poets) into their own soft-power strategies. The SNP—and I speak here as a nationalist who voted for independence once and would do so again—often come across as though they feel they are entitled to speak for all the artists of Scotland. Some of us may feel more comfortable with this arrangement than others. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Scottish poets who enjoy the company of politicians. I do think that politicians ought to be judged individually, by their actions, rather than as some kind of homogenous bastard-group. However, all the politicians I have met are undeniably freaky, and I do feel that a poet’s job is probably to stand as far outside of that freakiness as possible, lest they risk becoming freaks themselves. Poets all over the world have to manage this, and do, generally-speaking. As the art of rhetoric is mocked daily by politicians of all stripes across the UK, poets quietly continue to find lyrical ways of telling the truth. Which is probably why more than a few of us feel uncomfortable with Burns Night, as the form of poetry itself ought to sanctify truth, and won’t survive much in the way of contamination. For us, it feels like a shame to expose this precious thing to a three course dinner in tartan trousers. And the fact remains. Although Burns Night affords politicians of all stripes the chance to pay lip service to the role that poetry has played, and still plays, in creating our body politic, it doesn’t offer much to contemporary poets. It probably never has. A gig, perhaps. A wasted opportunity, certainly.

For those of us writing in Scots, the disappointment of the occasion is felt deeply. The continuing circulation of Burns at this time of year contributes to public awareness of Scots as a language: a tool, yes, for rarefied literary discourses, but also a language that we could be speaking in, that many of us are (to greater and lesser extents) speaking now. Poetry appears to have a pretty clear public utility in Scotland in this regard. It remains the most active genre of literary production in the Scots language. Perhaps that’s due to poetry’s own architectures of influence being more obvious than in other genres of writing: thus, as most Scottish poets still know their Burns, Dunbar, etc, present-day Scottish poetry evidences a genuine link to the past in this way. This is one side of Burns night: the meaningful one that, sadly, we must contrast with the aimless nostalgia, bourgeoise horror and tartan jingoism that, for most of us, sums up the other side of Burns Night.

It’s easy to become incorrigibly pessimistic about the whole affair. Many poets are. Speaking for myself, I feel fortunate, in that my memory of the occasion is coloured by my father’s memory of Tam O’Shanter. I’ve never asked him why he learned the poem, and I’m not sure he’d be able to tell me precisely if I ever did. Certainly, whenever I got the chance to see him perform it, I would always see his anxiety fade away as the poem continued. At moments he even got close to attaining the sort of liberty on stage that all performers (and audiences) seek. Is it too much to suggest that this could be a model for how a more civically-effective Burns Night might function? Shed the nostalgia, shed the exclusiveness, the bokeworthy trappings of Scottishness and let the language, the poetry, do the work?

*

There’s always talk—from unionists as much as nationalists—about Scots being a ‘dying’ or even ‘dead’ language. This strikes me as quite disrespectful to the dead, who retain a measure of life through being remembered. These days, Scots seems about as ‘alive’ a literary language as in other ‘golden age’ periods in our literary history, including that of Burns. Here’s something to be happy about; there has always been incentive enough for us to forget it, and we haven’t. Here’s something to celebrate. How unnecessary of us to frame our discussions about Scots with this hackneyed question of survival, as if we are doctors, and our language a patient on an operating table. This just isn’t true. Scots has survived to the extent that more and more people are aware of its status as a language in its own right. There’s still a lot of work to be done in this regard, but the efforts of organisations like Oor Vyce, The Centre for the Scots Leid, and the subsequent wellspring of public interest in Scots, itself measurable anecdotally on Facebook and suchlike. I commend the current government for their public commitments to Scots, which are, in a quiet way, groundbreaking for the language.

Nothing is more encouraging for the language, however (and, of course, I would say this), than the fact that poets have continued using it in their work: moreover, the subsequent generation of Scottish poets, influenced by the previous, are also using it in interesting ways. And you can trace that process back for as far as you like. Poets don’t necessarily write in Scots (or Gaelic, or English) to build a nation—any nation-building that goes on as a result of poetry is surely a byproduct. Politics and poetry must remain fundamentally different spheres; any decent poet knows that ‘political’ poetry, if it is to avoid being maladroit, must always stay within the domain of poetry.

Who knows? Burns Night may someday become more useful to the endeavours of Scottish poets than it is at present (or something more than an opportunity for us to get paid, at least.) Burns Night could be nothing less than a yearly reaffirmation of our language’s centrality to our sense of ourselves: a celebration of how we spoke and speak, how we wrote and how we write. It isn’t currently, which is a shame. Seeing as how we’re all indoors anyway this year, though, let’s raise a glass. To our poets; to renumerating them for their labour; to truth, and memory. Sláinte.

Illustration by Thomas Landseer, 1830

Colin Bramwell is a poet, performer and musician from the Black Isle. He was the runner-up for the 2020 Edwin Morgan Prize, and is currently working towards a PhD in Scots, poetry and translation at the University of St Andrews.

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  1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    Here’s the toast I gave to Burns’ immortal memory at a supper organised by a student halls of residence for overseas students in 1980.

    file:///media/fuse/drivefs-b96ab0c04ff259fb177063173d160f2f/root/An%20Immortal%20Memory.pdf

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      A TOAST TO THE IMMORTAL MEMORY OF ROBERT BURNS

      I’ve been asked to propose a toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns.

      Now, I’m no fan of the Burns cult; so, I’ve had to think long and hard about what to say?

      How I came to like Burns, perhaps?

      How I had left school with the view that Burns was not for me, that he was an establishment figure, sitting on a shortbread tin with a fan-base of old miners and ‘Guid Scots’ – tweedie-suited men toasting lassies who are nowhere in sight, and replying on behalf of those same lassies who (it transpires) are back in the kitchen scouring the remnants of warm, reeking haggis entrails out of cardboard trenchers – ‘Guid Scots’ from whose ranks I normally exclude myself.

      Or perhaps I could list some of the strange things I know about Burns and Burns suppers?

      How the first Burns Supper was held in memoriam at Burns Cottage by Robert Burns friends on 21 July 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death, and how the idea was taken up and formalised as part of their annual programmes by masonic lodges across Ayrshire and the west of Scotland generally.

      How Wordsworth came to visit Burns’ grave in the early 19th century and warned the Burns family that his memory was about to be distorted and his life story altered to suit the developing cultural and political hegemony of Tory ‘Scotland’.

      How Burns’ official biography was inaccurate in many ways, how the Burns family tried in vain to have it corrected, and how certain members were paid much-needed money not to criticise or contradict the biography – which ran to nine editions.

      Maybe I could talk of the relationship between Burns and Jean Armour, whom he technically married twice, and how, when her father threw her out between those two marriages, Burns arranged her keep and broke off his epistolary relationship with Nancy McElhone – of ‘Clarinda’ fame – and how the couple would bring up at least one of Burns’ children by another woman as their own… and so on and so on.

      I’ve been to good Burns suppers – they do exist! – where some local buddies get together for some haggis, neeps and tatties, a few drinks, and to sing… and have a few drinks… recite some poetry, and… have a few drinks. In essence, they are ceilidhs where other people’s poetry is recited and appreciated alongside Burns’ own works.

      And that’s another thing: Burns wrote cartloads of poems; not just the ten or twelve we are spoon-fed once a year. He also collected, wrote or plagiarised hundreds of songs; yet many of these are only rarely aired in favour of the same-old-same-old ones that are churned out during the Burns season.

      So, I sort of want to point all of this out as part of this daft wee toast.

      But there are certain formalities that have to be observed, like the recitation of a wee biography of Burns’ life, as well as a wee appreciation of that life. So here goes:

      Born in 1759 into hard work and poverty on a farm in Alloway, near Ayr.

      Burns got a pretty good education, from his father (1721–1784), from his own reading as a child, and at an adventure school between about the ages of six and nine. An ‘adventure school’ is not nearly as exciting as it sounds.

      It’s worth saying that the Victorians downplayed his education because it made the story of a poor ploughman producing sublime poetry so much more romantic. But, really, he was a smart lad who did well in what schooling he got.

      When their old landlord died, the new factor, who was an arsehole, made dreadful demands of Burns’ family. Burns writes:

      “My indignation yet boils at the recollection of the scoundrel tyrant’s insolent, threatening epistles, which used to set us all in tears. This kind of life, the cheerless gloom of a hermit with the unceasing moil of a galley-slave, brought me to my sixteenth year; a life before which period I first committed the sin of RHYME.”

      He joined a country dancing school at age 20, primarily to meet girls. At 21 he founded the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton with his brother Gilbert (1760-1827). Rule 10 of the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton: “Every man proper for a member of this Society must be a professed lover of ONE OR MORE of the female sex.” (Rule 1 of the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton was that whatever happened within the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton stayed within the Bachelor’s Club of Tarbolton.)

      He wasn’t just a lover, though, he was an enthusiastic lover. He boasted of “curiosity, zeal, and (listen up, girls!) intrepid dexterity”.

      When he was 25, his father died. His mother (1732-1820) on the other hand outlived him by 24 years.

      At age 25 he met Jean Armour. She is remembered and celebrated as Burns’ great love. But it seems that Burns had a habit of falling in love quite a lot. It’s worth pointing out that, while he was trying to woo Jean, he somehow managed to get his mother’s servant pregnant, who bore his first child.

      Jean and Rabbie’s eyes met when his dog walked on her laundry. He wooed her, got her pregnant.

      She was sent to Paisley in disgrace. He wrote a letter promising to marry her, thinking it was the honourable thing to do. But Jean’s father was an outraged wealthy stone-mason, who ripped the letter up in lieu of Rab’s throat.

      In later years they did eventually marry. He describes her as “a delicious armful” and admires her singing range – up to B-natural, apparently – but that’s no basis for a relationship.

      “I am disgusted with her; I cannot endure her,” he wrote to a friend, but then married her a couple of months later.

      Jean herself said that Burns “really should have had twa Wives.”

      Anyway, that wasn’t for a few years yet. Back to 1786 when Burns was 27:

      While he was out of favour with Jean and her family, he fell in love with Mary Campbell – ‘Highland Mary’ (1763–1786). They pledged their troth; they romantically exchanged bibles, and he offered to take her away from it all to a new job managing a slave plantation in Jamaica.

      He released a book of poetry to raise money for the voyage. But the book (The Kilmarnock Volume) was a lot more successful than he’d hoped, and he was flattered by praise from Edinburgh’s literary set – which is an ever-present risk we provincial poets run.

      So, he went to Edinburgh instead.

      But before that, Jean Armour gave birth to twins, and Highland Mary died of typhus, aged 23.

      In Edinburgh, he met Walter Scott (1771–1832), who was 16 years old at the time. Walter Scott is not known for understatement:

      “His person (he wrote of Burns) was strong and robust, his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents.”

      And:

      “His eye literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”

      Not just a talented poet, then; he had x-ray vision as well. Move over, Clark Kent!

      About this time he started a relationship with Agnes Maclehose (1759–1841), aka Nancy Maclehose, alias ‘Clarinda’. She was the woman for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss when she left the country to try to patch things up with her estranged husband. Their relationship was passionate, it was fiery, but it was all epistles and nothing physical. He didn’t manage to get into her knickers; though he did manage to get her servant pregnant.

      After his publishing success, he bought another farm. He took in Jean Armour, who was living in poverty and disgrace, and married her.

      His farm failed. He got a job with the government.

      He continued to write poetry and collect folk songs. He continued to drink hard and court scandal by supporting the French Revolution. But in less than a decade his health was failing. After some dental work over the winter, he died in the spring of 1796.

      He had lived hard, died young and left a good-looking portrait.

      Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) summed up Burns’ life thus:

      “Granted the ship comes into harbour with shrouds and tackle damaged, the pilot is blameworthy… but to know how blameworthy, tell us first whether his voyage has been round the Globe or only to Ramsgate and the Isle of Dogs.”

      Burns’ voyage in life was a grand one, and it is a testament to his life and talents that, since his death, his standing around the globe has only increased. Also, all the evidence suggests that his tackle was in fine working order.

      As a life, his was a scintillating spectrum of the human condition. There was hardship and suffering, as well as laughter and fun, plus a great deal of shagging. This is all expressed in his poetry and song. There were large, even universal perspectives, but also a fey and complex personality that did not sit easily with coherence. This may explain why no biographer has come close to doing him justice.

      Burns had what Byron called an “antithetical mind — tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness — sentiment, sensuality — soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity — all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay”, an instance of what George Gregory Smith termed the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ – that forcefield of conflicting polarities that he saw as typical of the Scottish psyche and its literary expression;

      “…a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability… in his practical judgement… If, therefore, Scottish history and life are… varied with a clean contrair spirit, we need not be surprised to find that in his literature the Scot presents aspects which appear contradictory… and we must not forget that disorderly order is order after all.”

      Burns’ antithetical mind – the mind of an intelligent, well-educated (‘rational’) man for whom (‘non-rational’) feeling was everything – allowed him to hold political opinions that were childishly inconsistent, moving easily from a lament for Jacobitism and its ideal of absolute monarchy, to enthusiasm for the French Revolution, and thence to an expression of patriotic British constitutional defiance of the same French revolutionaries.

      It allowed him to combine a sturdy independence with a willingness to flatter and toady those who thought themselves his social superiors

      It allowed him to be a loving but unfaithful husband, who was capable of abandoning a child he had fathered and conducting tedious and artificial epistolary flirtations with married women.

      It allowed him, to write songs like A Man’s a Man while seriously considering a career as an overseer of slaves.

      Robert Burns was a great man, always overshadowed by a weakened constitution and by social insecurity. His genius was recognised as soon as he was published. Had he been a less restless, more accommodating, less turbulent and less stravaigin personality – less of an antithetical mind – he could have settled down in the library of an aristocratic house, funded by some patron, happy to secure his own immortality by serving as a grub in amber.

      Who knows? There might have been several more decades and many more verses.

      But that would not have been Robert Burns.

  2. Axel P Kulit says:

    I may be wrong have an impression that there is a literary establishment that deprecates not only the Scots language, but almost all forms of English other than formal international English.

    A poem ( or indeed a story) written in Geordie, Cockney or today’s working class vernacular ( even without sweary words) is I think, very unlikely to be published. London Grammar is what Editors require.

    For this reason The Scottish Language will for a long time be relegated, by our establishments, mainly to Burns Night and New Year.

    I went to a conference once in Dublin where the opening speech was given twice. Once in Erse and then in English. I expect it will be along time before I hear speeches given in Gaelic, Scots and English.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      I take it you don’t read much contemporary poetry. Vernacular is very much à la mode.

  3. Roland says:

    Fiji is in Melanesia rather than Polynesia but hey ho. I was always somewhat put off by ex pat Burns suppers in my globe trotting youth but this a function of the drunken red-faced expats not Burns. And even then Burns suppers were still better than the Queen’s pretend birthday garden parties. These days I think I would be more forgiving of both. I think the global popularity of Burns – and it is truly global and enduring- is as much for the egalitarian ideas as for the poetry and language – not to do those down in anyway. And there are always the bawdy poems for the drunken red-faced ones.

  4. George Gunn says:

    “Politics and poetry must remain fundamentally different spheres; any decent poet knows that ‘political’ poetry, if it is to avoid being maladroit, must always stay within the domain of poetry.” Well, thankyou for writing that, but I take issue with it. All poetry, Colin, is political because life is political. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.” Tam O’Shanter is one of the great narrative poems of world literature. Burns is a world poet. He was flawed, certainly and full of contradictions, but then – who is not? All art has a crack in it. Burns poems are the conversation he has with us. Burns is evidence, all year round, that poetry becomes people. A sentiment and essence Hamish Henderson urged us all to embrace. Keep at it, Colin, and keep yer drawers on. Here’s to you, in solidarity.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      All poetry… is political because life is political.

      This is very true, George, insofar as we produce our lives in community. As a form of life or ‘ideology’ (life’s immanent expression), poetry like everything else is inescapably political.

      Also sprach Marx!

  5. Tom Hubbard says:

    Hello Colin – if I may – thanks for such a fine piece. Your PhD topic is interesting – do you know Stewart Sanderson who did his Glasgow PhD on translation into Scots and who has worked with me on related projects.

  6. Lindsey Spowage says:

    Great article – but just want to say the word is “remunerate” not “renumerate” – if you mean “pay them or reward them” not “count them again” … love xx

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