Burns Night – An Immortal Memory
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.
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.