special guest post by Mhairi Jarvie
Our special guest post is from Mhairi Jarvie, a valuable member of the Inverness Outlanders, as well as the Outlander North Carolina Clan. We are excited to bring her knowledge to ONC–read on as she shares a bit about Burns Night!
Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns as he’s more commonly known here in Scotland – poet and songwriter extraordinaire. World renowned and celebrated. Quite simply, one of the best writers that ever existed, in my humble opinion. So, who was this guy, and what does he mean to Scotland, Scottish emigrants, the world, and little old me?
He was born on 25 January, 1759, in Alloway, Ayrshire, in the west of Scotland. He was the oldest of seven children borne by William Burns and Agnes Broun. I could go on and tell you all about the man, but that’s what Wikipedia is for! It’s no secret he had a very tough childhood, full of hardship and poverty. It’s also no secret that he *ahem* had an eye for the ladies! But I was asked to put together a piece on my own experience of Burns, what he means to me, Scotland, and the world.
As a child, in what we in Scotland call primary school (aged 5 to 11), it was practically the law, every Burns night, that we recite a verse of his poetry. It was usually from “To a Mouse”, as it’s quite an easy one, and children can relate to it. A scared wee mouse, running away from the farmer’s plough. Looking at it now, as an adult, I see it as a man’s awareness of the damage humans can do to the natural habitats of animals, apologising for same. John Steinbeck obviously identified with Burns, and a line from this poem specifically, as he named his best selling novel “Of Mice and Men”. The line from the poem is “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promis’d joy!”. Basically, rough translation from Scots, even the best laid plans can go astray and leave us with grief and pain instead of joy. When I reached secondary school, or high school (aged 12-18), I read that book, but never knew the connection. It makes perfect sense. Sadly, although Scotland has its own education system, to this day more time is given over to Shakespeare than Burns. Anything I know of Burns poems, I’ve been self taught. I’ve no idea why he isn’t taught more in Scottish schools, as we can learn such a lot from his writings.
As part of that primary school Burns tradition, we were also challenged to write a poem of our own. Now, writing poetry is something that’s in my blood! My Dad, and his Dad, wrote poems in English and Welsh. On my paternal grandmother’s side, I’m descended from a Welsh bard. It’s the same on my maternal grandfather’s side, I’m descended from a Scottish Gaelic bard. I’ve written poems and songs since childhood, inspired by Burns, and other Scottish writers. So yes, he’s inspired me. I love singing his songs too.
Burns night, 25 January, his birth date, is celebrated more than that of our patron saint, St Andrew (on 30 November), in Scotland and in all Scottish communities throughout the world. Scots are spread all across this globe, whether that be by choice, or, through the 18th and 19th centuries, some by force. Wherever they settled – America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, etc. – Scottish societies were formed; Scottish churches were established; streets, towns and villages were built and given Scottish names. Scottish music, stories, songs, language and dance also went with them, and Burns continued to be celebrated. The very first Burns club, or association, was set up in Greenock, to the west of Glasgow, in 1801, only 5 years after Burns passed away. It was set up by some merchants, some of whom knew Burns and counted him as a friend. This club is known as The Mother Club.
Every official Burns night has a set format – piping in the guests, chairperson’s welcome, Selkirk or Burns grace, piping in of the haggis, address to the haggis, toast to the haggis, then you tuck in to the meal. The Selkirk, or Burns grace, is this –
“Some have meat and cannae eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit”
In your every day common household though, most families will just tuck into the haggis, neeps and tatties, – or haggis, turnips (swedes), and potatoes. Someone will maybe say the first verse of the “Address to a Haggis”, but there’s not very much pomp or ceremony involved. In this house, it’s the only time of year I’ll eat haggis, but it must be mashed together with the neeps and tatties, or I can’t eat it I’m afraid! Shhhhh! Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not really a fan! Nor am I a fan of whisky! Anyway, I digress!
Burns poems and songs are known around the world, and some are more famous than others. The most famous, by a country mile, is Auld Lang Syne. This has become synonymous with New Year, or Hogmanay, celebrations absolutely everywhere. There won’t be many places on the planet where this song is not known. A lot longer than the normal two verses sung, it’s a song of friendship and remembrance. Strangers cross arms and join hands during the second verse, and they dance together as they sing the rest. Please, please note though, for the sake of Scots everywhere, that the word “syne” starts with an S and not a Z! It’s pronounced sign, and not zine. The collective hairs on the back of all Scottish necks go up, and teeth grind, as they hear zine!
I mentioned earlier the influence Burns had on John Steinbeck, but he has been an influence to so many. Bob Dylan cited “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” as one of the songs that touched him the most, that was one of his greatest sources of inspiration. It’s said that Michael Jackson was a Burns fan too. In the 1990’s, he recorded twelve of Burns’ best known poems set to music. US fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger was the 3x great nephew of Burns. Apparently it wasn’t spoken about due to Burns womanising and boozing, but Hilfiger later embraced the connection through his love of plaid in his designs. There’s a folk festival held in Scotland every January, for the last 30 years now, called Celtic Connections, featuring musicians, singers and poets from all over the world (it’s online this year for obvious reasons). Every year, without fail, Burns songs are sung and poems read out. Some are sung or recited in original form, some are adapted, translated, or interpreted as something else like dance.
Burns is also responsible for a lot of tourism to Scotland, specifically the areas he was born in, grew up in, and farmed in. The cottage he was born in is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and houses approximately 5000 artefacts, including original manuscripts. Burns also saved a bridge! There’s a film called Brigadoon, from 1945, which features American tourists who stumble across a mysterious Scottish village that only appears for one day every 100 years. There is a real Brig O’ Doon though, in Alloway, where Burns was born. It was built in the 1400’s, rebuilt in the 1700’s, but a newer one was built in 1816 to cope with increasing demand of traffic (horses and carts). The old one was due to be demolished, but there was such an outcry at this from Burns fans. The bridge features in the Burns magnificent poem, “Tam O’Shanter.” To me this is his best work. It’s long, but it’s just brilliant! Tam returns home from market in Ayr, drunk, when he comes across a coven of witches and warlocks in the grounds of the Auld Alloway Kirk. He’s seen, and chased by them. By tradition, a witch won’t pursue anyone over running water, so Tam rides his horse at full sped towards the bridge, and escapes with his life – and his horse without its tail.
It’s been 225 years this year since Burns died, yet he is still held in very high regard in Scottish life, culture and tradition. His songs and poems are the stuff of legend. The stories of love, heartbreak, life in general, are enough to make anyone stop and think. Yes, he may have been as Tommy Hilfiger’s family portrayed him – a man of womanising and booze. But he was a literary genius, a caring soul, an egalitarian who spoke out about the slave trade during his time working on a plantation in Jamaica, just before abolition. I challenge you to find one person who can’t hum or sing Auld Lang Syne (S, not Z, remember!). He has statues in Russia, New Zealand, America, and elsewhere. His portrait has adorned postage stamps, shortbread tins, tea towels and lots more!
As I say and watched the inauguration of President Biden today, and listened to his speech, it was Burns that sprang to mind, from his poem “A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ll -“
“Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree an a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be fir a’ that”
Mhairi, thank you so much for this wonderful and interesting lesson on Burns Night and a bit o’ Scottish history!
Will you be celebrating Burns Night? Tell us about it in the comments!
Mhairi Jarvie was born in Edinburgh, and currently lives in Inverness with her husband Alan and German Shepherd dog Abby; she is stepmother to two adult “children.” Mhairi loves her job as a civilian police support staff in Inverness. She did not discover Outlander until 2016, thanks to two Orlando, Florida hotel employees! Needless to say she is now a devoted fan, and is part of the Inverness Outlanders group. Mhairi has been lucky to meet Diana Gabaldon, Graham McTavish, and got to snap a photo with Sam Heughan! Mhairi loves her husband, her pets, music, photography, travel, family research, writing poetry, Disney, Nike shoes, and Scottish history.