A steaming plate of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties. Maybe some Clootie Dumpling for dessert. If the drinks are flowing, you know that there will be some ceilidh dancing soon enough.
On the 25th of January, every year, Scots and honorary Scots around the world gather together to mark the life and work of Scotland’s most famous romantic, Robert Burns.
Who was Robert Burns?
Robert or “Rabbie” Burns was born on the 25th January 1759 in Alloway, near Ayr. His mother and father, Agnes Brown and William Burnes, were tenants on a series of small farms throughout Burns’ early life. Without his father, this might have been all we would ever know about the 18th century Ayrshire farmer, if we even knew these details at all.
His father encouraged Burns’ education. He learned to read and write, he studied French and scripture and, then, he discovered poetry. Without the privilege of literary connections and the free time afforded to the upper classes, Burns wrote and composed his poems and songs whilst he worked in the fields. His first song was for a girl he worked with during the harvest season.
He was more than just a romantic farmer with a talent for words. He saw himself as “Scotia’s Bard” with the responsibility, according to D.M. Low (1986) of “carrying forward and widening the range of vernacular Scots poetry”. He is now known as a pioneer of the Romantic movement; but during his life, he embarked on many scandalous relationships and fathered several illegitimate children.
Burns’ romantic exploits, today, feel straight out of Bridgerton but it was his reputation that fuelled his popularity amongst Edinburgh’s literati and ensured the success of his romantic works, including ‘‘A Red Red Rose’, ‘To a Louse’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.
While Burns has more than secured himself a spot on the Romantic poet Hall of Scandal and Fame as ‘the seventh Romantic’ , his legacy does not end there. Burns became increasingly political in his work (‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, ‘A Ballad on the American War’, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘Scots Wa Hae’). He was inspired by the natural world, especially mice, lice, dogs and horses. (‘To A Mouse’, ‘To a Louse’, ‘Coming Thro’ The Rye’). Not to mention, the humble Haggis. (‘Address to A Haggis’).
Why is Burns still so important today?
Burns died on July 21st 1796 at just 37. His funeral was held on the 25th of July, the same day that his last son, Maxwell, was born. Yet, 224 years after his death, Robert Burns is still affectionately labelled as ‘Scotland’s Favourite Son’.
What is it about Burns, his life and his work, that makes his legacy so enduring?
It is a question with no end of answers.
Burns and Scotland
The logical place to start to understand Burns’ importance is right at the source. His love for Scotland — its culture, traditions and natural beauty — especially the Highlands, is a common thread throughout much of his work. His cottage in Alloway is protected by the National Trust for Scotland as part of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum which houses more than 5000 artefacts, including some of his manuscripts. Burns remains so much more than a tourist attraction to the Scots that love and know him best. As BBC Teach describes him, he is the “poster boy for the Scottish Identity”, so much so that during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the mainstream media simply had to have Burns wade in on the debate. I will leave you to speculate about what side Scotland’s national poet would have fallen on.
Burns’ place in Literature
As a purveyor of Scottish identity and a “champion of Scots language”, Burns’ various works are a staple in both primary and secondary education. It is a right of passage to recite ‘To A Mouse’ with wobbling knees in front of your entire school. Using Scots in poetry was poignant when we consider the historical context and the effects of the recent Jacobite Rebellions and Highland Clearances that were ongoing. His work allowed for other Scottish writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh to build the use of Scots language into a literary tradition.
Beyond the Scots language, the themes of love, natural landscape and the human condition that Burns explored, are just as relevant now as they were over 200 years ago. His work even inspired titles of other beloved classics like John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ (‘To a Mouse’) and J.D. Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ (‘Comin’ Thro the Rye’).
Burns on the International Stage
It is not just the Scots that care about Burns either. Americans have loved him for centuries. There is even a BBC documentary about the affair. His work has been internationally translated and reviewed by countless Russian academics and Burns associations. One of his songs is even played in Japan when the shops are closing.
Even if you think you know nothing of Robert Burns beyond his name, his work will have undoubtedly influenced you in some way.
Around the world, millions of people recite Burns every year without often even realising that they are doing so.
On New Year’s Eve, when the clocks strike 12 and we’ve made it to a new year, we take the hands of our loved ones and (try to) sing “Auld Lang Syne” together.
But in the Covid-19 era, how do we come together to celebrate Burns?
When the clocks struck 12 this year, yet another event passed us by where we faced having to stay apart to stay safe.
However, as the 25th of January approached, some have refused to give into the ‘zoom and gloom’ and leave Burns Night unmarked.
Zoë Baptie from Bluestripe Group is hosting a virtual Burns night with whisky tasting, a film, and perhaps a sneak of some tartan too.
She said: “More and more members of the team are originally from Scotland or currently living there, we decided it would be the perfect excuse to get together.”
BritRock via Twitter is bringing together four expatriates in his bubble in New York City. He said:
“We will read Ode to a Haggis, potentially have a few Burns readings and maybe an escape room in a box to modernise a little.”
Jack O’Neill, from Young Scots for Independence, will be attending several virtual Burns suppers over the coming weeks.
He said: “He’s emblematic of the contribution our country as a whole has made to the world and it’s important we continue to celebrate that regardless of current circumstances.”
Billi Allen-Mandeville, a Public Policy student, will be watching the free ‘Burns Night In’ Live Steam and dancing around to ceilidh tunes in her kitchen.
She said: “We may not be able to celebrate it how we usually would but I will be making the most of it and going for it!”
As we come to almost a year since WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the anticipation to see our loved ones is becoming more than any of us can bear. Robert Burns himself said: “suspense is worse than disappointment”, which may have felt more true then than it does right now. However, there is nothing for it but to have a ‘Burns Night In’ while we wait.