Burns Night is almost upon us again. It falls mid week this year, and I celebrated at the weekend with bashed neeps and tatties, although minus the dram, as it was lunchtime! Burns suppers are celebrated across the globe, and not just in Scotland. The national bard is widely respected, but I’m not sure how widely read is he is outside of his native land. Let’s admit it, the Scots dialect which he elevates to poetry, can be a mite difficult to understand, but if you’re interested in history, poetry, social structure, and most importantly for me, language itself, then it’s worth getting to grips with. Some of the best British writers wrote hundreds of years ago in language which is very strange to our modern ears, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, dismiss Shakespeare or Chaucer because they seem ‘difficult’.
If you don’t have a tame Scotsman (or woman) to hand it’s worth trying to find one! If you can’t, the BBC audio archive has his complete works available, read by some of Scotland’s biggest names. The poems are meant to be read, or sung, out loud, and a Scottish accent of whatever persuasion, certainly makes the lyrics flow. Their meaning seems easier to grasp when they’re performed in the native tongue, but failing that there are plenty of on-line and published translations available.
Burns wrote over 600 songs and poems that we know of, and it’s worth having a browse at a few more than the ‘Ode to a Haggis’ and ‘A Red Red Rose’ with which we’re all familiar. ‘To a Mouse’ is a great example of everyday poetry. Burns, a ploughman by trade, would have disrupted many a field mouse from their home and this poignant poem is full of observation, humour and a prescient knowledge that we need to share the earth’s resources. He was also a keen observer of the social order and the hypocrisies of the ‘kirk’, as well as being a drinker and womaniser, so it is little wonder that he had popular support. His first collection of poems, published when he was 27, made him famous across the country.
The Scots dialect in which he wrote is not a completely dead language, and many words creep into common usage, so it’s worth a delve out of interest, to see what words and phrases have survived.
Burns was not the only poet to write in Scots; Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote in Scots, and Robert Tannahill, known as the ‘Weaver Poet’, is contemporaneous with Robert Burns, and there have been other makar’s throughout the centuries. Not only dead people write in Scots! John Mackintosh, a local chap, is a talented and thoughtful poet writing today in the Scots dialect. He has produced two volumes of poetry and they’re certainly worth looking at.
Whether you’re Scottish, British, or from another corner of the English speaking world, I would urge you to take a new look at Rabbie Burns, and some of the other poets writing in Scots; you may be surprised.