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Scotch spirit not only warms ... it burns

December 2011

January 25 marks Robert Burns Day and will be commemorated by Scots (and Scot wannabes) worldwide, whether they are enjoying a hearty McEwan’s ale or a McCallum single-malt scotch and, alas, even if they are stone sober.

Robbie was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on January 25, 1759, to William Burness, a poor tenant farmer, and Agnes Broun. He was the eldest of seven and spent his youth working his father’s farm.

In spite of the family’s meagre means, William Burness engaged a tutor for his precocious son Robbie. At 15, Robbie was the principal worker on the farm and this prompted him to start writing in an attempt to find “some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances.” It was at this tender age that Burns penned his first verse, My Handsome Nell, which was an ode to the subjects that dominated his life, namely whisky and women.

When his father died in 1784, Robbie and a brother became partners in the farm. Robbie, however, was more fascinated by the poem than the plough and after having fathered several illegitimate children, he planned to forsake Scotland and abscond to a Caribbean island.

Serendipitously for Scotland, his first collection of verse, Poems-Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published at this juncture and received much critical acclaim.

He thus remained in his homeland, touring the country before eventually arriving in Edinburgh, where he mingled with the illustrious artists and writers who were agog at the “Ploughman Poet.”

By Burns’s lifetime, the ancient Celtic language of the Scots had been reduced to a mere dialect and Burns took it upon himself to resurrect Scots to its halcyon level of yesteryear. Many of Burns’s finest poems are composed, at least partially, in Scots and thus helped revalidate the ancient tongue of his forefathers.

The last years of Burns’s life were devoted to penning such poems as A Red, Red Rose, Sweet Afton and Tam O’Shanter. He died when only 37, of a heart disease perhaps exacerbated by the arduous manual work he undertook when he was young.

Here are some of the opening stanzas from his masterpiece Tam O’Shanter (with translation notes for Scots and archaic English):

When chapman billies (peddler fellows) leave the street,

And drouthy (thirsty) neebors meet;

As market-days are wearing late,

An folk begin to tak the gate;

While we sit bousing (boozing) at the nappy (strong ale),

An getting fou (full-drunk) and unco (very) happy,

We think na on the lang (long) Scots miles,

The mosses, waters, slaps (gates), and styles,

That lie between us and our hame (home),

Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,

Gathering her brows like gathering storm,

Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

This truth fand (found) honest Tam o Shanter,

As he frae (from) Ayr ae (one) night did canter:

Auld Ayr, wham (whom) ne’er a town surpasses,

For honest men and bonie lasses).

O Tam had’st thou but been sae (so) wise,

As taen (taken) thy ain (own) wife Kate’s advice!

She tauld thee weel (well) thou was a skellum (scamp),

A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum (babbler);

That frae November till October,

Ae market-day thou was nae sober;

That ilka (every) melder (amount of grain to be ground) wi the miller,

Thou sat as lang as thou had siller (silver/money);

That ev’ry naig (nag/horse) was ca’d (driven) a shoe on,

The smith and thee gat roarin fou on;

That at the Lord’s house, even on Sundav,

Thou drank wi Kirkton Jean till Monday.

She prophesied that, late or soon,

Thou would be found, deep drown’d in Doon,

Or catch’d wi warlocks in the mirk,

By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk(church).

Ah, gentle dames, it gars (compels) me greet (weep),

To think how monie (many) counsels sweet,

How monie lengthen’d, sage advices

The husband frae the wife despises!

Burns’s simple yet eloquently evocative verse, with its celebration of life, speaks to people everywhere. So let’s all raise a glass in honour of Robert Burns. Personally, though, I’ll forego the haggis.



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