Rabbie Burns, och aye

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787
Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

On January 25, say Scotch drinkers the world over, we are all Scottish.

Today’s the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish bard and one of the first Romantic poets. ’tis as good an excuse as any to pour a dram of single malt. (Neat, with a splash of water.)

As a half-Scot, the words of Rabbie Burns — the same words used by my late Scottish mother and our relatives — have reverberated through my life, adding colour and more often confusion to the “Queen’s English.” “Och, aye” or “A dinna ken” slip out at the oddest of times. And, of course at New Year’s,  “Auld Lang Syne” — with a global chorus.

But the fact is, my Scottish burr is as far from authenticity as I, Canadian-born, am geographically removed from the auld country of my people. I  lay no claim to fluency in any Scots dialect. I eat no haggis. And yet, though I canna quote him chapter and verse, Burns’ words run rough in my blood the way bagpipes linger in my ears. Neither are consistently pretty. Neither are particularly graceful. But one thing is for sure: both can move a person to a drink.  So, Slàinte, Rabbie Burns.

And while you sip, have a read of this piece in our books section —  a scholar’s rather critical look at Scotland’s poet:

Haggis, neeps and badness: Robert Burns’ dark side. By Corey E. Andrews

Our understanding of Robert Burns has been enriched by the thriving scholarship that has grown in the late 2000s. That said, his reputation is still bedevilled by long-standing misinterpretations of his life and work. In particular, he is still misappropriated to aid the causes of endless warring parties (political, religious, cultural, you name it!). But that doesn’t prevent his name and legacy being an opportunity for social pleasure once a year (twice if you count New Year), when the slightly absurd rituals governing the Burns Supper are re-enacted around the world. Whether the poet’s works are much read beyond such occasions seems immaterial when considering his popular cultural esteem as the enduring Poet of Scotland. But the real challenge is to appreciate him in this role while still recognising his very human weaknesses.

Noteworthy: recommended reads elsewhere on the Internet:

How Robert Burns was used during World War One, BBC News 

Robert Burns may have been long dead before the guns of World War One began firing but his poems and songs were used in ways that he could not have imagined.

Five artists inspired by Robert Burns: JD Salinger; Michael Jackson; Tommy Hilfiger; Bob Dylan; Robert Montgomery, the Scotsman

With more statues dedicated to him around the world than anyone bar Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, and Auld Lang Syne recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as one of the three most popular songs in the English language, along with Happy Birthday and For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, Robert Burns has had no problem remaining relevant since his death in 1796.



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