“A Man’s a Man for a’that”

Half the world, maybe more than half, will celebrate one of the most popular birthdays in history tomorrow – tomorrow in my part of the world being Monday, January 25. On that day in 1759 Scotland welcomed to the world Robert “Rabbie” Burns, first born son of William Burnes and Agnes Broun, far from prosperous famers in Alloway, Ayrshire calling a two room cottage home.

That the first of their seven children would one day be proclaimed “The Bard” of Scotland – with the “e” dropped from his surname – would be beyond comprehension; the thought that 257 years later their son’s birthday would be celebrated in almost every country in the world, beyond the wildest dreams young parents have for their first born.

And as hardworking, devoted Christians, there would never be even an inkling of thought that their son would weaves into a life of literary brilliance a record of promiscuity second to none. It is something celebrants should think about as they lift glasses of usquabae to toast a man they know by name only – and can’t understand when he speaks to them in poetry or prose.

Together at the end of their Burns’ Night celebration most will join hands and sing over and over again the chorus of Auld lang syne,my jo/ For auld lang syne/ We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,/ For auld lang syne , without understanding the chorus is only that; a fragment of a poem written about  the treasure of true friendship.

That will be long after they’ve giggled their way through a reading of the Address to a Haggis which, if read honestly by a native Scot will require translation for those less fortunate. Without an interpreter how else could a Burn’s Night celebrant appreciate the server of the Haggis as “his spindle shank a guid whip-lash, His nieve a nit…..Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaubs in luggies?” Determined readers can put Google to work to find out why “Scotland wants nae skinking ware that jaubs in luggies”.

While checking they could also get Google to cough-up a few lines of Burn’s bawdy verse in which the young fellow – he died in July, 1796 aged 37 – waxed beyond bawdy when describing a few, just a few, of his many amorous affairs with seemingly willing maids and matrons. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that publishers spelled out the rhyming words first recorded by blank space, then for decades as the first and last letters of words we all know but are still reluctant to record. And it’s a given that they’re never mentioned at a standard mixed company Burn’s Night dinner.

A pity, really, because to understand the power and the beauty of Burns poetry we need to know the full man. And, not all of his “bawdy verse” is bawdy and classed as lewd by some. But not by me. What is lewd or bawdy about “his doxy lay within his arms/ Wi’ usquabae and blanket warm”, from the poem Soldier Laddie? Or his outspoken condemnation of wars and hate with: “In wars at home I’ll spend my blood/ Life giving wars of Venus./ The deities that I adore/ Are social peace and plenty,/I’m better pleased to make one more/ Than be the death of twenty.”

So, if you’re heading for a Burns’ night tomorrow – or ever – take note of these following words from The Burns Encyclopedia to more fully understand the whole-man memory you are honouring:

“Because he has preserved so much of the richness of Scotland’s past, and because he possessed the gift of stating the commonplaces of life in a way which makes them significantly memorable, Burns has been all but idolized in Scotland. Much of the idolatry is foolish in the extreme, and is bestowed on him by people totally unable to appreciate the fine qualities of his work, or, indeed, literature of any kind, but who see him either as a sort of emotionally charged national symbol, or an excuse for a good annual ‘binge’. Burns nights, held round about 25th January all over the world, are notable perhaps only occasionally for the wisdom of the speeches or the abilities of the performers: but they help to keep interest in Burns, and indeed, the Scots tongue alive.”

He was a philanderer with a record that can hardly be admired. But he gave the world more than he took from it. And there were times when he spoke for all of us:”Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene? Have I so found it full of pleasing charms? Some drops of joy with draughts of ill between/ Some gleams of sunshine ‘mid renewing storms.”

And if you are intend to be a celebrant go easy on the usquabae – especially if it’s single malt.



One comment

  1. I admire him for both his philandering and his beautiful words. I will toast his memory Monday night with usquabae and, yes, it will be single malt.

    And I will observe that while his country’s whisky is better today than in his time all poetry is now far worse.

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