Friday, January 25, 2008

Raise your glasses please…

Yes, it’s Burns Night. All over the world people with only the faintest claim to Scots nationality will be getting in touch with their inner celt. People who never normally drink whisky, and wouldn’t dream of drinking it throughout a meal, are downing tots of expensive single malt and tucking into haggis and neeps as if it were a gourmet dish. Haggis, like Christmas Pudding, is one of those once-a-year, whether-you-feel-like-it-or- not dishes. And every year I think to myself “You know, this is not bad. I should eat this more often.” It helps that I really like neeps, or swede if you’re from the south of England, or turnip if you’re from the north of England. Very confusing.

Robert Burns has been getting a makeover recently, and not entirely to his advantage. Out goes the dreaming romantic at the plough, breaking his heart over a harvest mouse. In comes the upwardly mobile philanderer, loving and leaving endless maidens, usually pregnant. He supplemented his meagre farming income with a proper job as an exciseman and seriously thought about emigrating to the West Indies to manage a sugar plantation, complete with slaves.

But I used to live just down the road from the Burns farm, and a low miserable place it was, along with all its neighbours. Annan, on the Solway, was a place where they built clippers until the early part of the twentieth century, and those ships must have whispered to him of faraway places with much better opportunities, and weather.

The dialect in which he wrote is another reason why folk love him; he holds up two fingers to the swanky language of more acceptable poets, and if you can understand his lines that makes you a bit of a rebel, along with him. When I arrived in the South of Scotland it was 1960. We had nuclear power stations and everything. My first day in school the rest of the class stood up and, one by one, recited the poem they had learnt.

“The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi muckle focht and din.
O try and sleep, ye waukrife bairns
Yer faither’s comin in…”

I had only moved about seventy miles north from England, but it felt like a different planet.
For the following week we all had to learn a Burns poem, To a Mouse, and all this time later it is still etched in my memory, the language lilting and strange, and even to my ears then a cut above the bairns above.

“Wee, sleekit cowerin timorous beastie,
Oh what a power’s in thy breastie
Thou need nae run awa sae hastie
Wi bickerin brattle
I would be laith to run and chase thee
Wi murderin pattle.

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle at me
Thy poor earth born companion
And fellow mortal.”

Robert Burns may have died because he drank foul water from the Brow Well, or because he had a heart complaint, or from the excesses of alcohol, it isn’t really clear, but 50,000 people came out onto the streets of Dumfries in July 1796 to see his funeral cortege pass by. He was 37 years old.

Nobody in their right mind would think of making a haggis from scratch, but if you are really that way inclined you might find this article interesting.

1 comment:

Abbey said...

Ah now I finally found out what a neep is.... 'The Goodies' used to make mention of them all the time back in the 70's

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.