Archive for the ‘Robert Burns’ Tag

Burns Night, 25th January   4 comments

Burns Night, 25th January

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert burns.jpg Replacement of existing commons image with higher res version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is agreed by most Scots that Robert ’Rabbie’ Burns was the greatest Scottish poet, especially since many of his poems were written in Scots, a northern variety of the language of the Angles who settled in Northumbria and occupied the south-eastern lowlands of modern-day Scotland in the seventh century. The Scotti were another Celtic people, originally living in Ireland, one of the five ethnic groups who settled in northern Britain in the Dark Ages, also including the Picts, the Britons, and the Norsemen. Each group had their own distinct language, but Scots emerged as the strongest, until in the seventeenth century it began to be replaced by English, due to the Scottish King James VI’s (James I of England) insistence on the use of his ’Authorised Version’ of the Bible in the Scottish ’Kirk’ (Church). In fact, the Kirk had already provided a Scottish translation into English, following the Geneva Bible, which had been distributed to every significant ’householder’ by a law of 1579.

A map of Scots dialects.

A map of Scots dialects. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The themes of Burns’ poetry are nature and the humanity of nature. In ’To a Mouse’ (1786) he shares the problems of the mouse whose home is lost when the farm worker destroys it by accident. These lines have become particularly famous, partly through their use by the twentieth-century American writer, John Steinbeck, in the title of one of his novels:

The best laid schemes

Of mice and men

Gang aft agley

(The most carefully planned projects…often go wrong)

Burns was himself a farm-worker, born in Ayrshire in 1759, only later becoming a tax-collector, or ’exciseman’. Growing up on the land and living the hard life of a farmer, he had great sympathy for the life of country people and this, plus the sense of humour they needed to survive such a life, comes across to the reader of poems like, ’The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ (a ’cotter’ was an old word for a farm-worker, giving us the word ’cottage’ for a traditional, small village house, usually made of wood and thatch), ’The Twa Dogs’ and ’Halloween’. He was an immensely likeable, charming man, who enjoyed the company of women and, later in life, good living. After his poems became successful, he moved to Edinburgh and was able to live off his writing and his pension as an ’exciseman’ when his farm failed. His ’A Man’s A Man for A’ That’ (A’ = All) catches the mood of the times with its ideas of common humanity. Most of his compositions were now songs, which are still well-known, either new or adapted; ’A Red, Red Rose’, ’Scots Wha Hae’, ’Comin’ thro’ the Rye’, ’The Banks of Doon’ and ’Mary Morrison’. His hard-living lifestyle and a week heart got the better of him, and he died in 1796, aged only thirty-seven. He continued to be admired by the Romantic poets who saw him as the first of them, but he is remembered now as the first major figure to write in the Scots language as well as in English, a country poet with world-wide appeal. Throughout his life he was capable of both speaking and writing in formal English. Though well-educated, however, Burns was of peasant stock, close to the land, its customs and people. His genius was his ability to draw on the despised Scottish tradition, half folk ballads and half Court poetry. Burns fused these two styles into one with colour and eloquence.

Map of the areas where the Scots language is s...

Map of the areas where the Scots language is spoken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scots is a language you hear now in its full richness only when Burns is quoted. He gave his nation back its tongue and its pride. When Scots celebrate ’the immortal memory’ on Burns Night, they are honouring the writer who showed them that it is the loyalty to the Scots language and culture that is the best and most lasting assertion of Scottish patriotism. After his death, the process of Anglicisation took hold, though first Sir Walter Scott and later Robert Louis Stevenson continued the tradition of re-discovering Scottishness through a literature which drew on the authenticity of ’the Guid Scots Tongue’.

Burns Supper

Burns Supper (Photo credit: thorland2006)

The Burns Supper, held on our around the bard’s birthday on 25th January, is a major institution of Scottish life: a night to celebrate the life and works of the national Bard. Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance. The celebration begins with  ‘Piping in the guests’ with some traditional music, played, at bigger events, by a bag-piper in full highland dress. The audience stands to welcome arriving guests: the piper plays until the high table is ready to be seated, at which point a round of applause is due. At a more informal gathering – with no high table – the Chair simply bangs on the table to draw attention to the start of the evening’s proceedings. He/She then warmly welcomes and introduces the assembled guests and the evening’s entertainment.

A short but important prayer is read to begin the meal, The Selkirk Grace is also known as Burns’s Grace at Kirkcudbright. Although the text is often printed in English, it is usually recited in Scots:

Some hae meat and canna eat,

And some wad eat that want it,

                             But we hae meat and we can eat,

                             And sae the Lord be thankit.


(Some have meat, but cannot eat, and some would eat but lack it; but we have meat and we can eat, and so the Lord be thanked).

Dr Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Bur...

Dr Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Burns supper, St Columba’s United Reformed Church, Oxford, 2004-01-24. Copyright Kaihsu Tai (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guests then stand to welcome the dinner’s star attraction, delivered on a silver platter by a procession comprising the chef, the piper and the person who will give The Address to the Haggis. At bigger parties, a whisky-bearer is also on hand to ensure that the toasts are well-lubricated. During the procession, guests clap in time to the music until the Haggis reaches its destination at the table. The music stops and everyone is seated in anticipation of the address.

The honoured reader now seizes their moment of glory by offering a fluent and entertaining rendition of To a Haggis. The reader should have his knife poised at the ready. On cue, he cuts the casing along its length, making sure to spill out some of the tasty meat within. This distribution of bits of haggis about the assembled company is regarded  as a part of the fun.The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line Gie her a haggis!’, which the guests greet with rapturous applause. Prompted by the speaker, the audience now joins in the toast to the haggis. They raise a glass and shout: ‘The haggis!’ Then it’s time to serve the main course with its traditional companions, neeps and tatties (potatoes). In larger events, the piper leads a procession carrying the opened haggis out to the kitchen for serving; audience members clap as the procession departs.

Served with some suitable background music, the sumptuous ‘Bill o’ Fare’ includes:

·        Starter: Traditional cock-a-leekie soup;

·        Main course: Haggis, neeps & tatties (Haggis wi’ bashit neeps an’ champit tatties);

 

·        Sweet: Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth or cloot) or Typsy Laird (a Scottish sherry trifle);

·        Cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes) and tea/coffee.

Variations do exist; beef lovers can serve the haggis, neeps & tatties as a starter with roast beef or steak pie as the main dish. Vegetarians can of course choose vegetarian haggis, while fish-lovers could opt for a seafood main course such as Cullen Skink.

To drink: Liberal lashings of wine or ale are served with dinner and it’s often customary to douse the haggis with a splash of whisky sauce, which, with true Scots understatement, is neat whisky. After the meal, it’s time for connoisseurs to compare notes on the wonderful selection of malts served by the generous Chair.

The nervous first entertainer follows immediately after the meal. Often it will be a singer or musician performing Burns songs such as:

My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, 

That’s newly sprung in June: 

O my Luve’s like the melodie, 

That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, 

So deep in luve am I; 

And I will luve thee still, my dear, 

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, 

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; 

And I will luve thee still, my dear, 

While the sands o’ life shall run.  

And fare-thee-weel, my only luve!

And fare-thee-weel, a while! 

And I will come again, my Luve, 

Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile

 

Alternatively it could be a moving recital of a Burns poem, such as Tam o’ Shanter or ‘For a’ that and a’ that’.

Following the songs and recitals, the keynote speaker takes the stage to deliver a spell-binding oration on the life of Robert Burns: his literary genius, his politics, his highs and lows, his human frailty and, most importantly, his patriotism. The speech must bridge the dangerous chasm between serious intent and sparkling wit, painting a colourful picture of Scotland’s beloved Bard. The speaker concludes with a heart-felt toast: To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns!

The chair next introduces more celebration of Burns’ work, preferably a poem or song to complement the earlier entertainment. Then follows the humorous highlight of any Burns Night comes in the Toast to the Lassies, which is designed to praise the role of women in the world today. This must be done by selective quotation from Burns’s works, building towards a positive note. Particular reference to those present makes for a more meaningful toast.

The final course of the evening’s entertainment comprises more Burns readings, followed by a Reply to the Toast to the Lassies, revenge for the women present as they get their chance to reply. A vote of thanks’ is the Chair’s last act in the proceedings, as he now climbs to his/her potentially unsteady feet to thank everyone who has contributed to a wonderful evening and to suggest that taxis will arrive shortly. He/She closes the proceedings by inviting guests to stand and belt out a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne. The company joins hands and sings as one, having made sure to brush up on those difficult later lines.  At some gatherings, the evening will continue with Scottish Country Dancing.

Printed Sources:

Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English: Penguin, 1986.

Ronald Carter and John McRae, The Penguin Guide to English Literature: Britain and Ireland: 1996

Internet:

BBC Online Guide to Burns Night.

Seventh Day of Christmas: 31st December: New Year’s Eve   1 comment

English: Crowds gathered in London's Trafalgar...

English: Crowds gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square for New Year’s Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A ‘Waits’ Carol’ (1642) to the tune ‘Greensleeves’, for New Year:

‘The old year now away is fled,

The new year it is enteréd,

Then let us now our sins down-tread,

And joyfully all appear;

Let’s merry be this day,

And let us now both sport and play:

Hang grief, cast care away!

God send you a happy New Year!’

From the Celtic Druids to the Romans to the Saxons, the British made a feature of welcoming the New Year, so the festival has been celebrated in Britain throughout its entire history, back at least as far as the time of Christ, and before Christmas was even thought of by an Early Church which was, in any case, more concerned with the powerful image of the King on the Cross rather than the babe in the manger. For three-quarters of that history, however, New Year’s Eve was celebrated on 31st March. It was the French who changed the start of the year to Jan 1st in 1564, so that New Year gifts and cards were then transferred to January.

Obviously, everyone likes fresh starts and new opportunities, the chance to make resolutions, so the largely secular festival has won out over the Church’s celebration of the naming of Jesus, which I introduced yesterday and will write more about tomorrow. For the Eve of this celebration, the Methodist leader inaugerated the Watch Night Service still held in many parishes and wrote a special hymn for it, ‘Come let us anew our journey pursue’.

However, most people welcome in the New Year in Britain outside the Church, in pubs, clubs, hotels, in the streets, or at home. I remember, as a teenager, being sent by my school at New Year for a ‘Council for Education in World Citizenship’ Conference, which meant staying in a London hotel on New Year’s Eve. Naturally, our group wanted to go to Trafalgar Square for the celebrations, but on the way there by ‘tube’ I got off the train a stop early. Before I had noticed, the ‘sliding doors’ had closed and I was stranded, on my own in a strange city. As I made my way towards Nelson’s Column, looking for my own schoolmates, and failing to find them, I enjoyed a series of ‘interactions’ and conversations with revellers from all parts of London and further afield. After midnight, when everyone greeted everone else they could with ‘Happy New Year’ and kisses from strange girls were abundant, I was almost glad I’d lost my friends and been forced out of my natural shyness, introversion and traditional British reserve! Looking back on it now, and having since watched the film ‘Sliding Doors‘, I often wonder what would have happened had I been able to get back on that train, and not had to renew and ‘pursue’ my journey alone. Would I have missed one of those crucial turning points in my formative experiences? Trafalgar Square was, quite literally as well as metaphorically, just that for me.

English: Fireworks over Edinburgh on New Year'...

In Scotland, the New Year is called ‘Hogmanay’, from the Old French ‘Au gui l’an neuf’ – ‘To the Mistletoe, the New Year’, the Druidical greeting given by revellers returning from the woods with boughs of mistletoe, like the one hanging from my first floor balcony. At midnight comes a note of solemnity and slight apprehension with the New Year ceremony of ‘first footing’. The household, in silence, listens for the stroke of midnight. As the last stroke of the twelve is sounded a knock at the door is heard. The door opens, revealing a strange man with dark hair. He enters without greeting, carrying a branch and a sprig of mistletoe. The branch he puts on the fire, the mistletoe on the mantelpiece. Then the silence is broken and he is given wine and cake by the master of the house and all greet each other with the New Year toast. The stranger may also bring bread, salt and coal, the symbols of hospitality and warmth. He can be offered a piece of silver and usually the stranger takes the mistletoe under which he kisses all the ladies!

The stranger represents the new-born year which comes in uninvited and cannot be turned away, bringing the promise of the light and warmth of the sun, made welcome in the darkest days of midwinter. The stranger might be asked to ‘first foot’ several times in the neighbourhood, but if no stranger was available, a member of the household would perform the ceremony, masked. More recently, a new variant of the custom has arisen, one which I participated in on my only visit to Edinburgh at New Year. All the men at a party go out just before midnight and all re-enter, following the youngest of the group.  This merges the pagan tradition with the Christian one whereby the whole company went out shortly after midnight to offer triangular mince-pies known as ‘God’ cakes which symbolised the Trinity.

English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert bur...
English: Robert Burns Source: Image:Robert burns.jpg Replacement of existing commons image with higher res version (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1841 Queen Victoria ordered New Year to be welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets, which, she observed ‘had a fine solemn effect which quite affected dear Albert, who turned pale, and had tears in his eyes, and pressed my hand very warmly.’ Of course, most of us ordinary folk have to make do with rather badly and incorrectly sung versions of ‘Auld Lang Syne‘ by Robert Burns.

 

37 Auld Lang Syne
37 Auld Lang Syne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burns’ last line was not ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’…but…

‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere

And gies a hand o’thine

And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,

For auld lang syne’

Happy New Year! I hope it brings you resolutions to current conflicts and problems, fresh opportunities and turning points, with the courage to set off anew in pursuit of different routes on your journey.

 

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