It’s Burns’ Night, when the Scottish diaspora, in Burns clubs all over the globe, traditionally slaughter the haggis and devour it with neeps, tatties and a dod of whisky. Well some of them do anyway, skirling away on the pipes and giving their kilts a wee shoogle and a heugh, with their Mammy’s best butter knife stuffed doon their socks and the taxi-fare home jinking in the wee badger handbag,* as they give it laldy with the Heilan’ Fling and the Gay Gordons. The 1930s poet Hugh MacDiarmid condemned Burns clubs for their canting humbug that preserved his furniture and repelled his message.
When I was a wee lassie, Burns Night was an excuse for the men in the house to drink whisky freely without the women in the house giving them a severe row and confiscating the bottle ‘straight doon the sink.’ There was a certain male sentimentality, a patriotic dabbing of the eyes, and a lot of shushing of bored, hungry weans, as Great Uncle Willie addressed the haggis. Since he’d had the best part of a bottle of Famous Grouse, he could only remember the first verse, so he just repeated it a few times before stabbing the big beastie with Gran’s old bread knife. The haggis got its own back by farting red-hot fat around the table, causing howls from the weans and disapproval from the grown-ups. Fer Heaven’s sake, Wullie – ye’ve scalded the weans again!
At that age, me being one of the scalded weans, my thoughts about oor Rabbie bordered on mutinous loathing having been forced to learn, by heart, To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest With the Plough, Nov 1785. I was a shy child and hated being picked out by our terrifying, tawse-happy, teacher to recite it. My stumbling rendition, devoid of any engagement with the words, earned her derision and scorn but, thank the good Lord, never the belt. Can you not roll your rs, Lesley? Come on, properly – RRRRRRRR. I also have a cringeworthy memory of moving to England and starting at a posh state, grammar school for girls, where the literature teacher asked me what poetry I had studied in Glasgow (oh you should have seen her face when she said that) and did I know any off by heart? I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate, but a part of me has never forgiven Rabbie for the black burn of humiliation. Rolled rs and all.
But at my somewhat loftier age, I have learned to appreciate Burns, and not just for his poetry. (Although there is a special place in hell reserved for To a Moose) The poet Edwin Muir said of Burns, to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious … Burns’ poetry was introduced to Russia in 1829 (the first translation by Kozlov being The Cotter’s Saturday Night) and his empathy for ordinary people immediately endeared him to Russian liberals. Samuil Marshak, perhaps Russia’s greatest translator at the time, who also translated Shakespeare’s sonnets and work by Tennyson, Byron, Keats and Blake, was responsible for the best translations of Burns’ poetry. Three of Marshak’s translations of Burns were set to music by Shostakovich in his song cycle Six Romances on Verses by English Poets.
As a folk singer, I came to appreciate Burns even more. I’ve sung Parcel of Rogues and Aye Fond Kiss myself and his lyrics can rouse your blood, melt your heart or set an audience alight, laughing in the aisles. He died very young, only 37, in poor health and poverty. Tonight, I won’t be having haggis – in a 21st century ritual, I’m doing veganuary and no alcohol January after a particularly excessive Christmas and Hogmanay. But I will be raising a wee dram of Highland Water to Burns – and to Great Uncle Willie, haggis-stabber aboon them a’.