It is difficult to make sense of how many works that Robert Burns produced in his short life. That is because he wrote original compositions, collected Scottish folk songs some of which he adapted or revised; he wrote epitaphs and elegies. It is probably safe to say that he produced at least 716 works. He died at the age of 37 in 1796.
Robert Burns was also a man of many professions: poet and song writer, farmer, flax dresser, book-keeper and exciseman. He was a man of many lovers who produced for him 12 children, although only three lived beyond infancy. Many regard him as the National Poet of Scotland; in 2009, he was chosen, by public vote, as the Greatest Scotsman of all time. He is probably the best known poet to have written in the Scots Language although he did not confine himself to that; he wrote some of his political works in English and he also used a light Scots Dialect. There is a dictionary to translate over 2000 words that Burns used from the Scots Language and Dialect, to make it accessible all round the world. In 19th and 20th Centuries, there was almost a charismatic cult for Burns. There are statues of Robert Burns all over the world, from Dunedin to Victoria, from Leith to Boston.
And then there is the Burns Supper, also known as Burns Night, which is celebrated all over the world, usually to the same format. It takes place on 25 January each year (the date of Burns’ birthday), and is quite an occasion, in time-honoured tradition, either as informal or formal proceedings. It starts with the Selkirk Grace. The first course is soup, usually a traditional Scottish soup like Cock-a-leekie or Cullen Skink. A piper will then ‘pipe in’ the Haggis on a dish, carried by the cook. Burns’ poem ‘Address to a Haggis’ is read, all eight verses; on the reading of the third verse, with the line “An’ cut you up wiv ready slickit”, a large knife is used to cut the Haggis. The main course is Haggis, neeps and tattties, followed by a pudding, often Cranachan, a traditional Scottish dish. This is served with an abundance of Scotch Whiskey. The first Burns’ Supper was on 25 January 1801, the fifth anniversary of his death.
Burns’ influence on language and literature has also been felt world-wide. The title ‘Of Mice and Men’, John Steinbeck’s novel written in 1937, was taken from a Burns poem; Bob Dylan said that ‘Red, Red Rose’ was the lyric that had had most effect on him, especially the realism with which he wrote; ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is sung every New Year’s Eve, in most countries of the world; ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by JD Salinger, in 1951, was taken from ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’.
I studied literature all through my school life and I can safely say that never once were we given a Robert Burns poem to read or study, but then I came from London. Yet I love Robert Burns. I love those poems that have been put to music and the songs he wrote. I love a bit of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ but also ‘To A Mouse’, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’ and many more. Many years ago I was given a sampler, beautifully embroidered, of ‘Red, Red Rose’ which I have had framed and hangs on my wall. Back to YouTube, as I was writing this, I found so many versions of ‘Red, Red Rose’ sung by so many artists, that again I got distracted.
A couple of years ago, I saw the tea towel with the picture of Robert Burns in the centre, with snippets of some of his poems. I didn’t buy it and regretted it, so on my trip to Edinburgh, this year, I was determined to find one. I was very excited when I found it and, as I came to write this Blog, I realised that I actually had three other tea towels with Robert Burns poems on them. I bought the ‘sampler’ version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at Gretna Green in 1999. The 2009 ‘O’ Guid Ale Comes’ came from the Isle of Arran, when I visited the Arran Brewery, never realising that this genuinely was a Burns poem. The other 2017 tea towel, ‘Address to the Haggis’ was bought at the Scottish Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh; I have already blogged about that (Blog dated 12/2/2017) but I couldn’t not include it in this tribute to Robert Burns.
I have a feeling that I might be on the look-out for other tea towels, with any poem by Robert Burns, to add to my collection but in the meantime my wiping up has risen to a different level when I am reciting a Robert Burns poem amongst my dishes.