It was bizarre. The deafening bagpipes ceased as an actor — wasn’t he in Braveheart? — began frantically stabbing what looked like a pillow encased in plastic. Its gray gut spilled out, and the thespian, dressed in a tartan skirt and woolly socks, made terrifying noises, very occasionally spitting out a phrase or two in English (something about “gushing entrails”). As if this weren’t unnerving enough, the stage prop — a “haggis” — turned out to be edible: dinner, in fact, served alongside mushed turnips and mashed potatoes. . . . This is how I imagined the uninitiated to be experiencing the evening.
Complete with complimentary glasses of Aberlour whisky (too much of the honey-colored one and you’ll knock yourself out), a live cèilidh band, and — yes — the guy from Braveheart, Burns Night at the Harvard Club was just one of countless suppers happening around the world to commemorate the life and work of Scotland’s national poet. To nonnatives, perhaps it seems ridiculous, but it’s not.
Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayrshire and died in 1796 in Dumfries. He was the son of a farmer, and his formal education was limited. He grew up reading Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden and listening to Scottish folklore. A Romantic and a revolutionary, Burns won many enemies as well as friends in his lifetime. His poetry exhibited extraordinary range and depth, from biting political satire to the heartfelt sincerity of country folk.
For anyone growing up in Scotland, it’s impossible to avoid Burns. At elementary school, there were yearly competitions for those able to memorize his poems and sing his tunes by heart. And in the English department at the University of St Andrews, I studied under the tutelage of his biographer Robert Crawford. Which is why it seems to me as though one evening a year of Burns only scratches the surface.
As with all Scots, Burns’s sensibilities were informed by the landscapes he grew up in. He was a Romantic, so he revered the natural world. He was also extremely class-conscious, always siding with the underdog. This is evident even in his rustic and rural poems. Like To a Mouse (more on that here), written in the Scots dialect in which a ploughman who accidentally turns up a mouse’s nest experiences pity for the “wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,” prompting him to contemplate “nature’s social union,” i.e., mortality:
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
(American readers will of course recognize the emphasized lines from John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.)
Burns was a songwriter as well as a poet. Which is hardly surprising given the innate lyricism of his verses. His “Auld Lang Syne” is the most sung song in the English language other than “Happy Birthday.” In the years before his death, he collected and wrote the lyrics to traditional Scottish airs, many of which can be found in two collections: Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum (1787–1803) and the first five volumes of Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793–1818). My personal favorite is “A Red, Red Rose.”
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
This also happens to be the favorite of Bob Dylan, who cited the poem as having had the greatest influence of any work on his own songwriting. Though he wrote well about love, Burns himself was a cruel and faithless lover. So much so that in recent years he’s come under (anachronistic) fire from the Me Too movement.
Burns was a deeply political thinker. His “Scots Wha Hae” [Scots Who Have] served as Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for years and stands as a defiant statement against English tyranny. After William Wallace led the Scots to an incredible victory at the battle of Stirling Bridge, he was eventually captured and excruciatingly executed. The king of England, Edward I, then abolished the kingdom of Scotland in 1305. But the Scots had other ideas. Undeterred, they crowned Robert Bruce king of Scotland in 1307, who then led them into the battle of Bannockburn:
By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!—
Let us do or die!
Burns initially sent the song to his publisher, George Thomas, at the end of August 1793, with the title “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn,” and attributing it to Bruce’s “glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.” This is thought by interpreters to be a covert expression of his sympathies for the French Revolution.
Burns’s sympathies for the American Revolution certainly help explain his legacy here. In the United States, there are more statures of Burns than there are of any American poet. Abraham Lincoln could recite much of his work from memory. And Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated that Burns “has made that Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man.”
So why engage in bizarre traditions honoring a dead poet? It might seem trite, but the character John Keating in Dead Poets Society was more or less right when he said, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Even hundreds of years after the fact. Besides, who doesn’t like haggis?