Stags Breath Scottish Honey Whisky Liqueur

Robert Burns – Rock Star Poet of the late 18th Century.

In a tiny two-roomed cottage, clay-built and thatch-roofed, on the banks of the Doon, in the district of Kyle, two miles south of the town of Ayr, in Ayrshire, Scotland, Robert Burns was born on January 25th., 1759. Born to father William Burness, a poor tenant farmer, and mother Agnes Broun, Robert Burns was the eldest of seven children.
For someone who died aged just 37, Burns’ output of poetry, song and prose was prodigious. We don’t know for sure when the first Burns’ Supper was held – some say 1801 – but they have been going strong for well over 200 years now. They are celebrated nowadays in over 200 countries, not just by Scots.

Why Burns? Why Scotland? It’s unique for a national poet to be celebrated this way. There are more statues to him, it seems, than any other literary figure. Why isn’t Shakespeare similarly honoured with Shakespeare suppers? Or Kipling with Kipling cakes? It can’t just be because the provenance of his plays and poems is still argued about. Partly it’s because, as author Neal Ascherson has written: “…at his best he respected ordinary people and took their feelings seriously.”
Burns has very wide appeal, writing for different audiences in English, a light Scottish dialect and Broad, Lowland Scots. Knowledge of him is widespread. Most people in the English speaking world asked to name a few poets would come up with Burns as an option. And many more will sing his verses at the start of each year, not always knowing the author: “We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For Auld Lang Syne”. It’s the world’s most universal song.
In his lifetime Burns was widely liked – someone whom both men and women found to be good company and a lively wit. For a sometime tax inspector, that’s quite something. His progress from farm labourer to national poet is an attraction for all who celebrate success against the odds. And many of us share the passions that characterised his life – poetry, nature, drink and of course members of the opposite sex.
But this is not enough to explain the worldwide institution of Burns’ Suppers. They must be something to do with the nature of Scots and the Scottish diaspora too, and with the fact that so large a percentage of people from Scotland live abroad – not least in the winter months: “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.”

But there’s a link too with the Scots’ love of conviviality and literature. And Burns certainly contains something for everyone, even at the expense of consistency. All the world loves a lover, and Burns was undoubtedly that. He fathered some 16 children, six out of wedlock, and had many other partners. As he wrote of one of his unofficial children: “Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter! Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for…”

time lapse of Robert Burns portrait by Michael Corr

Husbands and fathers complained of Burns’ ardent nature, but there is no evidence that the lassies ever did, even as he left them: “Ae Fond Kiss and then we sever, Ae fareweel, alas forever.”
He immortalised several of his lassies in his verses – for instance, Lovely Polly Stewart, Thou Fair Eliza, Bonny Peggy Alison, Highland Mary, the Lass of Cessnock Banks, as well as his beloved Jean Armour, no less than 14 songs in her case: “Of a’ the airts the wind can blaw, I dearly like the west, For there the bonnie lassie lives, The lassie I lo’e best.”

But Burns was clearly a romantic too, capable of great delicacy. Many people have unknowingly bought Valentine Day cards with his verses inside – “My love is like a red, red rose” has become clichéd, but is still a fine poem. And for simplicity, not much beats: “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.”

Bob Dylan has revealed his greatest source of inspiration was Robert Burns. The legendary singer was asked to name the lyric or verse that has had the biggest effect on his life. He selected the 1794 song A Red, Red Rose, which is often published as a poem.

Yet at times he was all too real, perhaps reflecting the hard existence he lived at the beginning and end of his life: “Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me! The present only touches thee: But och! I backward cast my e’e, On prospects drear! An forward, tho I canna see, I guess and fear!”

And he was a fine observer of the small details of natural life as in his ode “To a Mouse” – and for that matter – “To a Louse”, which is crawling around the bonnet of a fine lady in church: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us”

Burns was also an ardent nationalist, who wrote: “Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled; Scots, wham Bruce has aften led; Welcome tae your gory bed; Or tae Victorie!”

He set himself against a tide of Anglicisation of Scottish culture, during which – for instance – bagpipes were declared instruments of war. He pleaded for the Rights of Women and understood the injustice that led to the French Revolution. Burns also wrote great satire like Holy Wullie’s Prayer, an attack on clerical hypocrisy, and the epic story of Tam O’ Shanter, which could provide the basis of a blockbuster horror movie even today.

So there is much that appeals to the modern taste in Burns. It’s not entirely surprising that someone should have described him as a “rock star of the 1700’s”. And that extends to an international viewpoint. Burns understood poverty, having experienced it himself, like the majority of people in the world today. He was familiar with despair – “man”, he said, “was made to mourn”. He was an advocate for political and social change. He opposed slavery and pomposity. And his great anthem for egalitarian liberalism concludes on an upbeat and hopeful note with: “ For a’ that, an’ a’ that, It’s coming yet for a’ that, That Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.”

It would be wrong to take Burns entirely out of his historical context, which explains some of the attitudes that are difficult for the 21st Century Western mind to comprehend fully. But it would be hard too for any of us to take issue with the following: “God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of follies and sins to answer for. But if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes…Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity.”

There are many other contrasts, even contradictions, in the work of this Scottish Everyman. Byron summed up the complexity of Burns particularly well: “Tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness-sentiment, sensuality-soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in that one compound of inspired clay!”

So I think it’s Burns’ internationalism, his variety and his appeal in many ways to the modern mind that goes some way towards explaining his Immortal Memory. Wherever you are tonight, particularly lovers of “John Barleycorn” (whisky), please charge your glasses, and drink to the Immortal Memory of the Ploughman’s Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire, Scotland’s Favourite Son, Rabbie Burns!

Glass contour Coca-Cola bottle issued in 2005 to celebrate 250 years since the birth of Robert Burns as part of the ‘Homecoming Scotland’ campaign.

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