I dined tonight on haggis, tatties and neeps, in honour of our national poet, Robert Burns. January 25th, Burns Night, is always well observed here in Scotland, and all around the world, but this year is particularly special, being the 250th anniversary of his birth.
I’m very partial to haggis at any time of the year; when I was a student there was seldom a week that went by in which I did not consume deep-fried haggis with chips at least once. As the years have passed I have come more to resemble Burns’ description of those who love this particular delicacy:
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
so I partake of it less, and usually opt for the boiled version rather than the battered one.
Burns has to some extent been buried in the tartan-hued mythology that passes for our national identity, but the character of the man, and the power of his work, transcend any shortbread-tin cliché. The words of “A Man’s A Man For A’ That”, his ode to equality and internationalism, have justly made Burns a hero to movements for social justice the world over:
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
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.
On a personal level, I marvel at the way Burns can conjure a profound insight into the human condition from the seemingly mundane events of day-to-day existence. I often find myself reflecting on the truth of this stanza from “To A Mouse”:
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!
Or this one, from “To A Louse”:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!
More than anything though I love Burns’ comic sensibility, his ability to prick the affectations of the pompous and self-righteous, and to lighten the heart of the honest sinner with the sympathetic recognition of human frailty. My favourite amongst Burns’ poems is a toss-up between “Tam O’Shanter” and “Holy Willie’s Prayer” , for I share both Tam’s weakness for earthly pleasures:
O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi’ the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev’ry naig was ca’d a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin’ fou on;
That at the Lord’s house, ev’n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown’d in Doon,
Or catch’d wi’ warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway’s auld, haunted kirk.
and Willie’s tendency to think well of himself:
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an’ grace
A burning and a shining light
To a’ this place.
and remembering Burns’ verses keeps me on the straight and narrow.
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
Are higher rank than a’ that