Whether or not you’re particularly literarily inclined (as I am), when you come to Scotland you’ll notice that there are references to one literato everywhere you look: Robert Burns.
Good old Rabbie Burns was born on January 25th, 1759 in a small farming village on the west coast of Scotland, near Ayr. After his father died, he became the head of the family, but the farm didn’t provide enough of a living to support the Burnses. Being rather good with a rhyme, he cobbled together a book of poems that he’d composed while living on the farm and sent it off to Kilmarnock, where there was a printer willing to take on the job on subscription (meaning, readers had to pay for at least part of the book before it was printed). This book, entitled Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, skyrocketed young Rabbie into the realm of Scottish intellectuals and writers.
Deciding that he was more of a poet than a farmer – and attempting to escape the possibility of a shotgun wedding – Rabbie took off to Edinburgh, where he did as so many of the great writers of the world have: he drank and danced and carried on and earned himself quite the reputation. His poetry, however, was extremely popular with the people, and ensured that he could keep up this lifestyle.
If you’ve never read Rabbie Burns before, don’t feel too bad. Scottish people will pretend that they expect you to know who he was, but they do realize that his writing is largely inaccessible to English speakers. In fact, Burns’s poetry is very popular in translation, but not so in the original (at least outside of Scotland). This is because he wrote, as the title of his first book suggests, chiefly in Scots. If, like me, you speak and read English, you’ll find yourself needing to read his poetry aloud in order to hear the Scots accent, and even then you might have trouble understanding it.
That being said, he’s considered a champion of Scots and a hero of Scotland, and you’ll see his smug face grinning down at you from the wall of nearly every pub you go into. There’s a café on the Royal Mile called The Rabbie Burns. He’s in every bookstore and tourist trap. He’s the best kept secret you’ll ever find – quite literally – every time you turn around in Scotland.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Scottish people would have a holiday in his honor.
Burns Night is celebrated every year on January 25th, the bard’s birthday. (If the 25th falls during the week, many of the parties happen on the following Friday or Saturday.) Believe you me, the Scots don’t mess around when it comes to Burns Night. It’s serious frivolity.
The evening starts with a traditional Scottish meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties. The serving of the haggis is accompanied by Rabbie’s poem, “Address to a Haggis.” After the eating, the men and the women split into two groups, and put on a skit mocking each other (the more inappropriate, the better, it would seem). After the mockery, it’s time for speechifying! Typical speeches include the life of Rabbie Burns, his poetry, how his poetry applies to modern life, and, lately, how Rabbie Burns was a bit of a rebel and would support independence for Scotland.
The real fun – or should I say, reel fun – comes after the speeches, when the whisky is drunk, the tables are pushed back, and the bagpipes and fiddles start up. The lads and the lassies find partners, and away they go! If you’ve never been to a ceilidh (kay-lee) before, I highly recommend it. A ceilidh is a traditional Scottish dance party, similar to line dancing in the States. All of the dances are done in groups – or lines – with a partner, and there’s much spinning, hopping, and twirling. And if you get paired up with a Scotsman who knows the dance steps, be warned: you will get flung about. It’s quite good fun.
So, in honor of Burns Night (albeit belatedly), let us give the haggis its due:
Address to a Haggis
by Robert Burns
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang 's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll make it whissle;
An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.
Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!