Around the world at the end of January people gather to celebrate the birthday of renowned 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns, author of the most famous and universal song, “For Auld Lang Syne,” as well as many other poems, songs, and popular sayings that are part of our culture today.
Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25, 1759. He was one of the first accomplished writers to publish poetry in the dialect of his native Scotland and his works reflect many of the concerns of everyday life.
Unlike most celebrated writers of his time, Burns was a farmer with a limited education. His satirical writing castigated the class-segregated society in which he lived and the orthodox theocracy that ignored or trivialized the problems of the working class.
He was a great believer in the brotherhood of mankind and his views provided the foundation for many of the political advances of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Burns was best known for his poems, and these carried his reputation around the world. Sometimes bawdy, often whimsical, and always with a biting wit, his works speak of timeless and universal themes, which help explain the continuing fascination of “the Burns cult.”
Well-known for his unfettered appreciation of women, Burns’ lilting, tongue-in-cheek tributes to the female sex inspire much of his modern appeal. His songs were far from subtle, and clearly indicate his mood, as can be seen in a little-know chorus of “Comin’ Thru’ the Rye:”
O,Jenny’s a’ weet, poor body,
Jenny’s seldom dry.
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie,
Comin’ thru’ the rye!
The poetry of Burns breathed freedom and equality. These principles, upon which our system of government was based, were not at all universal at the end of the 18th century. The settlers on the American frontier were anxious to prove to the world their ability to grow and prosper based on their individual merits, not on the social class from which they came.
Burns championed the ‘pride of honest poverty’ which could hold up its head before a gilded aristocracy. Though he was a farmer, his literary triumphs enabled him to move successfully in what were then viewed as exalted circles.
His championship of the common man was a novelty to the education British upper class, but an inspiration to the pioneers forging a path across America. The “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder (who was proud of her Scots background) frequently featured the songs of Robert Burns, from “Comin’ Thru’ the Rye” to “Highland Mary,” sister Mary’s favorite song.
“I remember the very first Burns Celebration we had.” remarked Dr. J. C. Holsinger of the Celtic Society of the Ozarks Burns club. “Members suddenly showed up with old family books of Burns’ poetry that their fathers and grandfathers and mothers used to read to them.
Keep in mind that many early families were Scotch-Irish, so that shows that those early pioneers in the 19th century brought their Burns books along with their Bibles with them to the frontier.”
Robert Burns’ birthday is traditionally celebrated on January 25, or on the weekend nearest to that date. Though each group sponsors an event in its own way, there are four traditional set pieces to a burns Supper:
1. The Welcome and Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanked.
2. Address to a Haggis (a long Burns poem celebrating the simple joys of haggis – minced sheep offal boiled with onions and oatmeal – much better than it sounds).
3. A Speech to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, and
4. A Toast to the Lassies.
Haggis is the most important part of any Burns night celebration and forms the central ingredient to the festivities held on this day.
A traditional Burns night supper should include the haggis being carried into the room as a presentation, led by a piper, with Burns’ famous poem ‘To a Haggis’ recited as the haggis appears.
When the line ‘an cut you up wi ready slight’ is spoken the haggis should be stabbed through with a sharp knife.
All of this amidst high cheer followed immediately by a whisky toast to the haggis. At this moment in the Burns night supper the haggis becomes the centre of attention and it is the haggis, rather than Robert Burns, that everyone in the room is saluting and paying homage to.
The haggis is revered as a symbol of both the genius of Robert Burns and the greatness of Scotland.
The haggis became such an important part of Burns night celebrations not long after Robert Burns died in 1796 when his friends decided to remember him by sitting and talking about his life and reading from his work.
The famous Robert Burns poem ‘To a Haggis’ being recited at these celebrations, made it natural for the people attending a Burns supper to begin eating haggis.
The poem was written during Burns’ first visit to Edinburgh in 1786 where he ate and enjoyed haggis so much he wanted to set down his love for the dish in verse.
‘To a Haggis’ was written to be recited with pride and an over emphasised zeal for the product, requiring anyone who reads it aloud to show that this simple food is as important as any nation or person living in it.
It is this poetical worshiping of the haggis that led to it becoming the national dish of Scotland.
Following on from this salute to the haggis, Burns night celebrations contain much about the writer’s life and works. The speeches at a traditional Burns night supper today are a more formal affair than they doubtless once were, but the sentiment remains the same.
The Immortal Memory is the title given to the stage in the evening when guests are treated to a selection of quotes and readings from Burns’ work, much as it would once have been recited by those closest to him after his death.
Rituals that have developed since then are The Toast to The Lassies, which is when the men in the room toast the women in the room, by means of a series of light-hearted jokes and wit, followed by the Women’s Response, which is when the ladies in the room have the chance to give the men the same treatment back.
The evening is rounded off with a loud and hearty rendition of Burns most famous verse Auld Lang Syne.
While the words, songs and poems of Robert Burns form the backbone of this celebration and remembering the man is the purpose, there is no doubt that the haggis is as important as any of those things in a traditional Burns night celebration.
Many organizations also feature Scottish folk songs and dance, the wail of the bagpipes, recitations of Burns’ poetry, and a sideboard of Scottish specialties such as the above-mentioned haggis, ‘cock-a-leekie’ soup, shortbread, oat bread, and other unique items.
“Burns Night is celebrated with as much fervor in Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong, even Burma, as in Scotland itself.” said Jeremy Boot, a Burns enthusiast from Scotland. “There is no lack of Scottish influence and interest in some unexpected places.”
“Russia alone boasts hundreds of (Burns) clubs,” said Denise Silvester Carr, contributor to the Illustrated London News. “And such is Burns’ popularity in Japan that “Comin’ Thru’ the Rye’ is played on pedestrian crossings in some cities when the lights change.”
“I think that Burn’s poetry is popular because he writes of things that ‘ordinary people’ experience – rather than just the elite parts of society…His language is not ethereal but down-to-earth.” said Dr. Holsinger.
“I remember when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, above one of the blackboards in one of the classrooms there were these words of Burns: ‘If ye did as ye should, ye might have as ye would.’ What could be more direct and down-to-earth?”