Aileen Logie: Rabbie Burns – Scotland’s National Bard

Many Johnsonville dancers were at the club’s Bowling Club Ceilidh on 30 January where the theme was Burns. Part of this was the Address to a Haggis in Scots – probably largely unintelligible to many! If you’re wondering what all that was about, read on.

Aileen giving a fine rendition of the Address to the Haggis at the club’s summer ceilidh. Photo: Kristin Downey

Burns night is celebrated in Scotland on the 25 January – Robert Burns’ birthday. He lived from 1759 to 1796, dying young at 37 years, but packed a lot into his short life. January is cold and dark in Scotland, so this is a winter feast with warming fires, whisky and poetry/singing/dancing involved. It’s very popular and second only to Hogmanay.

Burns was a man of the people, not rich, good looking and utterly charming to the ladies (to whom he comes across as irresistible). He believed all people are born equal, rebelling against the established (unequal) religious and moral views of the time.

The New Atholl Collection commemorates the bicentenary of Robert Burns’ 1787 Highland Tour. We danced Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia from this collection at our summer ceilidh.

This sums up the epitome of Scots’ character and his poetry and songs strike the heart-strings of all Scots – hence his abiding popularity. Indeed the Scottish Parliament was opened in 1999 with Sheena Wellington’s wonderful rendition of Burns’ poem/song – A Man’s a Man For A’ That.

Burns saw that many Scottish cultural traditions, historical records and literature, and tunes were being lost and he set out to collect these and keep them alive. His many poems were often set to existing older tunes for either singing or dancing. He himself was fond of dancing.

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society catalogue features many ‘Burns’ dances – too many to mention them all, but there are some done regularly at Johnsonville such as Corn Rigs and The White Cockade, and we did Ha ha the Wooin’ o’ It at our Summer Ceilidh.

Other well-known ones include – Burns Hornpipe, The Star o’ Rabbie Burns, Salute to Rabbie Burns, Dainty Davie, Green Grow the Rashes, Birks of Abergeldie, Deuks Dang Ower My Daddie, Ca’ the Yowes, Kenmuir’s On ‘n Awa’, My Love She’s but a Lassie Yet. There are also lots of Burns tunes commonly found in sets for other dances – again the list is too long to detail.

Rabbie was a contemporary of Niel Gow – a well respected tune composer (you’ll know many of these too!) and they met up a few times. The lead tune for The Barmkin was composed by the two men together while having a drink at the Inver Inn in 1787 (tune title – Landlady of Inver Inn).

So, what happens at a Burns Supper? There is a celebration of his poetry and songs with many toasts. The haggis was a symbol of working class fare, nourishing poorer people and at the same time using up all parts of animal efficiently (much as sausages do). The haggis is brought into the room on a silver salver with great ceremony and a piper leading the procession.

The Address to the Haggis can be simply translated into sections:

1st and 2nd verses compliment the haggis on its fulsome appearance (chieftain of the pudding race), fat face and buttocks like distant hills, also enticing amber bead droplets exuding through the pores.

3rd and 4th verses describe the knife cutting into the haggis (gushing entrails bright) and the glorious sight and smell. People rush forward with their spoons to partake until their bellies are fit to burst and the head of table says a thankyou grace.

Aileen plunging the knife into the haggis while Graeme who piped in the haggis stands alongside. Photo: Désirée Patterson

5th and 6th verses poke fun at those who dabble in continental faddy food (ragout, olio, fricassee) which would make a sow sick and good folk vomit. Such poor devils are weak with thin legs, small fist and not fit enough to run across a field or flood.

7th and 8th verses compare a haggis fed man – his tread makes the Earth tremble and any blade in his hand would whistle while cutting off legs, arms and heads like the top of a thistle. To finish, it beseeches those choosing food for Scots to avoid watery stuff in wee bowls but give them haggis to earn their gratitude.

Haggis is always served with Neeps (Swede turnip) and mashed Tatties….and whisky. It is usually preceded by The Selkirk Grace by Rabbie Burns.

Some hae meat and canna eat, — And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit.

In a nutshell, Rabbie brought us many well-loved stirring poems and songs, ranging from beautiful to satirical. He created valuable collections of tunes, history and culture of his times.

His humble beginnings were working with his parents on the farm in Ayrshire in the Borders. It was a hard life punctuated with landlord troubles, colouring his attitude to figures of authority abusing their power. His ‘artistic temperament’ made him very popular, including siring 14 children by four different mothers.

After using up all his money, he later took a job as an exciseman (oh, the irony) and settled down with his wife Jean Armour. He died of heart failure.

We remember him often by singing Auld Lang Syne at the end of every Scottish Event – his most enduring poem about friendship.

Other often quoted lines include:

O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us. (O would some power the gift give us to see ourselves as others see us.)

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promis’d joy.

Aileen Logie
7 February 2021

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