Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Bard’s spirit still potent 250 years after his birth

BY Rebecca Black


People around the world are preparing to recite poetry in praise of the haggis before raising a wee dram to Rabbie Burns on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Rebecca Black reports

Men in kilts, a rise in whisky sales and misty-eyed recitals of Scottish poetry. It can only mean one thing – the annual celebration of Robert Burns.

While few people expect to be so fondly remembered a century after their death, in 1795 Burns confidently prophesied to his wife Jean Armour: “Ay, Jean, they’ll think more of me in a hundred years after this.”

While this weekend marks 250 years since the Scottish bard was born, it is clear that – like the amber-coloured drink he loved – his spirit has lost none of its potency.

Born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25 1759, Burns lived a relatively brief but colourful life before dying aged 37 of rheumatic fever, the same day his wife gave birth to a son.

He stayed until the age of seven in a house built by his farmer father William (now the Burns Cottage Museum). Then his family were forced to sell up and take up a tenancy.

There, as the eldest of seven, Burns experienced a life of poverty.

The severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and weakened constitution.

With little time for regular schooling, he received much of his education from his father, who despite their circumstances believed strongly in its importance.

Flourishing despite this difficult upbringing, Burns made his name with an uncanny ability to observe everyday life.

He wrote in Scots and standard English and one of his best-known pieces is Auld Lang Syne, traditionally sung at Hogmanay, as well as Scots Wha Hae, which for a

long time served as an unofficial national anthem.

Gordon Lucy, director of the Ulster Society at Queen’s University Belfast, contends that Burns speaks to everyone – from Ireland to the United States and Russia.

“Burns was very popular in the former Soviet Union through the translations. By 1964 he had sold more than a million copies,” he said.

“In 1787 James Magee of Bridge Street, Belfast, published the first edition of Burns’s poetry outside Scotland.

“This is a measure of Burns’s popularity in Ulster.”

Mr Lucy said that, while the poetry was published with a glossary to help explain the language, it was not needed in Ireland.

“In Ulster, volumes of Burns are found with the poems well thumbed but the glossary in almost pristine condition,” he said.

“Quite simply, Ulster people understood Burns’s vocabulary. Many of them even spoke the same language.”

Today, Belfast hosts one of the finest collections of Burns material in the world, courtesy of Belfast-based businessman Andrew Gibson, originally from Ayrshire, who donated it to the Linen Hall Library.

As well as boasting many fans in Ireland, Burns also had relatives who moved across the Irish Sea.

His sister Mary lived in Co Louth and her grave can still be seen in Dundalk while a park outside the town of Knockbridge was named after her.

The late Tyrone writer Benedict Kiely summed up Burns’s enduring popularity when he said: “Burns became a popular folk author in Ulster, Catholic and Protestant, as he never was or could have been in any other part of Ireland.

“Burns was the best of us.”

Tips for Burns Night

The following is recommended for celebrating Burns Night:

- Reciting of the Selkirk Grace:

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.

- Entrance of the haggis.

Diners stand and slow-clap as a piper leads the haggis carried by the chef.

- The host then recites the eight-verse Address to a Haggis. Upon reaching the line “An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight”, the host stabs the haggis with a sharp knife.

Guests applaud and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky.

- A typical menu would be:

cock-a-leekie soup,

haggis warm reeking, rich wi’ champit tatties,

bashed neeps (haggis with mashed potatoes and turnips with onion gravy), tyspy laird (sherry trifle), a tassie o’ coffee.

- A speech about Robert Burns.

- Toast to the lassies – originally a thank you to the ladies for preparing the food, with a bit of humour, and then a response from the lassies.

- Poems and songs performed by guests.

- The evening should end with guests standing, linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne.