Fir twa hours oan Saturday 19th Oct masel an hawf a dozen ithir fowk wi a birr fir the Scots tongue speirt awa aboot oor language, or leid, in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum biggin.
We blethert aboot hoo we feel whin we hear fowk yaisin Scots words, yon sense o connection that we feel an hoo the leid taks us back tae guid memories o whin we wir weans. It’s aa aboot hoo oor brains are wired an hoo certain pathways in oor harns licht up whin we hear language that we ken. The Scriever fir Scotland, Michael Dempster, explains this in a Ted Talk oan You-Rube, which is weel worth a wee swatch.
Gien that this is the International Year o Indigenous Languages, we jaloused aboot hoo maist linguists gree that Scots is a leid in its ain richt an hoo Scots is kent by oor ain government an the European Commission as wan o the 3 indigenous leids o Scotland, alang wi English an Gaelic.
We luiked at hoo Scots language hus evolved owre the centuries wi Brythonic, Anglo-Saxon, Norwegian an Scandinavian, French an Auld English influences as weel as fae the Celts an the Picts. An hoo, it’s kent as a Germanic leid wi close ties tae Auld English.
We speirt aboot hoo oor Scots leid hus maistly been a spoken leid, due tae hoo historic documents wir aften scrievit in Latin an French. Poetry hooivver hus aye buin scrievit in Scots, stertin wi the magneeficent poem BRUS scrievit aboot Robert the Bruce by John Barbour in the 1370’s.
We spaik aboot hoo, eftir the union o Scotland an England, the nabbery stertit tae learn tae read an scrieve in English, we jaloused that mibbe they thocht this wuid be beneficial tae them in terms o trade, status an siller. White’er thaur thochts wir, the ootcome wis a dingin doon o the Scots leid an the stairt o a penchant tae tell fowk speikin Scots tae “speik properly”.
We spaik o the Scottish enlightenment in the 18th century whin makars sic as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson an Robert Burns hud the smeddum tae scrieve in Scots tae mak siccar the Scots Leid wis uphaudit tae this day. We jaloused that aiblins oor bonnie leid wid hae bin lost itherwise. We spaik o hoo, nooadays, wi the world gaun the way its gaun at the meenit, we are hell bent oan preserving oor leid, itherwise, wi media influences we micht aa end up wi transatlantic accents!! We got yokit in aboot this, speirin aboot hoo oor weans are sayin words lik “Trick or Treating” insteid o “gaun guisin”!!
We spaik aboot hoo literature, parteecularly fir weans, is being scrievit an owerset intae Scots mair an mair an hoo this is a gey guid way o airtin fir the future.
We aa hud different life experiences and thochts but we aa agreed that we want tae preserve oor rich an descriptive Scots leid an pass it oan tae oor weans an granweans.
A wheen o Scots words hae been dinged doon as bein “slang” an we luiked at some examples an whaur they micht originate fae;
- “A WEE STOATER” – meanin “first class” or a fine example o somehin, eg, a “stoater” o a goal, or a wee smasher. Nae doot related tae STOTTIT – BOUNCED and mibbe even tae STOT – an auld Scots word for a bullock.
- “UP THE SKYTE” – meanin pregnant. KYTE wis originally the Scots word fir belly. So if somebody’s “skyted” their belly hus gotten big, they are pregnant. Also the medical term for fluid in the abdomen is ASCITES (latin) from ASKITES (Greek).
- SCUNNERT – as in “ocht ah’m fair scunnert the day, ah cannae get oot ma ain road”, auld Scots an Northern English word, Robert Fergusson an Robert Burns baith yaisd it in their poetry. Literal meanin wis originally tae flinch / tae shrink back. Noo means “fed up.” Comes fae the 14TH century Norse word SKONERON.
- BLETHER – meanin tae chat, “hae a wee blether” or someone who is “a wee blether”, wee chatterbox, Originated fae the auld Norse word blathra or blaora.
- HUNKERS– ie “doon oan yir hunkers”, meanin squattin doon – Dutch or German in origin.
- WINTER DYKES – clothes horse – in the summer fowk yaist tae pit thaur claes owre stane dykes tae dry, as they hud nae washin lines, so in the winter they wuid dry the claes in the hoos, in front o the fire owre a wuiden frame, which they caad the “winter dykes”.
- SMEEKIT – nooadays meanin steamin fu’, intoxicated. Originates fae auld Scots word SMEEK meanin smoke or fumes so, in the case o the modern yis o SMEEKIT, the fumes comin fae somebody intoxicated wi alcohol.
- GUISIN – comes fae Scots an North England meanin “disguised as”. Swipperly bein taen owre by “Trick or Treating”.
- OXTER – armpit. Norse in origin – Dutch word is Oksel.
- REDD UP – as in “awa an redd up yir room”, yaisd in Scotland an Northern England, comin fae the word “rid”, “get rid of”.
- BARE SCUDDIE – goes back tae the 18 hunners, meanin nooadays naked, but originally meanin a wee fledgling burd that’s no got oany feathers.
We then brainstormed some mair Scottish words an phrases lik:
- TUMMLE THE CRAN(forward roll)
- FANKLE(mixed up), eg, Ah wuid get intae a fankle if ah tried tae dae a tummle the cran!
- GRUMPHIE (pig)
- PUNTIE UP (help tae sclim up)
- HUNTIGOWK (April fools day)
- BOAK (be sick)
- BRACE (mantelpiece)
- OWRE THE THRAPPLE (doon the throat), we hud a guid laugh mindin oor granny’s gien us butterbaas tae cure a sair throat! Gadz!
Eftir that we compared some scrievins in Scots Leid, yin lass read a poem scrievit in Doric fae Lallans Scots leid journal, an this lead tae a blether aboot Sheena Blackhall’s braw Doric poetry, sic as “The Check Oot Quine’s Lament.” Anither lass hud owreset Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” intae Scots an anither lass hud us heehawin an laffin at some o her social media posts in Scots.
We hud a wee laugh at hoo a few o us in the group hud been threatened wi elocution lessons as weans. We also speirt aboot hoo Scots words vary fae airt tae airt an hoo we can get crabbit an frustrated aboot hoo tae spell Scots words, gien we huv never buin tocht this an are self tocht. This is whaur guid scrievins come intae thaur ain an we hud a luik at James Andrew Begg’s buik “The Man’s The Gowd for a that”, which ah hae read recently an it baith brocht back words ah hud forgotten aa aboot an tocht me new wans tae. As Scots Scriever Michael Dempster telt us in his Ted Talk “it fair lit up the pathways in ma harns.”
We read a cutty extract fae chapter 9, “The Killie Fleshers” pages 108 – 109, based oan a fictional blether set in Kilmarnock in 1786, atween a fermer chiel an the printer o the Kilmarnock First Edition, Johnie Wilson, wha is speirin aboot “this Rob the Rhymer” an hoo “at the stert ah wis sweirt tae tak it on, fir his verses are aa in the Scotch tung…since aa thaim that can afford tae buy buiks are learnin tae speak in English”. We felt this extract wis relevant tae the pynt we wir makin earlier aboot hoo Burns wis instrumental in preservin the Scots Leid an hoo he mak’d siccar it wisnae gauntae be dinged doon. No on his shift. An we are fair gled that Wilson did “tak it oan”.
At the hinneren oor tungs taiglt us that much that we didnae dae oany scrievin!! Hoo an ever, we greed that it hud been an awfy guid blether an we’ll dae it again at the neist Scots Leid wirkshoap oan Setturday 09.11.19 1pm tae 3pm in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum biggin.
Aabody welcome. Aefaulds .
Tracy Harvey, Resident Scots Scriever fir Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
Scots Language: It Isn’t Dead Yet!
We had a guest speaker at one of our weekly Highlight Talks on the 13th February 2019, a Mr Derek Rogers, who delivered a presentation titled “Did Robert Burns Use Scots and Does the Scots Language Exist?” It proved to be an interesting event – the Scots language tends to be an engaging albeit sometimes controversial topic – and amongst the following debate that ensued at the end of the talk, a visitor quite rightly stated that they had observed that the Scots language seems to be being lost, through younger generations not using or understanding it, as older generations of Scots once did. There are several reasons why this is the case (and is worthwhile of another separate blog within itself) but the visitor then asked the audience: what could be done to keep it alive? Thus, I felt inspired to write a piece on how we provide the perfect opportunity for younger generations to learn more about the Scots language by visiting us with their school and/or their families.
When you google “the Scots language it states: ‘Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic. Scots is mainly a spoken language with a number of local varieties, each with its own distinctive character.’ That in a nutshell is the Scots language.
It is an essential element of the educational experience we provide here at RBBM because Robert Burns chose to use both Scots and English to write his works in. To quote our bard, he said “I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Thus, it is an important part of the Burns legacy.
Scots is recognised as a language by our governments and we believe it makes up an important part of Scotland’s heritage, it is in our strategy to promote Scots, and furthermore, the learning and sharing of languages could not be more relevant in the 21st century as our world becomes more globalised and international (there is research that proves that there are multiple benefits of being bilingual).
In regards to our formal school workshops, we have Scots language elements running through all of them; however, three in particular have Scots at their core. Tim’rous Beasties, which is suitable for Nursery – Primary 1 aged children, learn about the poem Tae a Moose and the Scots words for the song Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes – or Heid, Shouthers, Knaps n Taes – as well as animals native to Scotland. Did you know that the Scots word for badger is brock? Another workshop tailored for the same age group is Cantie Capers which focuses on farmyard tools and animals assisted with the setting of the Burns Cottage. Then for Primary 5 – 7 aged pupils, we have Being Burns, which uses costume and the Burns Cottage to assist discussing Scots words for numerous everyday items like peenies, bunnets, luggies and kirns.
Furthermore, we have Scots interpretation throughout our museum, play park and the Burns Cottage itself. Visitors can read and learn the meanings of words Burns and his family members would have undoubtedly have used.
Do you live outside of Scotland? Or don’t envision being able to visit us anytime soon but want to learn more about Scots? Then you might be interested in knowing that we also run a Scots word of the week campaign on our Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) and Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS) pages, encouraging our followers to guess what they mean or to discuss if or how they use the words. We often get international audiences commenting on fond memories these words bring to mind or the similarities between Scots and various other European languages like Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and German.
Other pages worth a follow on Twitter include: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever and @TheScotsCafe.
Also, there is a Scots Dictionary app you can download onto your phone: type ‘Scots Dictionary for Schools’ and you’ll see the Abc Scottish flag icon.
So, we absolutely hope that by visiting us or following our social media channels, you feel inspired to use Scots: to celebrate it, discuss it and learn about it. If it was good enough for Burns, then it is good enough for our bairns!
By Parris Joyce, Learning Officer at RBBM.
PS. The irony of this blog being in English when it is discussing and celebrating the Scots language was too great to not act upon. So, here is the blog in Scots for you to read and enjoy!
Scots Language: it isnae deid yit!
We hud a guest speiker at ane o oor weekly Heichlicht Talks oan the 13th Februar 2019, a Mr Derek Rogers, wha gien an ootsettin entitled “Did Robert Burns Use Scots and Does the Scots Language Exist?” It pruived tae be an interestin event – the Scots leid is aye-an-oan a thocht provokin topic that e’en these days can heize up a guid gaun collishangie amangst oor audiences – at the hinnerend o the ongauns ane o wir veesitors quite richtly stated that they hud observed that the Scots leid seemt tae be gettin loast due tae oor young fowk no uisin or unnerstaunin it the same as aulder generations o Scots aince did. Thair a hauntle o raisons why this micht be the case (an this micht be warthy o anither separate blog in itsel!) but the veesitor then spiert o the audience: whit micht be duin tae keep the Scots leid alive? Syne, then ah felt inspired tae scrieve a piece oan hou we provide the perfit chaunce fir younger generations tae lairn mair anent the Scots leid bi veesitin us here at the RBBM wi their schuil and/or their faimilies.
When ye google “the Scots language” it kythes: ‘‘Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic. Scots is mainly a spoken language with a number of local varieties, each with its own distinctive character.’ That, short an lang, is the Scots language or leid.
Scots is a perteecular pairt o the educational ongauns we provide here at RBBM because Robert Burns chose tae uise baith Scots an English tae scrieve his warks. Tae quote oor bard, he said “I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Thus, Scots is an aefauld important pairt o the Burns legacy.
Scots is offeeshully recognized as a leid bi oor governments an it is oor thocht that it maks up a verra important pairt o Scotland’s heritage. It kythes in oor strategy to promote Scots, an forby, the lairnin an sharin o languages cuidnae be mair relevant in the 21st century as oor warld turns e’en mair globalised an international (thair’s alsae an awfie loat o faur-i-the-buik resairch that ettles that there are a wheen o benefits fir us aa frae bein bilingual).
In regairds tae oor formal schuil warkshoaps, we hae Scots leid elements rinnin throu the hail jing-bang o thaim; houanevir, three in perteecular hae Scots at their hairt. Tim’rous Beasties, that’s suitable fir Nursery – Primary 1 aged weans, whaur they lairn aboot the poem Tae a Moose an the Scots wirds fir the sang ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ – or Heid, Shouthers, Knaps an Taes. Forby this we alsae teach thaim the nems fir native animals o Scotland. Did you ken the Scots wird fir a Badger is a Brock? Anither warkshoap tailored fir the samen age group is Cantie Capers , this focuses oan fairmyaird tools an animals conneckit athin the settin o the Burns Cottage. Syne, fir Primary 5 – 7 aged weans, we hae Being Burns, that uises costumes an the Burns Cottage tae gie a heeze in the discussion o Scots wirds fir a thrang o ilk-a-day knick-knackets, lik peenies, bunnets, luggies an kirns.
Forby, we hae Scots information athort oor museum, its playpark an the Burns Cottage itsel. Veesitors can read an lairn the meanins o wirds Burns an his faimily wid nae dout hae uised in their ilka day spik.
Dae you bide furth o Scotland? Or dinnae ettle oan bein able tae veesit us ony time suin but wid fair like tae lairn mair anent Scots? Then ye micht be keen tae luik the gate o some o the ither ongauns we hae anent the Scots leid; we rin a Scots wird o the week campaign oan oor Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) an Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS) pages, giein a heeze tae oor follaers tae guess whit the wirds mean or collogue oan hou they micht uise the wirds. We gey aften get international audiences haudin furth oan aefauld memories that these wirds bring tae mind, or the seemilarities atween Scots an sindrie ither European leids, sic as Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and German. Ither pages warth follaein oan Twitter include: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever and @TheScotsCafe.
Alsae, there is a free Scots Dictionary app ye can dounload oantae yer phone that is byordnar uisefu fir aa age groups. Jist type in ‘Scots Dictionary for Schools’ in yer app store an ye’ll see the Abc Scottish flag icon.
We fair howp that bi veesitin us or follaein oor social media channels ye wull feel inspired tae uise Scots: tae celebrate it, discuss it an lairn aboot it. Gin it wis guide enow fir Burns, then it is guid enow fir oor bairns!
Owerset intil Scots by RBBM Scots Scriever an Poet Rab Wilson.
Haud forrit – an keep a guid Scots tung in yer heid!
Sites warth veesitin wi regairds tae the Scots leid:
The second edition of Robert Burns’s poetry, known as the ‘Edinburgh Edition’ and published in 1787, contained a few differences from his first ‘Kilmarnock’ edition of 1786. For example, the Edinburgh Edition contained 22 more works, as well as a list of subscriber names and a 24-page glossary of Scots words. The collection at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum contains a fragment of the original manuscript of this glossary:
Written by Burns himself in 1787, each entry has been subsequently scored out; this may have been as each was copied into a new, neater copy which itself has not survived. Words which Burns has glossed include ‘kaittly’, which means ‘to tickle’ or ‘ticklish’, ‘kebbuck’ which means ‘a (usually whole, homemade) cheese’ and ‘kelpies’, ‘mischievous Spirits that haunt fords at night’.
So why was Burns having to define words in his own native language to an audience of people who were also from Scotland?
The inclusion of the glossary is very indicative of the status of Scots language at the end of the 18th century. Since as far back as the Reformation in the mid-16th century, Scots had been subject to a great deal of anglicising influences – for example, English translations of the Bible, the removal of the royal court to London in 1603 and, of course, the Union of the Parliaments between Scotland and England in 1707. All of these influences meant that Scots had undergone a massive change in how it was written and also, we can probably assume, how it was spoken. Some Scottish people even went to elocution-style classes in order to eliminate ‘Scotticisms’ from their speech; Scots was seen as the language of the common people and therefore not fit for the ‘high’ subjects of politics, religion, culture or trade.
Burns was part of a tradition of writers who bucked this trend and started writing in Scots again. However, his Scottish audience were in need of a little assistance when it came to understanding some of the Scots words he used – hence, the glossary. Of course, Burns had fans out-with Scotland as well: before the 18th century was over, editions of his work had been published in Dublin, Belfast, London and New York. Audiences in each of these places would have needed plenty of help to understand Scots language as well.
Burns’s popularisation of Scots took inspiration from writers like Allan Ramsay (father of Allan Ramsay, the painter) and Robert Ferguson (Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muse’). Although the Scots was changed in some ways to make it more intelligible to non-Scots-speaking audiences – for example, inserting apostrophes where English versions of words would have other letters – it did mean speakers of other languages could understand and enjoy Scots literature and language.
The sheer stardom of Burns elevated people’s perception of it further, to the point where people across the globe sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – a traditional Scottish folk song with words, in Scots – at Hogmanay. Although there is still a long way to go until Scots is back at the same level of recognition it would’ve been at in the early 16th century, campaigns by the Scottish Government and the work of contemporary writers in Scots show its well on its way there. Without Burns, and his predecessors, the Scots language would definitely be in a very different position nowadays.
Burns’s poem “Halloween” is a treat to read but a bit of a trick too…
Any reader from the twenty-first century would assume from the title that it is about the now widely celebrated commercial and secular annual event held on the 31st of October. Activities include trick-or-treating – or guising in the Scots language which Burns wrote in and promoted – attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns (or traditionally turnips in Scotland and Ireland – turnip is tumshie or neep in Scots), dooking for aipples, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films. However, the poem focuses on Scottish folk culture and details courting traditions which were performed on Halloween itself. Interestingly, it is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals – particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain – and that Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early Church. Thus, there is obviously a deep-rooted connection between Scotland, its people and the celebration of All Hallows Eve.
The poem itself was written in 1785 and published in 1786 within Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – or commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition – because it was printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock on 31 July 1786. Although it focuses more on Scottish customs and folklore as opposed to superstition, Burns was interested in the supernatural. His masterful creation of “Tam o’ Shanter” is proof of that as well as his admittance in a letter written in 1787 to Dr. John Moore, a London-based Scottish physician and novelist, as he states:
‘In my infant and boyish days too, I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother’s, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery’.
Burns in the first footnote writes that Halloween was thought to be “a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.”
Unlike Burns’s other long narratives such as “Tam o’ Shanter,” “Love and Liberty,” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “Halloween” has never enjoyed widespread popularity. Critics have argued that is because the poem is one of the densest of Burns’s poems, with a lot of usage of the Scots language, making it harder to read; that its cast of twenty characters often confounds the reader; that the poem’s mysterious folk content alienates readers who do not know anything of the traditions mentioned. Indeed, Burns felt it necessary to provide explanations throughout the poem. Only fourteen of Burns’s works employ his own footnotes. Of the fourteen footnoted works, “Halloween” outnumbers all others with sixteen notes of considerable length. The poem also includes a prose preface, another infrequent device used by Burns in only three other poems. The introduction for the poem states:
The following poem, will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland.
Indeed, the footnotes are most illuminating at detailing the intricacies of the rituals and are a crucial part of the poem. Some of my personal favourites are as follows:
[Footnote 5: The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a “stock,” or
plant of kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the
first they meet with: it’s being big or little, straight or crooked, is
prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells-the
husband or wife. If any “yird,” or earth, stick to the root, that is “tocher,”
or fortune; and the taste of the “custock,” that is, the heart of the stem, is
indicative of the natural temper and disposition. Lastly, the stems, or, to
give them their ordinary appellation, the “runts,” are placed somewhere above
the head of the door; and the Christian names of the people whom chance brings
into the house are, according to the priority of placing the “runts,” the
names in question.-R. B.]
[Footnote 8: Burning the nuts is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire; and according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.-R.B.]
[Footnote 10: Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple
before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the
face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if
peeping over your shoulder.-R.B.]
[Footnote 15: Take three dishes, put clean water in one, foul water in another, and leave the third empty; blindfold a person and lead him to the hearth where the dishes are ranged; he (or she) dips the left hand; if by chance in the clean water, the future (husband or) wife will come to the bar of matrimony a maid; if in the foul, a widow; if in the empty dish, it foretells, with equal certainty, no marriage at all. It is repeated three
times, and every time the arrangement of the dishes is altered.-R.B.]
Arguably, the poem has been appreciated more as a kind of historical testimony rather than artistic work. However, it is still a fascinating piece of poetry and definitely should be celebrated for its documentation and preservation of divination traditions and folklore customs which were performed on now one of the most widely celebrated festive days in Western calendars.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
Read the full poem here: http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml
On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
Throughout his life, Robert Burns was inspired by women. He grew up listening to the Scottish songs and folklore of his mother, Agnes, and distant cousin, Betty Davidson; fell in love time and again with a new bonnie lassie; and fathered several much loved daughters of his own who inspired his affections and poetry. Few relationships however are as well documented or as important to his works as his friendship with Mrs Frances Anna Wallace Dunlop, whose support and patronage were invaluable to the Bard for the majority of his publishing life.
Born in 1730, Frances Anna Wallace was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Wallace of Craigie and Dame Eleanora Agnew. Sir Thomas claimed to have been a descendant of Sir Richard, cousin of William Wallace – a connection which Burns was later delighted by. At the age of 17, Frances married John Dunlop of Dunlop and the couple went on to have 7 sons and 6 daughters. Their happiness was not to last however, as John died in 1785 resulting in Frances falling into a ‘long and severe illness, which reduced her mind to the most distressing state of depression’. This would have been an affliction Burns was also all too used to.
It was as she was recovering from this illness that a friend gave her a copy of The Cotter’s Saturday Night to read. So delighted was she with it that she sent, according to Gilbert Burns, ‘a very obliging letter to my brother, desiring him to send her half a dozen copies of his Poems, if he had them to spare, and begging he would do her the pleasure of calling at Dunlop House as soon as convenient’. The Bard responded by sending her 5 copies of his Kilmarnock Edition and a promise to call on her on return from his trip to Edinburgh. It was the start of a very important friendship.
Burns visited Mrs Dunlop at least five times throughout his life, and wrote more often to her than any other correspondent, sending her copies of his poems and drafts of letters intended for others. She in return wrote to him of her family troubles, as well as counselling him on career choices and urging him to modify what she described as his ‘undecency’ in relation to his affairs with women. She described his correspondence as ‘an acquisition for which mine can make no return, as a commerce in which I alone am the gainer; the sight of your hand gives me inexpressible pleasure…’ It would appear, in saying this, that she underestimated the value Burns placed on her friendship, as his increasingly desperate attempts to illicit a response from her after their falling out demonstrate.
This falling out occurred in 1794. With two of her daughters marrying French refugees and various members of her family having army connections, Mrs Dunlop had hinted at her disapproval of Burns’s apparent sympathies with revolutionaries in France in previous correspondence. He failed to take the hint and wrote in a letter of December 1794, referring to King Louis and Marie Antoinette, ‘What is there in the delivering over a purged Blockhead & an unprincipled Prostitute to the hands of the hangman, that it should arrest for a moment, attention in an eventful hour…?’ This offence was a step too far.
Burns sent Mrs Dunlop two further letters without reply, apparently completely oblivious to what could have caused her anger. ‘What sin of ignorance I have committed against so highly a valued friend I am utterly at a loss to guess’ he wrote in January 1796, ‘…Will you be so obliging, dear Madam, as to condescend on that my offence which you seem determined to punish with a deprivation of that friendship which once was the source of my highest enjoyments?’ On receiving no response, his final letter to her was sent just days before his death informing her that his illness would ‘speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns’ and bestowing praise upon her friendship. It is believed that she did relent on receiving this, and one of the last things Burns was able to read was a message of reconciliation from her.
Mrs Dunlop survived the poet by another 19 years, dying in 1815. Her friendship and patronage were hugely valued by Burns, and her impact on the poet’s life and works should be regarded as just as important as that of other key women in his life. She is buried in Dumfries, Scotland but her words and thoughts live on in her letters to Scotland’s National Bard.