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
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.
The creative talents of Robert Burns extended beyond his poetry and songs when he decided to design his own seal in 1794. In the medieval era a badge like this would have had aristocratic or militaristic origins. So why did a humble farmer poet, who was a believer in love rather than war, want a coat of arms? Burns’s creation can be seen imprinted in crimson wax and on his seal matrix within the exhibition collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This seal was a public declaration that Burns considered himself equal to any nobleman, and this would have given a clear signal to any that would have seen it. This was an important token of personal and familial identity for Burns, which he would have imprinted onto his letters.
Burns decided to incorporate two mottoes within his seal. ‘Wood-notes wild’ is inscribed across the top of the seal, whilst along the bottom there is the phrase ‘Better a wee bush than nae bield’ (shelter). The first inscription could be signalling how nature has often been an important inspiration in his life, both visually and musically. He often said his wife Jean had the sweetest wood-notes wild singing voice. In the second motto Burns could be highlighting his fears of homelessness that frequently haunted him towards the end of his life. This reminds us to respect Mother Nature, as she can be a refuge for a wee mousie to all mankind as well. In the centre of these two mottoes Burns has placed a shepherd’s crook and pipe, signalling his lifelong connection to nature through his agricultural background.
One of the main elements in his design is a Holly Tree at the bottom. Perhaps Robert Burns wanted to display his love of nature prominently, or perhaps there is another layer of meaning to consider. In Celtic mythology a Holly Tree was a guardian in the dark, winter months. It was seen by the people as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Furthermore, the Druids believed that Holly possessed protective qualities and that it could guard against bad luck and evil spirits. Therefore, this could be Burns recalling his time as a child when he heard stories of folklore and superstition from his mother and Betty Davidson.
A woodlark is a symbol of cheerfulness and joy even in the worst of times, something that Burns would have related to as his own spirits rose and fell throughout his life. But the similarity between Burns and the woodlark does not end there, since this particular song bird can mimic and remember other birds’ songs. Burns was a great lover of songs and music since boyhood, so in order to preserve the traditional songs of his beloved Scotland; Burns dedicated himself to collecting them. These were gathered together and published in an anthology called Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson over several years.
In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, discussion on republicanism and equality were politically rife questions. Robert Burns did not meet the requirements to vote; as such he used his pen and voice to challenge the political authority of the time. In his seal matrix Burns has placed a woodlark upon a branch of bay leaves. In Roman mythology bay leaves were treasured by the Gods, as their crowns of bay leaves connoted their high status and glory. By placing a woodlark, a song bird like himself on top of the branch, Burns could be trying to say his voice has greater potency then the established authority. In addition to this, it could also be interpreted as a form of mockery, as a single songbird could undermine the glory of those in power with his voice alone.
Burns deliberately incorporated multiple layers of meaning within several of his poetical works, and this mastery of disguising his true intention could also be said for his seal. Did he choose these symbols as a way of showing the world how he saw himself or how others saw him? Whether you believe these symbols have multiple meanings or not, it still provides an insight into how Burns wanted to be portrayed and remembered. He was a lover of nature and song, and even in his height of popularity amongst the literati of Edinburgh he never forgot his farming roots, which is evident in the shepherd’s pipe and crook in the centre. Nevertheless Robert Burns was a man not afraid to aspire beyond his supposed class, and this small seal and wax impression is evidence of this.
By Kirstie Bingham
Today is the first day of Book Week Scotland, a national celebration of books and reading which takes place every year in November. Nearly everyone can say that they’ve been inspired by books at some point in their life, and Robert Burns was no exception. Thanks to William Burnes’s belief that his children should receive an education, and the diligence of the family’s tutor John Murdoch, Burns could both read and write. As a result of this, he was able to immerse himself in the various authors and poets who inspired him to become Scotland’s National Bard.
Robert himself, in an autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, talks of two books that influenced him during his childhood:
‘The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were, the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.’
Evidence of that ‘Scottish prejudice’ can be seen in poems such as Scots Wha Hae, and Burns wrote many poems on the subject of war throughout his life, evidencing the impact both of these works had on him.
Gilbert – Robert’s brother – recalls one particular book which affected the future poet considerably, which was actually bought in error by their Uncle: ‘Luckily, in place of The Complete Letter-Writer, he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers… This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language’.
Robert wrote a great deal of letters throughout his life to his friends and family, and modelled many of them on letters that he read in this volume.
Burns read and was influenced by many more authors and poets throughout his life. He quoted Alexander Pope frequently, particularly in his early letters; described Henry MacKenzie’s ‘Man of Feeling’ as ‘the book I prize next to the Bible’; and perhaps most importantly was influenced by earlier vernacular poets such as Alan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson to write his poetry in Scots rather than English. There was however one book, or rather play, that certainly did not take his fancy – Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare. As he was about to leave for Dumfries, John Murdoch presented the Burns family with the play as a gift, but it proved too violent for the young Robert, who threatened to burn it if his tutor did not take it away again. Not all books are for everyone!
However you’re celebrating Scottish Book Week, whether it’s by picking up a new book for the first time, or by going back to an old favourite, we hope you enjoy wherever it may take you, and we hope it inspires you as much as Robert’s books inspired him!