As today is International Mother Language Day, our blog post explores the history of Scots language to celebrate and promote Scottish linguistic heritage.
Scots is descended from a form of Anglo-Saxon brought to the south-east of present day Scotland by the Angles (Germanic-speaking peoples) around AD 600. The video below, from The University of Edinburgh, illustrates the origins of Scots language.
Like many European countries, early Scots speakers primarily used Latin for official and literary purposes. The earliest surviving written poem in Scots, dated to 1300, is a short lyric on the death of King Alexander III (ruled 1249-1286) which appeared in Andrew Wyntoun’s work entitled The Original Chronicle:
“Qwhen Alexander our kynge was dede, That Scotland lede in lauch and le, Away was sons of alle and brede, Off wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle. Our golde was changit into lede. Crist, borne into virgynyte, Succoure Scotland and ramede, That is stade in perplexitie”.
Yet, the first Scots poem of any length called The Brus by John Barbour was recorded in 1375. Composed under the patronage of Robert II, this poem’s tale follows the actions of Robert the Bruce through the first war of independence.
The History of Scots from the 14th– 18th Century
Between the 14th and 16th century, writing in the vernacular thrived during the reigns of James III (ruled 1460-1488) and James IV (ruled 1488-1513): Scots language truly came into its own. This period’s Scots poets are known as medieval makars or master poets, after William Dunbar’s the Lament for the Makaris, for the great literacy culture that was produced in lowland Scotland. Dunbar was a virtuosic poet with an impressive range, varying from elaborate religious hymns to scurrilous bawdy verse.
Also a makar, King James VI (ruled 1567-1625) laid down a standard writers were expected to follow in his essay on literary theory entitled The Reulis and Cautellis. However, after James VI also became James I of England in 1603, Scots language and makars were no longer supported by the Royal Court. Pre-1603, James VI voiced the differences between English and Scots but now, as ruler of the British Empire, he attempted to Anglicise Scottish society for cultural, linguistic and political union of his kingdoms. Herein, the literary activity of 17th century Scots poets declined as many, like William Drummond of Hawthornden, decided to write in English instead. This change of language was encouraged by the Royal Court alongside the larger and more lucrative English publishing markets. In Scotland, all classes continued to write and speak in Scots but, for publications writers had their texts ‘Englished’.
The Great Scots Poets of the 18th Century
In the 18th century, under the 1707 Treaty of Union, Scotland joined England to form the new state of Great Britain and poets began to utilise an increasingly bilingual literary situation. Poets combined Augustan English poetry with Scots songs, tales and older poems to create a vernacular revival in Scots verse. The work of poets such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns demonstrated the popularity and poetic nature of Scots as a literature. These poets, expressing a national identity, produced poems that were, and continue to be, widely read.
Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) was born in Lanarkshire and educated at Crawfordmoor Parish School. Following his mother’s death, Ramsay moved to Edinburgh to study wig-making and eventually opened a shop near Grassmarket. He was an eminent portrait painter and began writing poetry from the early 1700s. In 1721, Ramsay published his first volume as a blend of English language and Scots poems. He abandoned the wig-making trade to become a bookseller, opening a shop near Edinburgh’s Luckenbooths- this also became Britain’s first circulating library. Ramsay’s works, such as Tea-Table Miscellany (1724), The Ever Green (1724) and The Gentle Shepard (1725), laid the foundations for Scot writers like Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.
Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town to Aberdeenshire parents. He attended St. Andrews University and became infamous for his pranks- for which he came close to expulsion. In 1771, Fergusson anonymously published his first trio of pastorals entitled Morning, Noon and Night. He amassed an exquisite range of about 100 poems, developing existing literary forms and contributing to contemporary debate. Aged 24, Fergusson experienced a fatal blow to his head falling down a flight of stairs, he was deemed ‘insensible’ and transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse where he later died. In 1787, Robert Burns erected a monument at his grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.
Robert Burns called Fergusson “my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in muse”. Clearly inspired by the poet, Burns adopted both Fergusson and Ramsay’s use of Scots words and verse to master his own poetry and advance Scots literature. In doing this, Burns became Scots language’s most recognised voice with poems and songs read and sung worldwide. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum displays volumes and poems by Fergusson and Ramsay (below), highlighting the similarities to Burns’ work in terms of tone, format, subject matter and, of course, Scots language.
The History of Scots Post-Burns to the Present
In the 19th century, building on the work of Scots poets, novelist began combining English and Scots in their writings. More often, English was used for the main narrative and Scots voiced Scots-speaking characters or short stories.
After this period, the 20th century saw a radical renaissance of Scots poetry, primarily through Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve). MacDiarmid’s work The Scottish Chapbook, reassessed early Scots verse by using words from across different regions. Later, Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch reopened links to the Scots verse MacDiarmid devalued. Garioch, to a greater extent than MacDiarmid, developed a form of Scots united to any particular locality and produced a model that future writers could follow. Other 20th century poets, included Edwin Morgan, and his translation of Vladmir Mayakovsky’s poetry into Scots, as well as Tom Leonard’s Six Glasgow Poems.
Today, Scots language continues to thrive. In communities across Scotland, people use Scots as a language to write and speak. As the 2011 Scottish Census reported, there are 1.5 million speakers of Scots within Scotland, which is around 30% of the population.
So, why not challenge yourself? And join them? To celebrate Scots language and International Mother Language Day, learn a new word or a new phrase or more!
Check out the links below for more ways to learn Scots:
- On social media, we run a Scots word of the week campaign, encouraging our followers to guess and discuss what they mean. We often get international audiences commenting on the similarities between Scots and various European languages. Check it out on Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) and Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS).
- Search our blog for Scots language posts: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/tag/scots-language/
- For Scots on Twitter, take a look at these pages: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever, @tracyanneharvey @rabwilson1 and @TheScotsCafe.
- Join the Open University’s FREE online Scots language and culture course: https://www.open.edu/openlearncreate/course/view.php?id=2705
- Or, check out some of these websites: https://www.scotslanguage.com/
Gang oan, gie it an ettle!
Parris Joyce, Learning Officer fur the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, as pairt o Tracy Harvey’s recent Scots leid wirkshoaps, hus been owersettin some poetry intae Scots.
Owersettin is a gey gid way o engagin wae the leid an makin ye think haird aboot wit wirds wirk best. It’s a useful way o usin wirds ye already ken but micht o forgotten as weel as lairnin new yins tae.
Here is twa poems she owersit intae Scots. Enjoy!
The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll
(or The Muckle Flabby Selch an the Jiner)
The sin wis beekin oan the sey,
Beekin wae aw his micht!
He did his gey best tae mak
Tha billows sleekit an bricht –
An this wis unco, cause it wis
The middle o the nicht.
The muin wis beekin fungily,
Cause she thoucht tha sin
Hud goat nae business tae be thir
Efter tha day wis done –
‘It’s gey misbehadden o him’, she said,
‘Tae cum an tash the fun!’
The sey wis wet as wet cud be
The saunds were dry as dry.
Ye cuddnae see a clud, cause
Nae clud wis in the sky:
Nae burds wir fleein owerheid –
Thir wir nae burds tae fly.
The Muckle Flabby Selch an the Jiner
Wir daunerin nar at haun:
They gret lich ownyhing tae sei
Such quantities o saund:
‘If this wur only red oot’,
They said, ‘it wid be graund!’
If seeven lassies wae seeven besoms
Sweeped it fir hauf a year,
Dae ye reckin, the Muckle Flabby Selch spaikit,
‘Thit they cud git it red clear?’
‘I doot it’ said the Jiner,
An shed a wersh tear.
‘O Oysters, cum an dauner wae us!’
The Muckle Flabby Selch did fleetch.
‘A bonnie dauner, a braw blether,
Alang the briny beach:
We cannae dae wae mair thin fower,
Tae gee a haun tae each.’
The auldest Oyster luiked at hum,
But never a wird he said:
The auldest Oyster winked his ee,
And shoogled his heavy heid –
Meaning tae say he didnae choose
To leave the oyster-bed.
But fower wee Oysters scrambled up,
Aw buzzin fir the treat:
Their jaikets were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat –
And this wis unco, cause, ye ken,
They hudnae any feet.
Fower ither Oysters follaeed thum,
An yit anither fower;
An thick an fast they came at last,
An mair, an mair, an mair –
Aw hoppin through the frothy waves,
And scrambling tae the shore.
The Muckle Flabby Selch an the Jiner
Daunered oan a mile or so,
An then they rested oan a rock
An aw the wee Oysters stood
An waited in a row.
The time has come, the Muckle Flabby Selch said,
To spaikit o mony hings:
O shoes – an ships – an sealing-wax –
O cabbages – an kings –
An why the sea is bilin hoat –
An whether sows hae wings.
But wait the noo, the Oysters gret,
Afore we huv oor chat:
Fir sum o us are oot o breath,
An aw o us are fat!
Nae rush! Said the Jiner.
They thanked him much fir that.
A loaf o breed, the Muckle Flabby Selch said,
Is wit we chiefly need:
Pepper an vinegar besides
Are gey guid indeed –
Now if yer ready, Oysters dear,
We cun stairt tae feed.
But naw oan us! The Oysters gret,
Turning a wee bit blue.
After such kindness, thit wid be,
A rotten hing tae do!
The nicht is braw, the Muckle Flabby Selch spaikit.
Do you admire the view?
It wis so kind of ye tae cum!
An ye are awfy nice!
The Jiner said nowt but
Cut us inither slice:
I wish ye werenae quite so deef –
I’ve had tae ask ye twice!
It seems a shame, the Muckle Flabby Selch spaikit,
To play them such a trick,
After we’ve broucht them oot so far,
An made them trot so quick!
The Jiner said nowt but
The butter’s spread too thick!
I greet fir ye, the Muckle Flabby Selch spaikit:
I deeply sympathize.
Wae sobs and tears he sorted oot
Those o the mucklest size,
Haudin his hanky
Afore his greetin eyes.
O Oysters, said the Jiner,
Ye’ve had a bonnie run!
Shall we be trotting hame again?
But reply came there nane –
An this was scarely unco, cause
They’d scoffed every yin!
Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore
(or Twis The Nicht Afore Yule)
Twas the nicht afore Yule,
when aw throu the hoose
Nae a beastie wis steerin,
nae e’en a moose;
The stockings were hung
by the lum wae care,
In houps thit St. Nic
soon wid be thir.
The weans were cooried
aw snog in their beeds,
While veesions o sugarplums
birled in thir heids;
An Maw in her mutch
an a in ma cap,
Had juist corried doon
fir a lang winter’s nap –
When oot oan the gairdin
there heaved such a clatter,
A boonced fae ma beed
to luik wit wis the matter.
Awa tae the windae
a fleed like a flash,
Teared open the shutters
an chucked up the sash.
The muin on the breist
o the new-fawen snaw,
Gave a lustre o twaloors
tae objeects ablow.
When, wit tae ma ferlie een
But a wee sleigh
An aucht wee Yule deer,
Wae a wee auld driver
so swippert an quick,
A kent in a blink
it must be St. Nick.
Mair fest than aigles
his coursers they came,
An he fussled, an rousted,
an cried them by name –
“Noo, Dasher! Noo, Dancer!
Noo, Prancer an Vixen!
Oan, Comet! Oan, Cupid!
Oan, Donder an Blitzen!
Tae the tap o the entry,
tae the tap o the wa!
Noo, hurl awa! Hurl awa!
Hurl awa aw!”
As dry leaves afore
the gallus hurricane flicht,
When they meet wae an obstacle
rise tae the lift,
So up tae the hoosetap
the coursers they fleed away,
Wae sleigh fu o thingamajigs –
an St. Nicholas tae;
An then in a glenting,
a heard oan the roof
The linkin an luifin
o each wee huif.
As a drew in ma heid
an wis birlin aroon,
Doon the lum St. Nicholas
came wae a boond.
He wis set-on aw in fur
fae his heid to his fut,
And his claes were aw tarnished
wae ashes and suit.
A haunfie o thingamajigs
he hud chucked oan his back,
An he luiked lik a peddler
juist opening his pack.
His een hoo they twinkled!
His dimples hoo mirkie!
His chowks were lik roses,
his neb lik a cherry!
His unco wee mou
wis drawn up lik a bow,
An the baird oan his chin
wis as fite as the snaw!
The stock o a gun
He held ticht in his teeth,
An the reek it encircled
his heid lik a wreath.
He hud a braid face
an a wee roon belly
Thit shoogled when he buckled
lik a bowlie fu o jelly.
He wis pluffie an sonsie –
a richt gawsie auld elf,
an a keckled when a saw him,
in maugre o masel.
A glimmer o his een
an a skew o his heid,
Soon gave me tae ken
A hud nowt tae dreid.
He spaikit nae a wird,
but when straucht tae his wirk,
An fillt aw the stockings
then birled wae a yerk,
An pittin his pinkie
aside o his neb,
An geein a nod,
Up the lum he fled.
He legged it tae his sleigh,
tae his fleeto gave a whustle,
An awa they aw flew
like the doon o a thrissel.
But a harked him goller
as he hurled oot o sicht,
“Joco Yule tae aw
an tae aw a gid nicht!”
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
It’s owre twa hunner year syne The Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton saw the young Robert Burns an his cronies speirin aboot the issues o thaur day. It is therefore a braw honour tae gie this historic biggin a heize ainst mair by bein involved in organisin and hostin monthly spoken word an music nichts in the place whaur Robert Burns fordered his poetic genius, charisma an flair fir debate.
The Bachelors’ Club nichts stairtit in March this year eftir Robert Burns Birthplace Museum volunteer Hugh Farrell envisaged the success of sic nichts in sic an inspirational setting.
Tuesday the third o September saw the eighth session, an it wis wan we will aye hae mind o. Wullie Dick wis oor compère as folk favoured the company wi a turn.
Oor headliner wis Ciaran McGhee, singer, bard an musician. Ciaran bides an works in Embra an I first shook his haun some twa year syne at New Cumnock Burns Club’s annual Scots verse nicht. The company wis impressed then an agin at the annual “smoker” an at a forder Scots verse nicht. Ciaran traivelled doon tae Ayrshire tae play fir us, despite haen jist duin a 52 show marathon owre the duration o Embra festival.
Ciaran stertit wi a roarin rendition o “A Man’s a Man for a That”, an we hud a blether aboot hoo this song is as relevant noo, in these days o inequality an political carnage, as it wis twa hunner year syne, a fine example o Burns genius an insicht. Ciaran follaed wi Hamish Imlach’s birsie “Black is the Colour”, the raw emotion gien us aa goosebumps!! Ciaran also performed Johnny Cash’s cantie “Folsom Prison Blues”, an then Richard Thomson’s classic “Beeswing”, a version sae bonnie it left us hert-sair! Ciaran also performed tracks fae his album “Don’t give up the Day Job”.
The company wir then entertained by Burns recitals an poetry readins fae a wheen o bards an raconteurs. A big hertie chiel recited “The Holy Fair”, speirin wi the company on hoo excitin this maun hae buin in Burns day, amaist lik today’s “T in the Park”.
We hud “Tam the Bunnet” a hilarious parody o Tam o Shanter an Hugh Farrell telt us aboot the dochters ca’ad Elizabeth born tae Burns by different mithers, Burn’s first born bein “Dear bocht Bess”, her mither servant lass Bess Paton. Later oan cam Elizabeth Park, Anna Park’s dochter, reart by Jean Armour, an thaur wis wee Elizabeth Riddell, Robert an Jean’s youngest dochter wha deid aged jist 3 year auld. A “Farrell factoid” we learned wis that in Burns day, if a wee lassie wis born within mairrage, she was ca’ad fir her grandmither, if she wis born oot o wedlock she taen her mither’s first name. Hugh recited “A Poet’s Welcome To His Love-Begotten Daughter” fir us, the tender poem Burns scrievit, lamentin his love fir his first born wean, Elizabeth Paton.
We hud spoken word by various bards on sic diverse topics as a hen doo, a sardonic account o an ex girlfriend’s political tendencies, an a couthie poem inspired by a portrait o a mystery wummin sketched by the poets faither. In homage tae Burn’s “Poor Mailie’s Elegy”, we hud a lament in rhyme scrievit in the Scots leid, featurin the poet’s pet hen.
We learned o the poetess Janet Little, born in the same year as Burns, who selt owre fowre hunner copies o the book o her poetry she scrievit. This wummin wis kent as “The Scotch Milkmaid” an wis connected tae Burn’s freen an patron, Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop.
We also learned o hoo Burns wis spurned by Wilhelmina Alexander, “The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle” an hoo, eftir her daith, she wis foun tae hae kept a copy o the poem Burns scrievit fir her.
We hud mair hertie music fae Burness, performin Burns an Scottish songs sic as “Ye Jacobites by Name” an a contemporary version o “Auld Lang Syne” wi words added by Eddie Reader tae an auld Hebrew tune.
We hud “Caledonia” an “Ca the Yowes tae the Knowes” sung beautifully by a sonsie Auchinleck lass wha recently performed it at Lapraik festival in Muirkirk (oan Tibby’s Brig nae less!).
The newly appointed female president o Prestwick Burns Club entertained us on her ukelele wi the Burns song “The Gairdner wi his Paiddle” itherwise kent as “When Rosie May Comes in with Flowers”.
At the hinneren wi hud a sing alang tae Seamus Kennedy’s “The Little Fly” on the guitar an Ciaran feenished wi “Ae Fond Kiss”, interrupted by his mammy wha phoned tae see when he wis comin haim tae New Cumnock!
We hud sae muckle talent in The Bachelors’, that we didnae hae time fir a’body to dae a turn, so thaim that didnae will be first up neist time.
A hertie thanks tae a the crooners, bards an raconteurs an tae a’body in the audience fir gien up thaur time, sharin thaur talent an ken an gien sillar tae The Bachelors’ fund. Sae faur we hae roused £862 which hus been paid intae the account fir the keepin o The Bachelors’ Club.
Hugh Farrell is repeatin history by stertin a debatin group in The Bachelors’ on Monday 11th November, 239 year tae the day syne Burns launched it first time roon. Thaur will be a wee chainge tae the rules hooever, ye dinnae hae tae be a Bachelor an ye dinnae need tae be a man tae tak pairt!!
The Bachelors’ sessions are oan the 1st Tuesday o every month 7pm tae 10.30pm an a’body wi an enthusiasm for Burns is welcome.
Scrievit by Tracy Harvey, Resident Scots Scriever fir RBBM
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:
As it’s Women’s History Month, one of the Learning Trainees here at RBBM, Caitlin Walker, has written about the attitudes to women found in Burns’s poetry. She has written the post in a similar way to how she would speak it, which is why there is a mixture of Scots and English language.
Maist folk know that Robert Burns enjoyed the company of women – his famous love affairs, the hundreds of poems and songs they inspired and the thirteen (that we know of!) weans he fathered attest to that. But what did he actually think of women?
Burns was born and lived his life during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a time when women couldnae vote and were rarely, if ever, formally educatit. Gender roles were strictly prescribed – for instance, women of the working class were given no formal education but taught how to run a hoose and look after a faimlie. Tasks were divided by gender completely, to the extent that women milked the coos but men mucked oot the byre, and during harvest time men used the scythe while women used the heuk. Women of higher classes would have learned literacy and maybe even another language or a musical instrument, but the expectation was the same – get merrit and raise a faimlie.
Different poems by Burns depict varying attitudes to women. For instance, ‘Willie Wastle’ – which is perhaps an unsuitably-named poem as it’s really about Willie Wastle’s wife – is hardly complimentary towards women. Burns describes her using terms such as ‘dour’, ‘din’, ‘bow-hough’d’ and ‘hem-shin’d’. She allegedly has ‘but ane’ e’e, ‘five rusty teeth, forbye a stump’, ‘a whiskin beard’ and ‘walie nieves like midden-creels’. Burns rounds off every stanza with the line, ‘I wad na gie a button for her’. This Burns is a far cry from the adorer of women the world recognises – he is being extremely disrespectful and takin nae prisoners in mocking her appearance!
This photograph shows the sign for the Willie Wastle Inn in Crosshill, Ayrshire. It depicts Willie’s wife as she is described in the poem.
Contrast this with ‘The Rights of Woman’, Burns’s call for folk to remember the rights of women amongst the turbulent atmosphere of the eighteenth century, when ‘even children lisp the Rights of Man’. At first glance this seems like Burns being exceptionally forward-thinking for the 1700s – however, the ‘rights’ in question are: the right to protection, the right to decorum and the right to admiration. So really, Burns’s progressive rally for the rights of women is patronising and objectifying, which is a step up from outright insulting maybe, but still no brilliant.
This is a copy of ‘The Rights of Woman’ written by Burns in 1793 and sent to Mrs Graham of Fintry.
Then we have ‘It’s na, Jean, thy bonie face’ – and thank goodness! This poem is an outpouring of Burns’s love for his wife, Jean Armour – but crucially, it is ‘na her bonie face’ that he admires, ‘altho’ [her] beauty and [her] grace/ Might weel awauk desire’. Instead, it is her mind he loves. This shows Burns’s respect for Jean as a person with her own thoughts and desires. He goes on to say that even if he was not the one to make her happy, that someone would and that she’d be ‘blest’. He even says that he would die for her: this selfless desire to see her happy chimes much more with the image of Burns as the great lover of women that the world knows.
This photograph shows a case containing Jean’s wedding ring, as well as a ring containing a lock of her hair and a ring containing a lock of Burns’s.
Of course, cynics may just read ‘It’s na, Jean…’ as a soppy, hyperbolic gesture to get back in Jean’s good books – ye can make up yer ain mind.
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)
This iconic and vivid red poster definitely catches the een, however, at first glance you think you see the famous revolutionary Che Guevara in the Andy Warhol like pop art print – but, naw readers you’d be mistaken – its Robbie! Cleverly the University of West of Scotland have mischievously replaced Guevara’s face with Burns’s to stand as Scotland’s most well-known and well-loved revolutionary.
The posters purpose is to recruit students to study Scottish culture, and who best to represent that, than the greatest Scottish bard of all time. Popular culture ideas and images of Burns in the twenty-first century have made him a national favourite and his mug is surely recognizable by any true Scot. I mean he’s even got a national day after him (which outshines St Andrew’s day in Scotland!) An example of just how famous Burns is thought to be is conveyed in the pop art featured in the exhibition space of the RBBM.
Burns is seated at a dinner table next to the likes of Nelson Mandela, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Munroe and Mohammed Ali like a modern-day Jesus Christ hosting a Last Supper… all these celebrities are renowned for being extraordinary individuals and for revolutionizing their individual fields. But was Robert Burns revolutionary?
I wid argue, that through his works, he wis aye. The poems Scots Wha Hae, A Man’s a Man for a’ That and The Rights of Woman all are inherently radical based on their political subjects and they are full of powerful, and sometimes emotive, language.
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do – or die!!
Tyrannical government was the object of American and European reformers and “liberty” was a 17th and 18th-century watchword.
Burns may not have been bodily present or involved in revolutionary activities but he was there in spirit and mind. His works are deeply imbedded with hope for change.
All in all, Burns has become the personification of Scottish identity and is a legend as his works and life are continued to be studied, celebrated and preserved the world over, hundreds of years after his death… If that doesnae make ye radical, then a dinny ken wit does.
By Parris Joyce
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