Growing up in Ayrshire – in fact, pretty much anywhere in Scotland – you will find that the poetry of Robert Burns is ingrained in your mind from a young age. A chance to make children reflect on both their literary heritage and the Scots language (that nowadays they often find themselves alienated from amidst the overwhelming discursive presence of Standard English), learning Burns’s poems is, I suppose, a great activity for a primary school child. But what about the likes of myself, Hertfordshire-born but Ayrshire-bred? As I grew up in a school just a few miles from Burns’s birthplace, I found myself trying to wrench and drill my sullen Southern accent into a lively Scottish dialect that just wouldn’t fit.
At primary school, I used to dread the month of January because it meant Burns recitals for our annual assembly. Each class would be given a poem to learn off by heart. Sure, there would be explanatory footnotes, but I still struggled over every syllable, my normally sharp reading abilities dulled against the quick wit of Burns’s verse. Every year my mum used to make me practice reading the poem aloud at home and every year I found my tongue tangled over the abrasive turns of impossible pronunciations. I can’t roll my r’s and I can’t make that rasping in my throat that seems to adorn every gruff recital of a Burns poem. I would watch the more dazzling of my classmates stand up and confidently perform the chosen poem, their voices catching all the jokes and lively intonations, and I would feel very stupid. I guess I just didn’t get it.
Until one year, when for no particular reason, it clicked. Oh, I’m sure my accent really was terrible (in fact, I cringe inside thinking of it now), but I decided that year to give as good as I could get. I think the poem we had been set was ‘The Sair Finger’, a relatively easy one, with the kind of rhymes that make sense and dialect words like ‘skelf’ (splinter) with which I was actually familiar. I practiced it over and over, determined not to suffer the humiliation of previous years when I was forced to stand up and read it out in class. Every year, the teacher had to pick someone to read their class’s poem aloud in our Burns Assembly. In our class, it was always the same two boys who were chosen every year (and deservedly to them too), but this year something was awry as the teacher quietly offered it to me. Probably, I think she only offered it to boost my confidence, but even if she genuinely was impressed by the improvement on my Scotticisms, I had to turn it down. The thought of standing up in front of my whole school in my mum’s ill-fitting tartan skirt, shakily twisting my vowels, was just too much.
I guess, in that sense, Burns and I didn’t get off on the best foot. But although I struggled with the linguistic detail of his poems, there was something about the mythology of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ that I’ve always been drawn to. The strange tale about Tam and his horse Maggie and the orgiastic goings-on in the old Alloway Kirk is a gorgeous example of Burns’s mastery of the interplay between dialect and Standard English. In a way, the chief pleasure of ‘’Tam o’Shanter’’ is in the mode of storytelling itself. We get the intimacy of the narrator’s shared perspective with Tam – his empathetic appreciation of Tam’s drunken debauchery – alongside incisive lines in Standard English which both emulate and mock the antiquarian tradition of collecting folktales. Burns’s attention to local detail really put Ayrshire on the literary map – even Wordsworth and Keats made a pilgrimage to so-called Burns Country to pay their respects to the influential poet. I should add here that my flatmate and I have a longstanding rivalry about what exactly constitutes ‘Burns Country’. My flatmate’s from Dumfries, and both Dumfries and Ayr like to milk the Burns Factor when it comes to upping their tourist game. Nobody really knows who has true claim to the title. Also, I should add that the Tam o’Shanter Experience in Ayr (the one before it got renovated) used to be the site of a lovely afternoon hot chocolate on Sundays after a stroll around Rozelle.
Anyway, another interesting point about ‘Tam o’Shanter’ is its weird ending. It isn’t Tam whose punished for voyeuristically dropping in on the Satanic revelries in the old kirk, but his poor horse, Maggie. While watching the dancing witches, Tam (in the only speech he has in the poem) cries out excitedly, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”, which translates roughly to “Well done, mini skirt!” in modern day parlance. Tam finds himself chased by the vengeful witches over the bridge, but, as servants of the devil, they cannot pass the running water. So Cutty-Sark reaches out for Tam and instead grabs his horse’s tail, pulling it clean off to reveal a bloody stump. The narrator ends the tale (tail) with the strange moral:
No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear –
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
So next time you decide to be a lecherous male, spying your pervy eye on a coven of witches, remember that your horse might lose its tail. I guess there’s phallic implications there, what can I say?
But ‘Tam o’Shanter’ isn’t just a poem of comic revelry and uncomfortable sexual punishment; it also contains some beautiful picturesque passages that establish their author as a definite early Romanticist, who went on to inspire the likes of the great Romantic Celebrities (Wordsworth and Keats being key players here):
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You sieze 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.–
Here Burns blends his beautiful floral metaphors with the quiet violence of time’s transience, captured in the image of the fleeting rainbow. There is a simple spirituality here that connects the human world of consciousness and experience to that of the cosmic and natural worlds, and all condensed into a handful of lines. Although Burns, like William Blake, has often been left out of narratives of the Romantic movement – his work and style, laced as it is with literary and political ambiguities and tensions – I think it’s important to reclaim Burns within our conceptions of this exciting cultural period. While the likes of Wordsworth were in awe over the rugged sublimity of Scotland’s impressive landscapes, Burns was busy recording the authentic idiosyncrasies of its culture, humour and people. These days, when questions of what it means to be Scottish loom large over the rarely dull political skies, Burns remains as important as ever. While Sir Walter Scott (I’m sorry for making the sort of sweeping statements that rile the marker’s red pen in essays) added to the mythology of Scotland as a place of both legal, political, social and supernatural intrigue, Burns chipped in a great deal by immortalising Scots in the kind of deceptively simple but actually complex poetry that warrants his frequent comparisons to Blake.
So in a way, I’ve come full circle towards Burns appreciation. These days, I’m almost always wearing some kind of tartan (largely unconsciously, unlike the obligatory tartan headband I used to wear to school on the day of Burns Night), I work in a restaurant adorned with beautiful paintings of Burns and his myriad lovers, and I’ll be studying his work along with other Scottish Romanticists (indeed, the likes of Walter Scott) for my Romantic Lit course later this semester. Although today, on Burns Night, I forgot to buy whisky, and had toast instead of haggis for tea, I like to think this little article is a tribute of sorts from me.
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