Today marks the 257th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. On 25th January 1801, five years after his untimely death, nine of Burns’ acquaintances congregated at his birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, to celebrate his life and works. The evening involved a feast of haggis, a toast, and a rendition of Burns’ songs and poetry. It was such a success that the party agreed to meet again the following year. Remarkably, over two hundred years since its humble beginnings, people across the world are continuing the tradition of the annual Burns Supper.
Robert Burns was born in 1759 as the son of a tenant farmer and the eldest of seven children. He grew up in poverty and his health suffered throughout his short adult life as a result of the severe manual labour of his youth. Burns was educated by his father in reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history, and his mother taught him traditional stories and songs. Inspired by love, agriculture and the natural world (and no doubt fuelled by a dram or two), Burns began composing poetry in his teens whilst working full time as a farm labourer. He later acquired the nickname ‘The Ploughman Poet’. During adulthood, Burns toured Scotland collecting folk songs and engaging in a string of illicit relationships. By 1789, he had spent most of his wealth from his published poetry and found employment as a tax collector. Burns’ excessive lifestyle took its toll. His health deteriorated until he died on 21st July 1796, aged only 37. He was buried in Dumfries with full civil and military honours on the day of his son Maxwell’s birth, and his remains were later interred in a small mausoleum.
Like many other Scots, I grew up with Burns’ work. As an 11 year old, I was awarded a certificate of merit for my recitation of ‘My Hoggie‘; a short piece about fearing the loss of a lamb (ironically the main ingredient of the Burns Supper haggis!). I welcomed in 2016 with a rendition of Burns’ most famous song, ‘Auld Lang Syne‘, as I’m sure millions of other people did across the globe. Over the years I have often heard a brilliant song or a few lines of poetry and later discovered it was written by Burns. Tonight I will indulge in a low key Burns Supper with a vegetarian haggis; a tasty mix of vegetables, pulses, oatmeal, seeds and spices. Armed with one of the latest additions to my bookcase, ‘The Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns’, I guess it will fall to me to recite a verse or two of Burns’ poem, ‘Address to a Haggis‘!
It’s taken me a while but I feel that now, at 30, I know who I am as a writer and photographer. Burns only lived to 37 and I find it quite remarkable to think how accomplished he was in his short lifetime. I want to live to a ripe old age and would feel utterly robbed to know that I only had another seven years left on the clock. We will never know what the world has been deprived of as a result of Burns’ premature death. What other nuggets of genius would he have given us? I wonder how the Ploughman Poet would have reacted had he foreseen all of this fuss over two centuries down the line. The thought of anyone celebrating my life with a macaroni cheese Thorburn Supper in the year 2242 seems completely ludicrous but this would be my equivalent of Burns’ posthumous success! I’ll certainly not get my hopes up. In fact, Burns is the only literary figure in the world to have such a ceremony held in his name on his birthday each year.
I don’t envisage turning my hand to verse but I know I have one thing in common with our national poet; a deep burning passion for our native Scotland expressed through the creative arts. My favourite pieces of Burns are ‘Ae Fond Kiss‘ and ‘The Banks o’ Doon‘, both of which were brought to my attention through the stunningly beautiful music of Dougie MacLean.
Another Burns song which speaks deeply to me is ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’. I first heard this whilst driving through Glen Tarbert en route to Ardnamurchan in 2009 on a mission to escape the Central Belt for a week. The fact that I remember this moment shows how deep a chord the music struck within me. Thoughts of and visits to the Highlands have sustained me during the darkest days of my life, from being the victim of bullying as a child to suffering from stress as a city-dwelling adult. Nowadays I wake up every morning relieved to find myself on the peaceful, picturesque shores of the Cromarty Firth. I reckon the agricultural landscapes of the Black Isle would have appealed to the Ploughman Poet, don’t you think?
This evening is Burns’ Night as opposed to Thorburn’s Night, and so I’ll leave you with the words of Scotland’s National Bard. Slàinte mhath (good health) and enjoy your haggis, be it veggie or hoggie!
‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’ by Robert Burns
Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birthplace of Valour, the country of Worth
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer
Chasing the wild deer and following the roe
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go
Farewell to the mountains, high cover’d with snow
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods