My Heart’s in the Highlands: A Tribute to Robert Burns

Golden Sunrise, Farness, Black Isle
Golden Sunrise, Farness, Black Isle

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.

Burns Certificate of MeritLike 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.

The Spinney, St Martin's, Black Isle
The Spinney, St Martin’s, Black Isle

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.

My heart's in the Highlands.
My heart’s in the Highlands. Enjoying the delights of Rogie Falls (only 18 miles from my current home) in October 1995.

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

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38 thoughts

    1. Thank you, Meg, for your superb feedback! It’s nice to have another celebration exactly one month after Christmas and the daylight hours are getting noticeably longer too. I hadn’t heard of Bloom’s Day, so thank you for the link! Music and literature are such a big part of our lives and celebrations like these are a great idea!

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  1. Nice tribute Karen – I assume you are familiar with Dylan’s ‘Highlands’ track:
    She studies me closely as I sit down
    She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs
    She says, “What’ll it be?”
    I say, “I don’t know, you got any soft boiled eggs?”
    Not one of his best 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Robin. Yes – the last song on ‘Time Out Of Mind’! It’s brilliant that Robert Burns’ poem inspired Bob Dylan’s lyrics on this track. I like the Neil Young reference on this song too! When it comes to Dylan though, I think we’re better off in the Lowlands with his ‘Sad Eyed Lady’ from Blonde on Blonde. 🙂

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  2. Wow! nice travel back in time. Thanks for introducing The Ploughman Poet, I will surely Google for his works. And the food recipe nice. You took bullying as a reason for an outing, Smart Karen 🙂 Thanks again for a feel good read! Keep smiling 🙂

    Josh

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    1. Thanks Josh! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The Scots language can be tricky in places but I hope you enjoy reading some of Robert Burns’ works all the same. You could check out the links in this post to start with, then take the search further! It’s nice nowadays to be able to enjoy the outdoors for what it is, without feeling the need to escape. Karen 🙂

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  3. I so enjoyed this post; the photos are beautiful and you’ve woven a lovely tribute to Burn into your own story. I think that the best writing about art is that which comes from the heart and examines how we are touched by it (sounds a bit ponderous I know, sorry). Every year I plan to host a Burns Night supper, but have only managed to do it once. Party of 10; 5 vegetarians, 1 gluten intolerant, one raw-food vegan, one confused Australian and someone who, from memory, consumed only whisky. Much fun was had by all — including me once I’d got the catering sorted.

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    1. Su, thank you for your lovely words. I’d been looking for inspiration for a Burns post and was struggling to know where to start because there are so many great poems and songs to choose from. As soon as I remembered ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’, everything fell into place. I really enjoyed writing this post and re-visiting ‘My Hoggie’ for the first time in years! That sounds like a catering nightmare but I’m glad your Burns Supper was a success and hope you do it again sometime!

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      1. Your love for your subject really shines through the post and I’m sure that’s part of why it was such a joy to read. I will do another Burns Supper, but possibly choose my guests with a better eye on the catering. We did get some wonderful poems written by our guests that night however.

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        1. Thanks Su. It’s great to be able to share my love for all things Scotland with others. That sounds like a good idea and you have almost a whole year to plan it! It’s fantastic that Burns is inspiring people to write poetry after all this time.

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  4. Thank you for following my blog! If you hadn’t, I would have never discovered your blog and read this wonderful tribute to Robert Burns. I have a relative named Burns and we’ve always claimed to be related to Robert Burns although we can’t prove it. Visiting Scotland is very high on my bucket list.

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    1. You’re very welcome and thank you for following me back! I’m glad you enjoyed my tribute to Rabbie. I certainly enjoyed writing it! That would be quite a claim to fame and I hope you manage to prove it one day. I hope you make it over to Scotland sometime soon. Buying a motorhome is pretty high on my Bucket List but I suspect it’ll be quite a few years yet before I tick this item off the list. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading about your travels around the States!

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  5. You can keep the haggis, but, since I’m from the South “aka America/Tennessee) we know a thing or too about homemade mac and cheese. Wonderful article and I love your pictures. Hopefully, I get to see Scotland with my own eyes, and visit the Borderlands especially. Since I believe that is where our ancestors came from.

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    1. Thank you! I hope you make it over to Scotland one day. I have a soft spot for the Borders – lots of lovely countryside and attractive towns. Be sure to try vegetarian haggis when you’re over here! It’s surprisingly tasty and I know a few meat eaters who prefer it to the traditional version. Mac and cheese is still the best though!

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  6. Hi Karen, it s a great post. My husband world for a Scottish company and I suddenly understood a lot about this famous burns night! Ï think this is a great tradition ! Love poetry… Funny as well as Ï Am 37 and finaly getting Closer to were Ï want to be. You can have a look on my other website / photograph http://www.jessdv.com ! Poetry somehow into photographic form. Thank you again for your wonderful post, and see you soon again on Soparislux ! Thanks for your Nice comment and let s continue not getting bored, unless It s In purpose! (Which is wonderful)👏

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    1. Hi Jessica. Thanks for your comment and for the link. I enjoyed checking out your website. I’m glad to have shed some light on the tradition of Burns’ Night! I hope you don’t have to wait too long to get to where you want to be. 🙂

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  7. I shall have to look him up. He sounded like a great guy. 🙂
    Many times back then, people didn’t live very long lives. A lot was working too hard. Some in fields, some in coal mines.
    My husband’s ancestors came from Scotland. The names changed a few times. And they fought against the taxes. One was about taxing a poor older woman. They did not like that. Eventually they were put on a boat bound for the U.S.A.
    They did quite well there too. 😉

    Can you please share some recipes of Scotland?
    I would love to know some. And also cook some. I love all kinds of food. 🙂

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    1. I think Burns made a few enemies in his lifetime but he was certainly a character and has left us with an astounding literary legacy. With the level of comfort we have in the West nowadays, it is hard to comprehend how difficult life must have been in days gone by. Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll certainly give some thought to Scottish recipes and how to work them into my blog (I have an idea forming as we speak…!). 🙂

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