Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 25 January 2008

Once upon a time in the west of Scotland

Today is January 25th, the anniversary of Robert Burns birth. In Scotland and throughout the world many people will be sitting down to eat a Burns Supper. And I suppose you expect me to say something about it.

Okay, I've never been to a Burns Supper in my puff, I've never worn a kilt, I hate whisky and I was a grown man before I tried my first haggis. Burns, for me, is inseparable from primary school where we were force-fed the stuff. And then there were the competitions, sing-songs and visits to the Burns Museum.

I can't even look back and feel the slightest wee bit sentimental about it because I don't. I did win a prize when I was nine or thereabouts for a project on Burns, the prize being a collection of Burns poetry, but that was the highlight of Burns for me. I can't even imagine if I ever emigrated, not that there's much chance of that now, that I'd suddenly (or even eventually) become all nostalgic, because I don't think I would.

I'd be lying if I said Burns never affected me. I used to regularly pass one of the many monuments to him in the early hours of the morning and every now and then I'd stop and look up at him. Eventually, as these things do, a poem took shape:

Burns Monument After Dark

Here we are again,
and your grey eyes and mine

avoid the distant lights -
still and afterglow remains.

I can deny reality
but what of my fears ?

Secrets are just lies
by process of omission:

Shadows amongst shadows
and tonight the dark scares me.

20 November 1984

Robert Burns has been idealised over the years, romanticised even, I suppose a bit like Robin Hood with all his stealing from the rich to give to the poor malarkey. Burns has been turned into a logo as familiar in Scotland as McDonald's Golden Arches, but I wouldn't say he's particularly revered and most of the people I've know who've gone to Burns Suppers have been more interested in John Barleycorn – that's whiskey to the rest of you – than the Bard himself.

Of course Burns is famous the world over because of the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne' at New Year. "Auld lang syne" literally means "old long since", but a more idiomatic English translation would be something like "long, long ago", "days of long ago", "in olden days", or even "once upon a time". Believe it or not, here in Scotland many of us can't get the words right for even the shortened version of the song.

The thing is there's some doubt whether Burns actually wrote the damn thing. At best you could credit him with collecting or restoring it. The ballad 'Old Long Syne' printed in 1711 by James Watson shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns' later poem but its history goes back well before that. In the late seventeen-hundreds Burns forwarded a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with this note:

The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man's singing, is enough to recommend any air.

The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication that had a pivotal role in the collecting and preservation of Scotland's musical heritage. The project started with James Johnson, a struggling music engraver/music seller, with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Burns actively collected material and contributed significantly to the publication.

On sending a copy of the poem to Mrs Agnes Dunlop, Burns wrote:

Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than half-a-dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.

That said, at another time, he also admitted that verses three and four beginning respectively, "We tae hae ran about the braes," and "We twa hae paidl'd in the burn," were of his own invention.

The earliest germ of the song 'Auld Lang Syne' is found in an anonymous poem of the 15th century, which George Bannatyne inserted in 1568 into his well-known manuscript of Scottish poetry, now in the Advocate's Library. The title of the poem 'Auld Kindnes Foryett,' is in modern Scottish "[Should] auld acquaintance [be] forgot,"— the first line of all the subsequent poems on the subject. - "Auld Lang Syne,"— Its Origin, Poetry, and Music.

The important thing is that he popularised the work in the same way that Shakespeare turned Romeo and Juliet into a household expression (it originated from an Old Italian tale).

The same goes for the tune. The one we are familiar with is not the original melody:

The first time the song of Burns was printed, with the melody now so well known, and to which it is universally sung, was in the second volume of Thomson’s Select Songs of Scotland, published in 1799. The editor rejected the old time-worn tune, and replaced it with a variation of another popular melody ['Can Ye Labour Lea'], which for many years had done service in a variety of forms for the dance and song of Scotland. - "Auld Lang Syne,"—Its Origin, Poetry, and Music.

The full history of the poem and the tune is gone through in great length in James Dick's article from which these two quotes come. For those who can read sheet music, there is an appendix with copies of the various melodies.

So what will I be doing tonight? Watching Jam and Jerusalem and New Tricks cuddled up on the sofa with my missus and a cup of coffee. But we will be having a haggis for our dinner just cos I happen to like haggis.


BT Cassidy said...

Ah, Robbie Burns, one of the finest writers to ever put pen to paper. Lucid, clear and elegant with the greatest touch of humanity.

Good to see a post about him- Every morning I see his statue out front of the library and I never fail to wonder at how the old Rouge would have felt about seeing a marble statue of himself.

Jim Murdoch said...

I can see why your statue might inspire you (I found a picture on-line), it's so clean. The one in the poem was a drab-looking thing and most of the ones that come to my mind have been the same though actually the one in Dumfries isn't too bad not I come to think of it.

Joanna said...

Jim, I was brought up in England so Burns was always a mystery to me (despite my dad's best efforts to educate me otherwise), and when I moved up here I found it hard to access the poems without working my way through all the 'stuff' - the myths, parafernlia (sp?) and my dread of going to something like a burns supper (though I've never been either, so maybe it's better than I'm imagining)

But I did a course on Scottish literature last year which forced me to look more closely at the poems... and it's truly wonderful stuff.

I also found the Eddi Reader CD a great re-introduction to Burns - don't know if you've heard it?


Dave King said...

I did say in my post on the same subject, that Burns was mostly well-known (here, south of the border, at least) for poems that are not his best. I overlooked the fact that he might be remembered for poems that are not his! No fret, collecting and preserving deserves commendation.
I was a little mortified, though, to read in this morning's Independent that Burns was not, after all, a man of the people. I didn't find the article very convincing - and it's by an academic who has to swim against the tide to make his way in the world of academe. I may post something on that, later.

Jim Murdoch said...

I know Eddi Reader's work quite well, Joanne, I've even heard her do a couple of the Burns numbers and, to be fair to her, she does a decent enough job but I think the damage is irreversible. I wonder if half the residents in Vienna are as pig-sick of the Strausses as I am of oor Rabbie? I'm not saying much of his work is not good – and there's little I've not read – but as Dave points out, it's the same ol', same ol' that we keep getting year in and year out and it's not even his best work.

I have a similar problem with Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. I had a copy on reel-to-reel when I was a kid and I used to play it over and over again until I had to turn the machine off to cool down; nowadays I can't stand the piece but I enjoy the others especially the Seventh and Eighth. As I grown older though I'm starting to appreciate more of Scotland's musical heritage especially its Gaelic roots.

Interesting point about the Independent's article, Dave. I'll have a wee look for it later and look forward to your comments.

Conda said...

Oh my, haggis. Since I am of a lot of Scots ancestry I have attended a couple of Burns' suppers. And duly tasted haggis. Now, I don't know if it's too many miles and too many generations away from Scotland out here in Boise, Idaho, but, well, best it ever tasted was like bland stuffing. I've heard there's different recipes for haggis? Care to share yours, Jim?

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, Conda, but our haggis comes straight from Tesco. We order it over the internet with our regular messages (that's groceries to you) and a nice man brings it in a van right to our door. It's a traditional haggis – I've never had vegetarian – but in all my life I've never had one I'd call bland, not by a long chalk, though the texture is a lot like stuffing. Haggis is a spicy dish – three kinds of pepper. When I first tasted it I described it as Scottish curry but really it pales by comparison to proper Indian food. In recent years we've started eating it along with fried eggs and chips; it works! My son-in-law, who lives in California, tried haggis in the US and pretty much hated it but on a visit over here we took him out to a restaurant and he's now a convert. My wife tells me the nearest American equivalent would be scrapple.

Conda said...

Scrapple! Thanks, Jim, I'd always wondered about haggis, but figured it was us Americans not quite getting the sense of it. But scrapple (and its close equivalent, hash) is pretty tasty. Especially with eggs and hash browns--a heart attack in a meal!

Maryanne Stahl said...

happy belated Burns night.

Hello, I'm Carma said...

Hi Jim,
You never cease to educate and entertain. Haggis does not sound good to me but if it is anything like hash then I may like it but not with spices.

I must say the origin of Auld Lang Syne could have turned into a huge plagerism battle now days.
Good post.

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