Still on the theme of literary firsts, I had been invited to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns’ Supper, organised by F, a friend of mine, to raise money for the Fife branch of the Scottish Green Party. To be honest, although I’ve been to a couple of Burns’ Night celebrations, I wasn’t really sure what the Immortal Memory involved so, in my naivety and because it was for a friend, I agreed. After which, and the key point here is in the word after, I decided perhaps a bit of research would be helpful. So I googled, panicked, asked a few friends and began to hyperventilate. A lot. For quite some time.
Words such as big responsibility, key-note address, significant, well-researched, lengthy, humorous, were used. I decided to lie down in a darkened room. For quite some time. And then I remembered one other phrase that cropped up: personal tribute. That, I thought, I can do.
I am, by birth, a Yorkshire lass – born in Barnsley but uprooted at an early stage to the Scottish Highlands, where I was schooled before being let loose on the world at large. Yet, even in my earlier years, I was aware of Scotland’s national bard. My grandfather was a Scot from rural Perthshire on whose bookcase, in the corner of his living room, several books of Burns’ poetry rubbed spines with, amongst others, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Often, before dinner (or tea, as it was in those days) he would recite The Selkirk Grace – or ‘the poem about having meat, grandad’. On other days, for no fathomable reason, he would stand me and my brother and sister up and stack us, oldest to youngest, behind him, whereupon he would march us around the house singing Scots Wha Hae.
Through school, in Yorkshire and Scotland, and university, in Scotland and America, I studied and grew to love and appreciate many of Burns’ poems and ballads. That he wrote more than 550 in his short lifetime, leaves me breathless with awe: as well as the wide range of themes he covered. With so much to choose from, I am sure that anyone willing to delve into his collected works, would find something to suit their tastes and sensibilities.
As for the language; my first experience of reading, as opposed to hearing, Burns was in primary school in Doncaster, where we studied To A Mouse. Did I understand the language? Not a bit but oh how I loved the way the words felt in my mouth, how they rolled off my tongue: sleekit, cowrin, bickering brattle, sleety dribble, cranreuch cald. I may not have understood each word, I didn’t need to, I could feel them. With his description I shrugged off my own skin and slipped inside that of the mouse; felt its heart beat, fast and furious. And isn’t that the genius of any writer, to be able to lure their reader deep into the depths of the story, of the character, to make us believe, to care.
For those of you who love Burns, I’m sure you have a favourite. I have two (because, as we’ve established before, I’m not so good with the definition of the term favourite) – the first is Tam o’ Shanter. In my second year of university, I spent a semester in America and this was one of two Burns poems we studied, the other being To A Louse. Reminiscent of my primary school encounter with Burns, I struggled to get a grip of the language with the rest of my classmates but loved the imagery: ‘Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’; ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flower, its bloom is shed’; ‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast; / A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,’. The rhyme and metre, the change of pace, the tension:
Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.
From Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns
The real appreciation of the poem came much later, performed by F at another Burns’ Night celebration. That’s when I really understood the brilliance of the language. The poem came alive in the telling, not least because F, who comes from the same part of Scotland as Burns, really inhabits each and every line. He was brought up on the bard – his father performed at many a Burns’ Supper, as did his grandfather. By a quirk of fate, his father also died on Burns’ Night, which seems somehow appropriate.
The other favourite of mine is A Man’s a Man for a’ That. It reminds me again of my grandad; of his socialist ideals. It reminds me of the sort of world in which I’d like to live, where riches come not from material possessions but from friends and family, from a sense of community. A more equal world where we all watch out for each other, where we care of for those less fortunate and for our environment. Idealistic, maybe, but isn’t it a world worth hoping for? A world worth working towards?
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.
From A Man’s A Man for a’ That by Robert Burns
When my grandad died a few years ago, the family asked that A Man’s A Man be played at his cremation. ‘Reet you are,’ said the Barnsley undertaker, ‘who’s it by?’ On being told, he agreed to sort it out. A couple of days later, my uncle visited the funeral parlour to check on arrangements:
‘There’s been a bit of a problem,’ said the undertaker.
‘Oh right, what’s wrong?’ asked my uncle.
‘We couldn’t findt Robert Burns version oft song you asked fo so we got this un by Ewan McColl instead. Will that do?’
‘Yes,’ said my uncle with a wry smile, ‘that’ll be great.’
At Saturday’s celebration, F performed Tam o’ Shanter, Mr D played and sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That and I gave the Immortal Memory.
We ate haggis, drank whisky and had fun. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to our National Bard and a good way to remember two other Scotsmen no longer with us.