Monday 25th January is Burns Night, celebrating Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. Traditionally, Scots and others celebrate with a Burns Supper and many will have already taken place, over the weekend. I believe Sophie (Englishwoman of this parish) may even have been seen at one of them.
Wikipedia has an article about Burns Suppers including the Address to the Haggis and pictures of haggis, too!
Robert Burns, Poet and Exciseman
Robert Burns (1759-1796) was not only a poet, he was also an exciseman, operating on the borders with England. Hardy smugglers used to cross from England to Scotland via the Solway Firth, because the excisemen would be waiting on the land route to levy their duties. If you could nip across the Firth – by the ford – you could probably avoid duty altogether.
Of course, if you were caught in the Solway quicksands, you might not see Scotland again. Ever.
Burns knew that his business wasn’t popular, but he needed the money:
“I do not know how the word ‘exciseman’, or still more opprobrious ‘gauger’, will sound on your ears. I have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on the subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations; and £50 a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow, is no bad settlement for a Poet.” (Letter to Ainslie, 1 Nov 1789)
Ainslie recorded, after visiting Burns a year later, that
“Our friend is … a great mixture of the Poet and the Exciseman. One day he sits down and writes a beautiful poem, and the next, seizes a cargo of tobacco from some unfortunate smuggler, or roups out some poor wretch, for selling liquors without a licence.”
Rabbie Burns is not Scotland’s national poet because of his successes in discovering illicit whisky stills. Scots love his poems, especially his love poems. Think of something as beautiful, and as simple, as My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose and you’ll see what I mean.
He could stir the blood, too. Not Braveheart, but Scots wha hae [wi’ Wallace bled].
And like Schiller in his Ode to Joy. Burns wrote about equality and brotherhood:
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that!
Burns was also a great writer of comic verse and the greatest of those, I would contend, is Tam O’Shanter in which an Ayrshire drunk meets dancing ghosts and witches. But Tam comes off whole. Well, almost.
It’s sometimes recited at Burns Suppers, generally by people who have a prodigious memory but have not yet imbibed too prodigiously of the whisky on offer. It remains one of my favourites. So much so that I wrote a tribute to it — not in verse, you’ll be relieved to hear — from the point of view of Tam’s opposition.
After all, someone has to stand up for the ghosts and witches, don’t they?
Twenty-First Century Meg
by Joanna Maitland
Have you ever wondered why there are no stone-age ghosts?
I’ll tell you why. Recycling.
You thought recycling was a twentieth-century invention, didn’t you? Well, you’re wrong. We ghosts have been at it for centuries, especially here in Scotland. We keep replacing out-of-date, boring ghosts, with more modern ones. Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, instead of an unknown iron-age princess. That sort of thing. It’s a fundamental marketing tool. Our Unique Selling Point is that our apparitions are always relevant to the modern-day humans who see them. How else would we ensure the right impact?