Burns Night: Celebrating a National Poet
No, I’m not Scottish, but I like celebrating the holidays of Celtic countries; I was born in Bavaria, and believe it or not, we’re Celts, too, not Germans. And this particular holiday that is celebrated in Scotland on the 25th of January has got a special meaning for all us writers and literature lovers – which other country has got a holiday for her national poet?
Robert Burns (1759-1796) was one of the proto-Romantics, he greatly influenced Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, and his poems give us a wonderful insight into late 18th century Scotland. He was a farmer’s son, taught by his own father – one of the reasons why his works are so special: most of them are written in Scots, the Scottish English dialect.
He was also a political rebel, an ardent supporter of the French Revolution and of egalitarian movements as in the USA; something which didn’t go down well with the establishment of the time, but immediately earned him many fans in liberal circles. Besides that, he was a supporter of Scottish Radicalism: he loved praising the famous Scottish pride and courage, Scottish history and the former great victories over England.
He was asked to write the lyrics for a song about Robert Bruce’s speech before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which won Scotland freedom for centuries. He did, and the outcome was one of the most famous Scottish songs:
Rabbie, as his admirers call him, besides being enormously talented was also handsome and charming, and so in addition to his marriage he had numerous love affairs; altogether his children numbered twelve! And, of course, he loved writing love poems to his ladies; some of them became world famous, like this one:
A Red, Red Rose
O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune:
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only Luve
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
To those of you who have never read any of Rabbie’s works before: Scots may sound a bit bewildering at first – it did to me, too – but it’s got a lovely ring to it, and you’ll soon get to love it! Many of his poems are available online with an English translation for the beginning:
There’s also an official Robert Burns site, where you can learn more about the great Bard:
And now back to Burns Night: it was first celebrated by his friends in 1801, five years after his early death from a rheumatic heart condition; and over the years it became Scotland’s second national holiday along with St Andrew’s Day. A national holiday for a poet – culture means a lot in Scotland! And the official ceremony for the great day is very elaborate:
Another unusual feature here: a poem dedicated to a dish! But, of course, haggis isn’t just a ‘dish’, it’s part of Scotland’s heritage. Thing is only that, if you live outside Scotland and want to celebrate Burns Night, it might be difficult to obtain a sheep’s stomach, in which the haggis is traditionally baked. Here is a selection of other dishes, though, to get into that Scottish feeling:
And, of course, some music mustn’t be missing: Here’s the world famous New Year’s Eve anthem, which we ALSO owe to Master Burns (he didn’t write it himself, but he wrote it down; it’s a very old Scottish folk song), sung by another great Scot:
Happy Burns Night!