Every year, without fail, my family celebrate Burns night. We’re not Scottish, we just like food and company and this seems as good an excuse as any. It’s no grand affair; we gather all our Scottish friends for authenticity’s sake and then we eat a lot of haggis, tatties and neeps, and have a wee dram while reading a bit of poetry.
I know many of Burns’ poems well enough by now to be able to enjoy the images and feelings they create but I have to admit the dialect can be pretty indecipherable. For example, the first time you see the start of Address to a Haggis it can be a bit perturbing:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
And, as we approached the great day, I started thinking about the first time I celebrated Burns night in general and the alienation I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the whole evening but, like Burns’ poetry, celebrating another culture can be a bit daunting and even feel a bit, well…rude.
Now, for the love of food, I got over my issues fairly quickly and my family embraced the new tradition with meal-drowsy oomph, but, for those of you out there who still feel a bit awkward about wedging yourself into a Scottish celebration, I have some words of comfort. There is a way everyone, Scottish or not, can relate to and justify celebrating Rabbie Burns’ poems, and that is simply his expression of love for his land.
The fact that Scottish culture and tradition is firmly entwined with his verses makes this fairly obvious but that’s not what I’m referring to. What I mean is the actual land around him: the landscape, the plants and the animals, the weather and the seasons. He not only loved these things but he placed himself among them in his poems as their kin. In Winter: A Dirge the speaker in the poem runs parallel to the seasons and his emotions reflect the weather as the weather reflects his emotions:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!
And, in poems like To a Mouse, To a Mountain Daisy and The Wounded Hare he expresses a deep sympathy for nature and paints a perfect picture of mankind’s counterproductive struggle with our environment. Burns’ poetry illustrates just how desperately the human race depends on nature’s fearsome and inspiring beauty while, at the same time, is always set in a bitter fight against it.
These poems explore deeply how the landscape we grow up in influences us and our view of the world. Everyone has somewhere they love – where even the sight of a particular tree, building or even graffiti will bring a rush of fond nostalgia back – and this love is what Rabbie Burns captured.
That is why, this Burns Night, I will be celebrating in all the traditional Scottish ways as a proud English woman (theatrical gasp!) and I think you should too.
Not only because it means you get to enjoy others’ company, not only because it means good food and better whiskey, and not only because Burns wrote timeless poetry, but because of a deeply ingrained, and indisputably worldwide, love of this earth we all live on and the plants and creatures we share it with.
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
(To a Mouse)