For me it’s a real honour to provide the Toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns. As a theme I would like to talk about the language of Burn’s poetry.
If you do not understand a word of Burn’s poetry, you are not alone! But it may surprise you to know the Scots language Robert Burns used is still alive and well. If any of you have visited Scotland north of Edinburgh and Glasgow you may have encountered it. The only way to describe it is “indecipherable”.
As an example of the accent, and Burns at his best, here's a piece in which he describes his teenage days as a farm hand....
Many of these words and much of the accent of Burns poetry survives and thrives in the north of Scotland. In farming communities, people still speak Broad Scots because they have little need to travel.
On a side note Robert Burns passed through northern Scotland in 1787 while on an extensive traveling vacation which he took after having his Edinburgh Edition of poems published. And, while on this topic of Burn’s Tour of Scotland, a Nova Scotian even started a rumour Burns visited Halifax, Nova Scotia at the end of that year. The story goes that, quite recently, contractors were renovating the attic of the Carleton Hotel, and they came across a note below the floorboards of what had once been a chamber-maid’s closet. According to the story, this is what the note said:
So, what influenced Robert Burns’ language?
Well, Burns lived at a time when the Scots language was in transition. There was a traditional Scots dialect based on English, but with many French words from the Grand Alliance, and some Dutch and Scandinavian and Gaelic. Meantime, the English language had evolved separately, and the then contemporary English was being adopted by those with power and influence in Scotland. A “Scottish Standard English” was forming.
As two modern scholars, Jane Stuart Smith and Adam Aitken, describe things nowadays:
- “Scottish Standard English is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with Focused Broad Scots at the other (end)”, and:
- “Generally there is a shift to Scottish English in formal situations or with individuals of a higher social status”.
To some extent the language of the court and the cottage have always been different, but this was exaggerated in Burns’ time by the new neo-colonialism of English rule.
Burns’ early works were in the Broad Scots of his parents’ native tongue. His later works, however, move along this “linguistic continuum” between Broad Scots and the Scottish Standard English of the day, to suit his audience and his subject. Incidentally, this type of transition also happened in Shakespeare’s time, and in Chaucer’s, and it fueled their great works in a similar way.
People in Burn’s Life
Robert Burns was, without doubt, unusually gifted. But it took certain stars to align for his gifts to be shaped. A recent biography, identifies a few people who had great influence in developing Robert Burns’ knowledge and language.
Agnes Broun, his mother, had the first and arguably the deepest influence. Agnes and her family lived in the south-west Scotland, the home land of the historic Sir William Wallace. They spoke Scots, and they filled Wee Robert with stories of devils and ghosts and witches and warlocks - just to scare the poor lad into staying close to home. But most importantly, Agnes sang traditional songs out of habit to pass the time, which Robert listened to from Day One. As he wrote later, this taught him to memorize and to compose by starting with a tune in his head.
William Burnes, his father, was from the north-east of Scotland, from rented farmland near Stonehaven. The Burnes family’s landlord was ruined financially by being on the losing side of the Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745, and William survived by moving south to Edinburgh and then on to Ayrshire, where he met Agnes. William Burnes taught Robert how to farm and to improve the land, and the importance of education. He helped guide his son through difficult times in Robert’s early twenties. He also provided Robert a Jacobite perspective of Scotland’s recent history.
Despite their poverty, William Burnes hired a teacher for his sons and their neighbours’: John Murdoch. Murdoch taught Robert, from the age of six, English - as opposed to Scottish - pronunciation and grammar, and how to deconstruct poetry and write prose. This opened the door to a wealth of literature. Burns read at every opportunity, borrowing books from Murdoch and keeping in touch with him often later in life.
Another great influence was the Reverend William Dalrymple, the local minister, who knew Burns from birth. Dalrymple was unusually well educated for a local minister, and was highly regarded. He was later elected to be Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Dalrymple christened Burns, lent him books, and instilled a sense of social justice and religious tolerance at a time when religious zeal was extreme.
Burns was greatly impressed by an English poet and social commentator Alexander Pope, who died a decade before Burns was born. He was also inspired by a Scots poet, Robert Fergusson. Though they never met, Fergusson’s work showed Burns how the Scots language and “Scottish Standard English” could be used for effect. Also, Fergusson used a form of verse called “Standard Habbie” for his Scottish satire, which Burns copied in many of his traditional themes.
Lastly, Robert’s wife Jean Armour had a renowned singing voice, a brilliant memory, and an aptitude for Scots verse. As a contemporary of Robert and Jean’s wrote “…the bard ….read to her almost every piece he composed, and was not ashamed to own that he profited by her judgement.”
Most importantly, through this variety in style, Burns preserved the identity and the dignity of an oppressed country through language as well as content.
As an example: near the end of his days Burns was hanging on to a government job with a good pension in Dumfries. At the time, Dumfries was heavily militarized because of a supposed threat of French invasion. Convict ships destined for Australia waited at the wharf in London to transport anyone who expressed dissent.
Robert duly played his part. He joined the local militia, the Dumfries Volunteers. He swore his Oath of Allegiance in March 1795. And he composed a song, possibly for a Loyal Dinner in April, which was printed in the ‘Dumfries Weekly Journal’ in early May. It had all the English Jingo of the day…
- though he couldn’t resist a twist at the end…
His career was in jeopardy, however, because that same winter or spring he also composed alternative words, to the same rhythm and verse:
He circulated this version privately to friends. One way or another, it found its way – anonymously - into ‘The Glasgow’ magazine in August. By the time it was published under his name the following June, and in London, Burns was at death’s door and his family’s pension was secure.
Robert Burns is, of course, remembered for his songs and poetry.
His songs: there were Hundreds. His favourite work was to search out traditional tunes and lyrics, and to add or change verses to preserve the songs. As it happens, there was an anthology of traditional songs being developed in Edinburgh during his lifetime, and he contributed about a third of the six hundred songs which were published.
He is remembered more for his poetry, of course. He had an amazing skill of depicting a scene, then transcending to greater meaning. An example is a pair of poems: the first - a song - starts in the voice of ….
“A lassie all alone …. making her moan,
Lamenting our lads beyond the sea: ……”
The second, a poem, speaks the ghost’s picture of Scotland:
Needless to say, this was not published in his lifetime.
Robert Burns is remembered for being:
- a social democrat
In his lifetime he witnessed America’s independence and France’s revolution from monarchy. While Liberty Trees were being planted in the 13 United States and in France, Scotland suffered under English Rule.
As noted in “The Tree of Liberty”, which is generally attributed to Burns, though it was ‘discovered’ only long after his death:
- a lover
He had his UP days:
And his DOWN days:
And his WISTFUL days:
- a voice of life and humanity
Most of all, Burns is remembered as a man deeply connected to the everyday world of people, society and nature.His work can challenge readers to see themselves and their worlds more clearly, and to strengthen their connection to the earth beneath their feet.
This was laid open in his conversation with a mouse, titled: “To A Mouse. On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785”, written during a difficult time in his life.
On a lighter note about humanity, he paints a happy picture of his flawed hero, Tam O’Shanter, in the pub:
Robert Burns is remembered around the world....
In the United States, his message was celebrated from shortly after Independence. Burns showed great respect to George Washington in his verse, and Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer.
In Australia, deported Scots took Burns’ works with them, and identified with his voice at many levels.
And in Russia, his works were translated in the 1800s. He became known as ‘The People’s Poet’ in Imperial times. Then, under Communism, he became widely celebrated and added to school readers.
There are at least 49 statues of Robert Burns around the world, which is more than any other literary figure in history – only religion, Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus have inspired more bronze-work.
And Burns will be remembered by the Halifax Burns Club.
Gents, let’s stand and drink deeply – to the Memory of Robert Burns!
This speech was written and delivered by Jim Fletcher, a former president of the Halifax Burns Club, at our 2016 Burns Supper on January 30