Our fondness for a wee dram and a party is one of the things which makes us Scottish so it’s no surprise that we like to celebrate one of our greatest poetic voices, Rabbie Burns.
Burns was many things to many people; poet, lyricist, farmer, womanizer…The Bard is probably the most apt title for the man. His poetry, even the stuff he wrote in English, is wonderful. That goes without saying. Yet on days such a these, where we celebrate the man’s brilliant canon of work and his literary genius we really should remember how vital he was to the Scots vernacular, because without him the Scots language would have died. Granted, he wrote a great deal in English too, but the importance of his work in Scots, even the “light-Scots” stuff, shouldn’t be overlooked.
In order to really get to the root of why Burns is lauded one has to go back a few years, back as far as James VI of Scotland or later James I of Great Britain. After the Union of the Crowns in 1603 Scots was held as being the sister language to English, however in the years that followed written Scots had almost vanished completely. Although court poets from the time like Montgomerie and Scott wrote in Scots, and there is evidence which suggests that even when James VI did become the King of Great Britain that he still spoke in Scots, as the English influence in literature and language started to spread Northwards the language started to take a bit of a beating.
Linguistically Scots had and still has many different characteristics which allowed it to be differentiated from English in many ways. Over time, as English started to become more wide spread across Scotland, the vernacular was eventually filtered out of our speech and that had an impact on our writing. Indeed, Scots eventually became the language of the working class and of rural communities.
Burns changed all of that because when he came around by and large, Scots was effectively dead. If it wasn’t for Burns there’s a pretty decent chance that the Scots which exists in different parts of Scotland simply wouldn’t exist.
Although Burns is well know for his Scots language poetry it’s easy for one to overlook how he played with the Scots vernacular in his verse. Many look back on Burns now and think nothing of the fact his work is in Scots; we know it no other way. Yet without his poetry there would be very little Scottish language to speak of.
His poetry is about more than just the Romanticism we know it for; it’s about the exploration of a language which was slowly dying and he, along with a few other poets from the era (Like Fergusson and, before him, Ramsey – a vernacular revivalist in his own right, and probably responsible for bringing Scots back from the brink), brought it back, demonstrating that it’s a colourful, vibrant and above all relevant creative force.
Which was ironic really. Pre-reformation, medieval and renaissance Scottish literature is markedly different from what was happening in England, France and Italy in the same period. Aside from being linguistically different, it was a whole different beast thematically and the language really played a huge part in making it that way. Yet between the renaissance and the 18th century there’s a massive black hole in the canon of Scottish literature. Our language was part of the driving force behind our creative pursuits but it seems that no one of note really crafted anything of great literary merit between the Union and Burns.
Burns brought Scots back to life.
So when you remember Burns on this January night remember that he was more than just a hugely gifted master poet, a brilliant lyricist and an important songwriter – he breathed life into a dying language. If you’ve ever spoken in slang, met anyone who has, seen a TV show or a film which in which anyone speaks in Scots, read Hugh MacDiarmid, Tom Leonard, James Kelman or Irvine Welsh remember that without Burns none of it would exist.
Oh and one more thing; poetry is meant to be read aloud. When you see a Burns poem today don’t just read it to yourself in silence, read it aloud. Perform it. Poetry is, and always will be, about performance. Burns knew it, and I’m sure he’d love it if you read one of his aloud. One should embrace not only the sentiment behind his work but the language of it too. I’m sure he’d appreciate that even more.
Below you will find “The Fornicator”. I probably don’t need to explain what it’s about. Enjoy and have a great Burns night.
The Fornicator. A New Song
by Robert Burns
Ye jovial boys who love the joys,
The blissful joys of lovers;
Yet dare avow with dauntless brow,
when th’ bonie lass discovers;
I pray draw near and lend an ear,
and welcome in a frater,
For I’ve lately been on quarantine,
A proven Fornicator.
Before the congregation wide
I pass’d the muster fairly,
My handsome Betsey by my side,
We gat our ditty rarely;
But my downcast eye by chance did spy
What made my lips to water,
Those limbs so clean where I, between,
Commenc’d a Fornicator.
With rueful face and signs of grace
I pay’d the buttock-hire,
The night was dark and thro’ the park
I could not by convoy her;
A parting kiss, what could I less,
My vows began to scatter,
My Betsey fell – lal de dal lal lal,
I am a Fornicator.
But for her sake this vow I make,
And solemnly I swear it,
That while I own a single crown,
She’s welcome for to share it;
And my roguish boy his mother’s joy,
And the darling of his pater,
For him I boast my pains and cost,
Although a Fornicator.
Ye wenching blades whose hireling jades,
Have tipt you off blue-boram,
I tell ye plain, I do distain
To rank you in the quorum;
But a bonie lass upon the grass
To teach her esse mater;
And no reward but for regard,
O that’s a Fornicator.
Your warlike kings and heroes bold,
Great captains and commanders;
Your mighty Cesars fam’d of old,
And conquering Alexanders;
In fields they fought and laurels bought
And bulwarks strong did batter,
And still they grac’d our noble list
And ranked Fornicator!