I visited Edinburgh with friends recently and have revised my knowledge of part of its history. The Old Town looked the same…
As ‘unofficial tour guide,’ in the Thistle Chapel of St Giles Cathedral, I pointed out the defiant, Latin motto of the chivalrous Order of the Thistle which means, Who dares meddle with me! (Such fighting talk! I had to put such defiance into a historical and military context – See Sources at the end of this post)
I regularly had to explain signs or spoken expressions or customs that I have long taken for granted. Not only the Scots accent, but words themselves baffled my American friend. However, songs often work where speech fails, so I sang a favourite Burn’s song ‘John Anderson, My Jo’ and explained what it meant.
Brought up surrounded by Lowland Scots vernacular, at school I had to be careful not to use it. The Scottish Education Board insisted that children like me, from a working-class family, had to be taught to speak, read and write ‘Proper’ English. It wasn’t till high school that I was given my Lowland Scots dialect in print, to study.
Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) was one of the significant literary figures of 18th & 19th century Scotland. He wrote literary forms, crossing his local dialect with English – a ploughman with more education than most and a way with words. He reinvigorated our Scots’ national identity at the time and continues to do so. A contemporary of Voltaire, Goldsmith and Goethe, he wrote poems and songs which became, and are still, a expressive part of Scottish culture.
Here’s my friend Naomi striking the pose in The National Portrait Gallery. (She too has a prodigious memory for songs from her childhood.) The success of Burns’ first compilation, Poems, Chiefly in the Scots Dialect, made him the darling of Edinburgh society in 1786. He lived here for two years before returning to his native Ayrshire.
Before he died in 1796 aged 37, Burns had written hundreds of songs and set many to old tunes. These made him even more feted across Scotland and internationally. He was the ‘Pete Seeger’ of his day and thought, for example, ‘There is a certain something in the old Scots songs, a wild happiness of thought and expression.’ (Letter to Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop 1790)
Many of the poet’s ‘pithy’ phrases had that certain something, are still used like proverbs. I’ve heard conversations closed with a summary quote from Burns like “Aye – the best laid plans o’ mice and men …!” Auld Lang Syne is sung the world o’er. Many think of Burns still, as ‘Everyman’: a typical Scot, working-class, humanist, lover of Nature and Freedom: a champion of common sense, astute and yet romantic: always imagining a better world.
One of the bard’s gentle rejoinders comes from the poem To a Louse, “Oh would some power, the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us.” (i.e. The first line of the last verse in English … for the complete poem in Lowland Scots, click here)
As a saying, it pulls me back to reality. It’s a hard phrase to beat – as is my fellow traveller’s blog post about her Edinburgh experience. Please click “A Guid Crack” to read Naomi’s impressions of a first visit to Scotland’s capital city.
Blogs really are a good way to express different points of view and entertain readers at the same time. They are a gift that can help us see ourselves as others see us.
Thanks, Naomi. Here’s to Wild happiness and more singing!
All text (except links) and photos by Meg
Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Sources : For more info, click these links
Mull, Brett, “Construction of Culture: Robert Burns’ Contributions to Scottish National Identity” (2012). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 271. University of Colorado.
Nemo me impune lacessit ( Wikiwand)
“Robert Burns“. Poetry Foundation. Chicago, 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
Scots Language (Wikiwand)
Todd J. Wilkinson, Robert Burns and Freemasonry. Alexandra Burns Club, 14 November 2016. Web
Allan Woods, Robert Burns – Man, Poet and Revolutionary . 22 January 2009. Socialist Appeal International Marxist Tendency 14 November 2016 Web.