Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Bard

This is Robert Burns’s birthday. He was born, as he himself tells us, on the 25th of January, 1759. The age into which he was born was a rather curious one for Scotland. It was a time of transition, of flux, of change of attitude in the philosophies, moral and political, of the age. It was an age of new thought: the age of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Tom Paine. The Age of Enlightenment was at hand, and at the same time the Age of Imperialism was not far off. In Scotland, the Golden Age of Classicism was in full swing, for the country was settling down. At the same time, however, the Second Jacobite Rebellion was only thirteen years vanquished, and the memory of the atrocities of Butcher Cumberland was still strong in the Highlands, where the Jacobite songs were to be preserved for another half-century, till resurrected by James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd”. Burns’s own father, William Burness, may himself have been ‘out’ in the ’45, but this perhaps is wishful thinking on the part of the bardolaters. Burns certainly had Jacobite tendencies; and although most critics seem to think Burns had the French Revolution in mind, as well as Bannockburn, when he wrote “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled” (he himself refers in a letter to “other struggles, not quite so ancient”), I can’t help feeling that there is here at least a reminiscence of the Stuart cause. Besides this he must have been thinking of the 1790s Sedition trials whch sent those who dared to speak of social rights and parliamentary reform to New South Wales.

Apart from the political climate of the mid-18th century, we must of course consider the literary one. Burns did not begin to write until his teens; and then it was because he fell in love with a neighbour’s daughter, Nellie Kilpatrick. In her honour he wrote “O aince I lo’ed a bonnie lass”, a competent piece of lovesong for a lad of fourteen. What we should remember about this production is that it was written as a song, to a tune, the lassie’s favourite reel. Many a poem was to come from Burns’s fist in the next 23 years, but the majority by which he is remembered consists of songs, to which he turned in the last nine years of his life, helping James Johnson and George Thomson in their collections of Scots songs, entirely without remuneration, out of a sheer sense of patriotism.
For he loved the songs and poetry of Scotland. In his youth, like any other 18th century reader, he admired the elegant verses of the fashionable, and read such fustian novels as Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling with great appreciation. But there were other influences to reckon with. The immediate predecessor of Burns as a vernacular poet, Burns’s “elder brother in the Muses”, was Robert Fergusson, who died at the age of 24 in 1774, when Burns was just 15—whose grave was unmarked till Burns himself spent £5.10.0 on his headstone. He is overshadowed by Burns, as are most other Scottish poets, goodness knows! But Burns always felt a debt to him.
His other debts were many; he derived inspiration from the old Scots makars, like Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, who among other things translated Virgil’s Aeneid into good Scots verse—Burns quotes a line at the beginning of Tam O Shanter from Douglas: “Of brownis and bogillis full is this boke.” Tam O Shanter is indeed a tale of bogles, a wonderful piece of folklore cast into memorable and artful verse. I say artful, because the piece is constructed with the sure hand of a skilled craftsman. Burns knew exactly what he was doing here. It has been fashionable, for instance, to say that where Burns writes English, he is least successful. This is true in many cases, and Burns himself writes to Thomson (re his attempt at dressing up “Duncan Gray” in English) “These English songs gravel me to death.” Yet in many more instances, he uses English (or Scots English, i.e. English as spoken by a Scot) for special effects. Tom Crawford, a Burns scholar of note, points out that Burns passes from one variety of diction to another, and not haphazardly. Mind you, while on the page such lines as “But pleasures are like poppies spread…” look English, they should be read in Scots. The same goes for “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” and other pieces. For all that, he knows the versatility and accuracy of the guid Scots tongue and uses it to the fullest effect. I’m minded of the somewhat obscure poetess Janet Hamilton of Langloan (1795-1873), who could defend it well:

Na na! I winna pairt wi’ that, I downa gie it up;
O’ Scotland’s hamely mither tongue I canna quat the grup.
It’s bedded in my very heart, Ye needna rive or rug,
It’s in my e’e, and on my tongue,And singin’ in my lug.

This is his birthday. He’s now 253 years old. He’ll be that old, because although he ended his days at the age of 37 without a shilling to his name, in 1796, he gave us an immense wealth of satire and song which has kept him alive ever since. A few years after his burial (which drew large crowds) a few friends met in his cottage to remember him. And it didn’t take long before other meetings were being held, latterly on his birth day, to do him honour, till in 1859 the fellow-poet William Motherwell could produce a fat book chronicling the many celebrations that were held all over the world. As time went by, the “Burns Cult” grew and grew, reaching perhaps ridiculous dimensions at times. To say a word against Burns in some companies was (and is) as dangerous as wearing a green scarf in Brigton. Burns came to represent Scotland as Robert the Bruce never could, and certainly no-one thinks that Shakespeare represents England. But Burns was accepted as the Scot par excellence because of his nearness to the ordinary man. He was a poet of the people, a folk-poet, in fact, creating out of the entire tradition of his country a voice that could speak authentically for the country. This is one reason, incidentally, that he was a great favourite in the Soviet Union (as indeed he still is in Russia), and I can vouch for the fact that Burns translates very well into Russian. The translations of Burns’s works into other languages are past counting; but almost every nation seems to appreciate him as much as we do. (This doesn’t always happen, naturally; Byron is more honoured in France than the United Kingdom; as is Edgar Allan Poe more than in the States – due to the enthusiasm of Baudelaire.)
Often enough, however, the rise of the Burns Cult (complete, you’ll notice, with pilgrimages to the prophet’s shrine, commemorative meals, and ritual recitation of the Scriptures) has meant sometimes that people praise Burns knowing little about him, that they pay mere lip-service to his memory. Some deliberately ignore the message (and there is one) that Burns gave, and indulge in haggis-bashing sprees, merely because it’s the fashionable thing to do. Burns perhaps would be saddened by the excesses of the cult; but there is one cheering thought: the Bard was if nothing else fond of good company, and good fellowship.
That people foregather for such, even once a year, would surely have pleased him; and he who envisioned a united world (in “A Man’s a Man for a’ that”) would take comfort from the fact that at this time, all over the globe, the Turks, the Chinese, the Russians, the Australians, the dwellers in outlandish airts from Timbuctoo to Tottenham, celebrate with conviviality the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

A long time since, on the 200th anniversary of his birth, I wrote a few lines to recite at a Burns Nicht dinner, to end the Immortal Memory speech, which I like to think would not have been disagreeable to the makar himself.

Whare’er ye be, you makar guid,
Look doon (or up) and fan our bluid,
Mak us a’ human, no like wuid,
      I’m shair ye can;
Let each o’ us, this warld amid,
      Lo’e brither man.

Lads and lasses, I gie you
The chiel whas ghaist is wi’ us nou;
Leal was his hert and unco true,
      To each a brither;
He’ll keep the laurel on his brou;
      When sic anither?

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It must be true, it’s in the paper

The Mainstream Media (or MSM as the aficionados curtail them) tend by their very nature to reflect the status quo, some of them holding it up as a burning and a shining light, and others holding it up to scorn. There comes a time however when they all lend their voices to a chorus, generally decrying some egregious wickedness or monumental folly that they can all agree on. Naturally, they can be stupidly misled like anyone else. It then falls to the alternative press to point out how misguided, or malicious, the MSM are.
In Great Britain (I don’t think a lot of folk use that expression these days) the broadsheets are teaming up with the tabloid “red tops” to attack a scheme viewed by both as ill thought out at best and dangerous at (maybe) worst. This is of course independence for Scotland. It’s quite incredible how the outrage has grown since last May, when the Scottish National Party gained an overall majority at Holyrood (thought to be impossible) after announcing that it would arrange a referendum on the issue in their next parliamentary period. At the time it was ridiculous; but as the months have rolled by the spectre stalking the powers that be has grown ever more visible, and (horrors) attractive to the uneducated public, hoi polloi who shouldn’t really be trusted with a vote.
There are a few news outlets whose word is not copied from political party news releases, who for obvious reasons tend to emphasise the other sides of the argument. Even some MSM allow discussion on their websites while slanting every story to decry the latest shallow-minded proposal of the SNP – I’m thinking particularly of the venerable Scotsman, which is consistent in its bias, no matter how juvenile and misinformed it may be, yet generally allows comments from the interested readership, most of which, I may say, turns out to be pro-independence, or at least in favour of some form of further devolution, “Devo-Max” as they call it, or “Full Fiscal Autonomy”.
But this referendum idea has stirred up the proverbial hornets’ nest, and all of a sudden the Establishment, dutifully reported by the MSM, is speaking out about various aspects of independence, one after the other. Some are more believable than others of course; some are predictably rash in airing opinions and dire warnings which don’t bear any kind of examination. These Cassandra-like croakings are given full coverage in the MSM pages and the airwaves of the supposedly unbiased BBC, but shredded in their own comments threads and/or articles in such sites as NewsnetScotland, or Bella Caledonia.
It is statistically probable if not certain that some criticisms of the touted independence ideas are quite valid; but they can get lost in the cacophony of shrill ad hominem attacks and noisy sniping from hapless statu-quo-ites [I get the term from Thomas Love Peacock]. We need reasoned and informed debate, which is one reason why Alex Salmond placed the dreaded referendum in autumn of 2014, with some good time to thrash things out.
And what would Rabbie say? [I promised to mention him.] – There are those like a former friend of mine who assert that you can find a quotation in RB’s works to fit any aspect of the human condition. In these times, alas, the sort of thing that pops into my head is “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation”.

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Left? Right.

I see that Janey Buchan has died at the age of 85. When I met her she was a young 34, which seems ridiculous now. I went along to Norman and Janey Buchans’ flat a few times before I left Scotland, and often regretted I hadn’t been able to further our acquaintance. I lugged my guitar with me and was pleased to be allowed to sing a song for the company – as I remember, a sort of happy-go-lucky entourage who welcomed new faces and immediately got into conversation. And the talk was mostly about leftist politics of course. My song was a Russian one I’d learned when I was training to be a spy [more on this later perhaps], titled Pomnju ja, and I was delighted when a Polish guest joined in the chorus:

Pomnju, pomnju, pomnju ja,
Kak menja mat’ ljubila,
I ne raz, I ne dva,
Ona mne govorila.

(I remember, I remember, how my mother loved me, and not once, and not twice [many times] she spoke to me…)
– about the bad company I kept, otherwise I’d wind up in Siberia in shackles. A political song, of course!
Norman was into folksongs, and had a hand in getting The Reivers onto television. We exchanged books and opinions – though I was never quite as far left as they were, although I called myself an anarchist, and in fact I’ve wondered once or twice what they would have thought of later developments in Scottish/British politics. I can’t see them as Blairites, for instance.
We talked about Burns once or twice – predictably, the quasi-socialist aspect of his poems. I mention this because of the upcoming anniversary of his birth, next Wednesday, on which significant day the First Minister of Scotland promises to unveil his plans for the much spoken of referendum, so that a dialogue or discussion may take place. I follow this from thousands of miles away with a mixture of amusement and cynicism, I can say: amusement at the knots the Unionist cabal are tying themselves into, and cynicism in that I don’t really believe the promises, or threats, that they make.
If Westminster says that Scotland should “calm down, dear” and stay in the union because of jam tomorrow, I for one nod sardonically and say “Aye, right!” There is also the undiscussed and unanswerable question of the political consequences of independence. (A long time ago, when the SNP were a beleaguered minority, I broached the obvious point that a Scottish government would likely be full of Socialists of one stripe or another, not to say Communists. This did not go down well with the Catholic family I was lodging with, but my leftist friends in the Socialist Labour League were interested to chew over the idea.)
However, as “events, dear boy” have shown, what Holyrood has is a left-centre government (so far), and the prospect of a whole plethora of parties of various colours vying for their place in the sun in a new independent Scotland. – Whatever the result of the referendum, whenever it is, I think it’s true to say that “it’s comin yet, for aa that”. Maybe not in my lifetime, alas, though geriatrics are wonderful these days.
Not until then, however, will we really need to bother ourselves about a national anthem. More on this later, I trust, but right now let me disown the idea that “Flower of Scotland” is anything other than a sentimental patriotic piece of claymore-rattling. Yes, it’s a good song, and can be very effective, nay moving, in the right circumstances; but that’s it.
Next piece will be all about Burns, I promise.

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Re Verse

I notice that some other bloggers have the audacity, or rashness, to publish verse of their own making on their columns. While I hold no realistic expectation of kudos from the Scots literati, I thought it might be amusing for everyone to print a specimen or two of my own. I’ve been composing rhymes and blank verse [some very blank] for all my life, or at least since my teens, along with a good few tunes of various sorts. I’ll be uploading some of the latter fairly soon, but for now have a keek at this:

The mune tauld me the ither nicht
Endymion was deid,
And aa alang the droonin lift
The starns had bowed the heid;
But still the houlet caas on him,
And she is no dismayed,
For weel she kens he hears her still,
Altho he is a shade.

As waters flow in whirlpools
Sae turns the hert around,
And as the wun steers widdershins
The mind greets wi its wound.
I’ll rive sic disobedience out,
And kill my discontent;
For luve has come to ravish me –
Why suld I no consent?

That’s actually a Scotification of a thing I composed originally in English. On the other hand, in a deliberate attempt to write a poem in Scots from the word go, I came up with this:

The Dolmen

The eldritch skreich o gowlan winds
That souch awa within thir stanes
Wad rive the mind clean out o ye;
And the sterk dureness o the granes
Thro aa the dernit ingyne rins.

Granite, grim granite, aa aroun,
And near outby the greetin trees;
The drumlie yird alow the feet
Some caution to the spirit gies,
And gars the saul to courie doun.

Aye, as thir hard wancannie stanes
Staund stockstill here as they were laid,
The hert, nae movin, sees itsel
In the daurk chaumer it has made,
And liggs doun by forgotten banes.

It’s a far cry from such stuff to the likes of Hugh Macdiarmid or Sydney Goodsir Smith, or even, I hear you mutter it, dear old William Topaz McGonagall. But let me segue neatly into an encomium on those two former poets, particularly Smith. I came across his writing in my late teens and was captivated by the contrast with the run of the mill Scots verse I had been used to in the anthologies and old books on my mother’s shelf – which of course were somewhat kailyairdy, to say the least. But here was a new kind of writing that mirrored the modern productions of such as Ezra Pound & Co., while being evidently Scottish to the core. I naturally have grown a bit more sophisticated since then, but I still quote Under the Eildon Tree to myself, and reach for my first edition to leaf lovingly through the pages.

Bards hae sung o lesser loves
Than I o thee,
O my great folly and my granderie.

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Flodden Field

That referendum I mentioned last time has been promised for 2014. In the autumn, and not June (the anniversary of the famous victory), which may surprise people who thought a vote on the actual day of the resounding defeat of the Auld Enemy would be very appropriate for dealing another smack in the goolies. It might be thought however that the great anniversary could overshadow the political decision in an unexpected way; besides, oh horrors if the vote were no, such a defeat for national aspirations would do something to taint the blessed day.
Bannockburn Day is celebrated with some pomp and circumstance, skirling and speeching, as may be expected. Some think there’s a bit too much of that. Take a look, though, at the preserved site of that other battle in 1513. There’s a simple monument erected in 1910 inscribed with words I find quite moving: TO THE DEAD OF BOTH NATIONS.
The rights and wrongs of the event can be argued over – was James a warmongering tool of the French? Was perfidious Albion just defending its home? And what about Henry, eh? Well, no one can deny that the battle, the last great mediaeval battle maybe (the Scots used the old style, the wily English the new), changed history and had a dreadful effect upon Scotland. Look up the list of the fallen – great names and small, lords and lairds and knights and gentlemen from all over the kingdom, not to mention the poor bloody infantry and all who are not named in the history books. The loss in sheer manpower to the country was immense, and the king himself slain. It was in remembrance of the disaster that Jean Elliot of Minto wrote “The Flowers of the Forest” lamenting the sudden decimation of the manhood of Scotland:

The Flowers of the Forest

I’ve heard the lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day;
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning;
“The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away”.

At buchts in the morning nae blythe lads are scorning;
The lasses are lonely and dowie and wae;
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighing and sabbing,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.

In hairst, at the shearing, nae youths now are jeering,
The bandsters are lyart, and runkled or gray;
At fair or at preaching, nae wooing, nae fleeching,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

At e’en, in the gloaming, nae swankies are roaming
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk ane sits drearie, lamenting her dearie,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border!
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day:
The Flowers of the Forest, that focht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

I put up the words, even though they’re very available in umpteen books, and the Net of course. The above set is mostly as the song is given in the Stenhouse notes to The Scots Musical Museum. The tune is given in volume one, no. 63, to “Adieu ye streams that smoothly glide”, verses by Anne Home (Mrs John Hunter), whose main claim to remembrance is penning the words to “My mother bids me bind my hair”, a favourite canzonet by Haydn.

flodin

Henry VIII’s poet laureate John Skelton wrote a triumphant sneering sort of poem about the event, “A ballade of the scottysshe kynge”, which doesn’t say much except pour scorn on James (whose death was still in doubt) and his presumption. It was published in black letter that year, just after the battle, and ends

God saue kynge Henry and his lordes all
And sende the frensshe kynge suche an other fall,

Amen, for saynt charytë
And god saue noble.
Kynge Henry
The viij.

This is nicely reproduced with lots of background by John Ashton, 1882.
FLODIN a
There is another “Ballad of Flodden Field”, composed much later, which is quite long and detailed, ending with the lines

                               Thus have you heard of Flodden fight.
                               Worthy of each to be commended :
                               Because that then Old England’s right
                               Was bravely by her sons defended.

In the great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads of Francis James Child, “Flodden Field” is no. 168, from a 17th-century copy of a 16th-century ballad: “in disgrace of the Scots, and in remembrance of the famous atchieved historie, the commons of England made this song, which to this day is not forgotten of many.”
I wonder what ceremonies are planned for the quincentenary next year? The Selkirk Common Riding will remember it of course. Tradition says that after the battle a lone man, the Town Clerk, came to town with a captured flag, let it be known that all but he had been killed, and promptly died.
2013 marks 60 years since the coronation of Elizabeth Queen of Scots. This year marks the 60th since good king George died. Poor man, he didn’t live to see all the shenanigans of after time, which is maybe just as well. What would he make of his grandchildren? But that’s another blog…

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Name-calling

The Internet Movie Database is very useful and even enlightening, but is at the mercy of those who write in to contribute to sections like the synopsis of a film. Take “Braveheart” – Please!!
No, but seriously, folks –
I had a look at the IMDb info on Mel Gibson’s effort and straightaway saw:
“In the 13th Century England, after several years of political unrest in Scotland, the land is open to an invasion from the south.”
This seems to say that Scotland was (maybe still is?) part of England. I grant you that from the point of view of Edward Langshanks, it should have been. But this is of course the long-standing point of contention – how the English (establishment) view Scotland. There’s a pretty decent little songbook put out by A L Lloyd called Singing Englishmen, which contains the songs presented at a celebration of British folk song hosted by Lloyd on 1 June 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. It was an interesting programme, sung by the Workers’ Music Association Choir, with arrangements by the composer Alan Bush, and featured songs from all over Britain, and so inevitably included some Scottish songs. Lloyd was of course equating England with Britain, an arrogant and unthinking attitude, but he is not alone. I remember the outrage I felt as a teenager lang syne when I opened up Stanley Gibbons’ stamp magazine to read that “Many Englishmen, some of whom were Scotsmen, have been featured on stamps.” The editor gave an asterisk and a footnote to the effect that those were the contributor’s words, and while he was allowing them to stand (no censorship) he was keeping out of it.
But there it is. Somewhere I read that back in the 1700s an English parliamentarian exclaimed in astonished argument “Are not the Scots English?” – echoed I suppose by foreigners who equate the two very easily. French doesn’t speak about the British; it’s les anglais, of course, and when I was in Paris I took pains to tell my landlady that I was écossais. The Americans seem to be similarly careless a good deal of the time, but Canada with more memories of its Scottish heritage sensibly differentiates.
One of the consequences however of this ambiguity is that the separateness of the two countries is not considered, which has led to an emphasis on “Britishness”. That concept only got going after the union of parliaments, spurred on by the incorporation of Ireland around 1800; Scotland being referred to as “North Britain”, abbreviated on addresses to “N.B.” You don’t see that these days, thank goodness, although my fellow-Fifer Gordon Brown is on record as telling Americans, wasn’t it, that he came from North Britain (besides trying to erode his Scots accent, like an eighteenth-century hopeful wanting to get on in the real capital). Such things have for the most part disappeared, for somehow or other there has been an amazing upsurge in national pride of late, certainly since I emigrated to fresh woods in 1960. This does not mean, naturally, that everyone is waving the saltire with enthusiasm. All of a sudden the Labour Party is joining forces with its enemy the Conservative Party, along with the hapless Liberal Democrats, to put obstacles in the way of the Scottish Nationalists who quite understandably want to free Scotland of the English yoke. To this end, they are forming an unlikely coalition to support Westminster in its determination to run, or certainly put strings on, the referendum on separation promised by the SNP.
It’s as if the Scottish sections of the three main parties are playing down the Scottishness and saying they welcome English interference. One must not, naturally, impugn their patriotism or call them ant-Scottish (as one wee lass dared to in Holyrood the other day) – perish that thought!! But one can think of other adjectives.
Actually, I do think that the referendum, promised for 2014, will show a majority for independence. After the break, whenever that is in fact accomplished, those parties, now tied to the apron strings of their London HQ and the mother of parliaments, will be free to develop on their own in their own directions. I bet though that a few of them will mutter “Ah, but if we were still British, I might have made it to the ermine….!”

Happy New Year, by the way, to all my readers. One of my resolutions is to be a bit more regular with this weblog. It all depends of course on how riled or inspired I become. What I can promise you is a poem or two (Scots and English), and a tune or two (of my own devising), forbye a translation or two, and a bittie folklore.

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