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Asking questions

The ramifications of a simple enquiry may turn out to be long and tortuous, whether it be a discussion of the famous Caledonian syzygy or Who wrote “Auld Lang Syne” (including maybe what tune it should go to). I’m thinking that my blogs might well be devoted (mostly) to such enquiries, taking the time and the space to examine the ins and outs and in-betweens of a few questions that have interested folks in the past, and may interest folks in the future. As to the syzygy, I’ll get onto Hugh Macdiarmid (he had, bless him, a Murray in his background) at some point, and even Burns eventually (all roads lead to Burns, I should think).

But for the nonce (I love that silly phrase, it makes me think of Chaucer somehow) it occurs to me that a wander through the thickets of the Sutherland Clearances and the Salic Law, involving rowing songs from Upper Canada and Edinburgh literati, would be somewhat entertaining.

So let’s see, we can start with the law of succession. Laws actually, for there are many and they vary from place to place, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and over time as well. In the Fifth Century the (legendary and apocryphal) king of the Franks, Pharamond, in a region of Europe probably settled by Germans (as opposed to French) brought out a set of laws assigning penalties for various crimes. Written in somewhat raw Latin, they contained one rule that was quite faithfully accepted, namely that succession to property or position in the “Salic lands” would only go through the male line: In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant. The story is set out at some length in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, Act I sc. 2, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who proceeds to assure the king that this has nothing to do with Edward III’s claim to France through his mother Isabella, daughter of Philip IV; and so Henry has every right to invade France to claim the throne.
[To be continued in our next.]


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The Year of Jubilo

I apologise to any who are out there panting to read more words of wisdom or diatribe – things have got in the way as things do, busyness combined of course with laziness and its handmaid procrastination. Not that there haven’t been a lot of things worth commenting on. In Canada here the evil Harper pursues his destructive course, British Columbia has its own economic and environmental disasters looming, and I sometimes think this tight little island I live on is a rare haven of more-or-less tranquil sanity. Let’s not think about the so-called United States; but what about the so-called United Kingdom?
It’s ironic maybe that furore about the Independence Referendum is becoming more strident at this period when Britain is set to celebrate the Olympics in London and the Queen’s sixtieth year on the throne. It’s a sort of bittersweet occasion when some are waving flags and others stifling yawns, while yet others are thumping tubs and calling for abolition of an outmoded and outrageous piece of mediaeval privilege imposed on a nation too meek to resist. Myself, I suppose I go along with the position (at present!) of the Scottish National Party, which says that an independent Scotland will retain the sovereign, at least until the people (who in Scotland are sovereign) decide otherwise, by a plebiscite I suppose.
I used to be an anarchist, and to be honest I still am, though I think I’ve mellowed with the years (like fine wine? or an aged cheese?). At one time I was even a member of the Scottish Labour League, a Trotskyite organisation that held little meetings where diehards lectured as many of an audience as could be mustered about the sins of capitalism and the glorious socialist future. Well, that future is still a long way off, and after fifty years the sins are even more blatant. It is true that laws have been enacted in the course of my cognitive life (I mean since I began to notice things) that have improved the lot of a good deal of humanity, but naturally there’s a lot of other things that have been forced on the people quite deliberately to lessen freedom and to improve the condition not of the poor old working class, or even the long-suffering middle classes, but the elite, the moneyed classes, the privileged two percent at the top. It’s very easy for legislators to make things comfortable for their friends, and it’s very easy (and expected) that friends in business and finance will reciprocate. So what else is new?
But can we salvage any pleasure out of contemplating the country right now? The Queen, God bless her royal socks, is celebrating a sexagesimal stamina, and we should treat the occasion with the the respect it deserves (no rude laughter at the back!), for Elizabeth really has tried hard and should be given due appreciation. She has been, naturally, tied down by her position, her upbringing, her court and advisers (I’m remembering Verdi’s bit in Rigoletto, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!”), so she can’t help herself too well. She is however in the same tradition as her predecessor Victoria, who also had a Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (just a couple of years before my father was born). The country at that time was in settled imperial mood, and so the occasion was marked with due loyal solemnity and popular enthusiasm.
They wrote songs about it: I collected one about 1957 from a grand old man, Mr Stopper of Aberdeen, then living in Bellshill in Lanarkshire. I have predictably mislaid my tape recording, which after all this time is probably rather unplayable anyway, and oddly enough I never did write it down, but as far as I remember it went like this:

A very good evening my Jubilee friends,
Please forgive me for being so rude,
But a Jubilee song in this Jubilee year
I will sing if you do not intrude.

I’m out on a Jubilee spree,
I’m full up on Jubilee ale,
I was locked up last night in a Jubilee cell
And I’m out upon Jubilee bail.

* * *
All the things in our house have got Jubilee names;
These are my Jubilee clothes;
We’ve a cat that’s got Jubilee kittens – in fact
I’ve a Jubilee wart on my nose.

It’s a jolly song from the music hall of the time, and Mr Stopper sang it with panache. It shows maybe the way the ordinary folk looked at the occasion, with good-humoured affection. There is therefore a marked difference to notice in the way the populace is acting now. The number of events like street parties being planned in Scotland is about 200 I think, dwarfed by thousands in the rest of the country. England is going mad with concerts and specially written songs, a banquet or two and beacons up the length of the country – the last lit (by a button I assume) by Elizabeth herself, triggering a (surely enormous) firework display over Buckingham Palace. One item that might be quite watchable (if I had TV) is a procession down the Thames in a specially built royal barge, serenaded by many musical ensembles on other boats, and the whole thing should be quite a display.
Yet there is a quite remarkable groundswell of popular opinion that sees the monarchy as an anachronism in a modern age, and the Green Party in Scotland is in favour of a republic. They are not numerous, compared to the “mainline” parties, but they are by no means alone. The approaching referendum on independence in 2014 is a good excuse and a good opportunity to raise the question. Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, has assured anxious royalists that the Queen will be kept after the great liberation, though there are many I’m sure within his party that would balk at continuing the institution after her death. William and Kate seem nice enough young folks, though Harry seems a night-clubbing joyrider; and immediately do we want Charles and his second wife on the throne, for all their well-meaning involvement in good causes?
We live in “interesting times”, right enough.

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The Scottish Play and Scottish Ploys

I see that there’s to be a production of Macbeth in a translation into Scots, made by Robin Lorimer twenty years ago. It had to happen I suppose, for the English bard has been put into every other language, it seems. The next stage I should think will be to render him into Gaelic, seeing as how MacBeth was our best Gaelic king (as a commentator on the news story notes). Another writes in Scots (of a sort) thus:

Hearin onythin in guid braid Scots is a fell guid thing. Wi this Lorimer owersettin mony folk that wadna normally gang tae a Shakespeare production, wull nae doot hae thair een stappit open tae see a bit o internaitional cultur thae wad itherwise nae conseeder at aw. There maunna be ony boonds tae Shakespeare, an shairly MacBeth o aw the bards warks shuid be heard in Scots! Forby thon, is it nae a sad thing that the abuin article haed tae say “not to be confused with Gaelic”. Haein been tae twa-three Scots language plays afore, an seein folk wi tears in thair een because o hearin thair ain Scots Tung, I hae nae doot at aw that this play wull “blaw thaim awa”. I’ll awa an jyne thon queue for tickets!

But one has to suspend one’s disbelief when viewing the play (in any language). It’s really a fantasy out of the partisan historian Holinshed, and a great libel on a king who was to say the least more sinned against than sinning. Assassinations and usurping were not at all unusual back then [and since??], and MacBeth was actually a pretty good monarch, his reign lasting a bit longer than Shakespeare makes out. He shortens things up and telescopes time so that poor Macbeth reels towards his deserved ruin headlong. This is naturally better for drama, but makes a pedantic historian grit the teeth. Forbye this, the murder of Duncan (based actually on that of Duff) is portrayed as an individual act (no fellow conspirators), whereas history makes the noble Banquo just as involved, and Duncan himself is portrayed not as a weak ineffectual king unworthy of the throne but as a practically saint-like capable ruler. This agrees pretty well with Shakespeare’s new monarch James, who held to the comforting idea that kings are by God appointed (as the vicar of Bray says), and moreover traced his descent from the innocent Banquo.

The results are in for the council elections in Britain, and Labour rather surprisingly have done rather well in Scotland against all odds. But I suppose the Unionist mob and the howls from the partisan media (including the “unbiased” BBC) about SNP hypocrisy had their effect. Nothing daunted, Alex Salmond and his minions put a brave face on and note that overall SNP councillors total 402, more than before and more than Labour. Meanwhile the poor Liberal Democrats suffered rather badly, mostly I suppose because folk are fed up with the shenanigans of the Westminster coalition, but in spite of what Jenny Dawe says, in Edinburgh at least the fury and frustration of the citizens about the tram fiasco have finally been able to be demonstrated.

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Tak aff yer dram!

I see that the SNP idea of a minimum price for alcohol as a method of combating the scourge of “binge drinking” [a new phenomenon, evidently] has been endorsed by the Westminster government AND what is laughingly called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Oddly enough though the Labour Party in Scotland [no such thing as a Scottish Labour Party] is set against the idea, probably because they have a visceral dislike of anything and everything the SNP come up with, and consistently vote against it. But it’s something that needed doing, albeit maybe not enough. Drinking of course has been a favourite hobby for Scots for a long time, going back to the Picts, if legend be trusted. I might as well pass on what dear old Robert Chambers tells us:

The Pechs were also a great people for ale, which they brewed frae heather; sae, ye ken, it bood (was bound) to be an extraornar cheap kind of drink; for heather, I’se warrant, was as plenty then as it’s now. This art o’ theirs was muckle sought after by the other folk that lived in the kintry; but they never would let out the secret, but handed it down frae father to son among themselves, wi’ strict injunctions frae ane to another never to let onybody ken about it.
At last the Pechs had great wars, and mony o’ them were killed, and indeed they soon came to be a mere handfu’ o’ people, and were like to perish aft’ the face o’ the earth. Still they held fast by their secret of the heather yill, determined that their enemies should never wring it frae them. Weel, it came at last to a great battle between them and the Scots, in which they clean lost the day, and were killed a’ to tway, a father and a son. And sae the king o’ the Scots had these men brought before him, that he might try to frighten them into telling him the secret. He plainly told them that, if they would not disclose it peaceably, he must torture them till they should confess, and therefore it would be better for them to yield in time. ‘Weel,’ says the auld man to the king, ‘I see it is of no use to resist. But there is ae condition ye maun agree to before ye learn the secret.’ ‘And what is that?’ said the king. ‘Will ye promise to fulfil it, if it be na anything against your ain interests?’ said the man. ‘Yes,’ said the king, ‘I will and do promise so.’ Then said the Pech ‘You must know that I wish for my son’s death, though I dinna like to take his life myself.
                                         My son ye maun kill,
                                         Before I will you tell
                                         How we brew the yill
                                         Frae the heather bell!’
The king was dootless greatly astonished at sic a request; but, as he had promised, he caused the lad to be immediately put to death. When the auld man saw his son was dead, he started up wi’ a great stend, and cried, ‘Now, do wi’ me as you like. My son ye might have forced, for he was but a weak youth; but me you never can force.
                                         And though you may me kill,
                                         I will not you tell
                                         How we brew the yill
                                         Frae the heather bell!’
The king was now mair astonished than before, but it was at his being sae far outwitted by a mere wild man. Hooever, he saw it was needless to kill the Pech, and that his greatest punishment might now be his being allowed to live. So he was taken away as a prisoner, and he lived for mony a year after that, till he became a very, very auld man, baith bedrid and blind. Maist folk had forgotten there was sic a man in life; but ae night, some young men being in the house where he was, and making great boasts about their feats o’ strength, he leaned owre the bed and said he would like to feel ane o’ their wrists, that he might compare it wi’ the arms of men wha had lived in former times. And they, for sport, held out a thick gaud o’ em’ to him to feel. He just snappit it in tway wi’ his fingers as ye wad do a pipe stapple. ‘It’s a bit gey gristle,’ he said; ‘but naething to the shackle-banes o’ my days.’ That was the last o’ the Pechs. [Robert Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870), 80-82.]

Drinking the hard stuff is supposed to be a characteristic of the Scot, but in the 18th century they really did drink to excess. (And by ‘they’ I include the English.) Burns in this regard was like enough of his fellows; but he was, for his time, a rather temperate man. Some folks drank themselves stupid at any excuse, preferably at a wake – it was said by some visitors to Scotland that a Scottish wake was merrier than an English wedding! It is also no real surprise to find it on record as happening (it surely happened more than once) that at the funeral of the mother of Forbes of Culloden the long cortege was absolutely stoned as they wound their way to the kirkyard (which was miles away) only to discover when they got there that they had left the corpse behind.

By Burns’s time folk drank quite copiously, but no one had coined binge-drinking yet. People did complain of course, particularly the Kirk, though sometimes their homilies were ill expressed. We’re told of a certain worthy divine who took his flock to task for undue tippling, and he addressed them thus from the pulpit:

“My friends, the habit of tippling or nipping is a very pernicious one. If ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. For example, when ye get up in the morning, and ye feel a-sinking like, and a bit downish, and ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. And, say, when ye hae sat down and are partaking of the mercies provided, and in case that some of the victuals might not agree with you, and ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. And then, perhaps, when ye gaun and delve in the yird, say, suld the wark be heavy, afore goin’ oot, and to keep up yer speerits like, should ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping”—and so on and so on, till the thirsty congregation had his express permission to take about twenty nips between breakfast and dinner.

Dean Ramsay [Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character, 1857] tells of a drinking bout he was told of by Duncan Mackenzie, writer of the early nineteenth century:

He had been invited to a regular drinking party. He was keeping as free from the usual excesses as he was able, and as he marked companions around him falling victims to the power of drink, he himself dropped off under the table amongst the slain, as a measure of precaution, and lying there, his attention was called to a small pair of hands working at his throat; on asking what it was, a voice replied, “Sir, I’m the lad that’s to lowse the neck-cloths” (i.e. to untie the cravats of the guests and prevent apoplexy or suffocation).

He also tells of a party at Castle Grant many years before, where toasts were drunk again and again as usual, the company getting more incapable by the minute, and as the evening advanced towards morning, two Highlanders were in attendance to carry the guests upstairs, it being understood that none could by any other means arrive at their sleeping apartments. One or two of the guests, whether from their abstinence or their superior strength of head, were walking upstairs, and declined the proffered assistance. The attendants were astonished, and indignantly exclaimed, “Ach, it’s sore cheenged times at Castle Grant, when gentlemen can gang to bed on their ain feet!”

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Colours of Embarassment

Reading the online newspapers can be amusing, generally in a dire way, I must admit. The current Daily Mail, which I have previously commended for its stalwart commitment to exposing the tawdry side of British life, has a story on the new uniforms for the volunteer helpers at the London Olympics. They feature a polo shirt with matching fleece, anorak and rucksack as well as a straw trilby with a pink ribbon. The material they’re made of seems to be polyester, and promises to be unbearably hot and sweaty when worn all day. The colours involved are pink and magenta. The remarks of the outraged Daily Mailers go the gamut from “Oh dear!” to “Vomit-making”, and include these:

Looks like they are members of a provincial Pub Skittles or Bowls team.
[They’d look okay] on a jockey at Cheltenham maybe.
Designed by M Integrated Solutions. I suppose the “M” is for muppets.
They look like the kind of “his & hers” matching anoraks that married hikers wear on some god-awful walking holiday in Scarborough…

-To which someone who’s up to date answered : You do know that you are making terrible assumptions that a married couple comprises a man and a woman – don’t want to go upsetting Lynne Featherstone, now do we?!!!! – Maybe I should explain that the lady is a Liberal Democrat Minister of Equality in the Westminster government, and a proponent of the controversial gay marriage proposal.

The colours, however, though based on those already selected as the official colours, don’t really go together; I agree on that. Another complainer asks
Why couldn’t we have red, white and blue for goodness sake??
– which brought out a reasonable answer to the effect that the colours of the Blessed Union Flag are shared with several nations, and to avoid confusion one should have (it seems) a colour combination few ordinary folk would care to be seen dead in. However, a writer from New Zealand comments
When I was a lively young lad, these colours would have been instantly recognisable as representing a well-known brand of condom – subliminal advertising, perhaps?

As for the hats, another enthusiast quipped,
Love the hats. The only thing missing is the sign stuck in the band reading “In This Style 10/6”.
Maybe I don’t need to remind readers that this is a reference to Tenniel’s great drawing of the Mad Hatter; the inference being that someone is mad, or all of them maybe, presenting Britain (and the giggling world) with
First the inane logo, second the childish mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, third the ticketing fiasco and now the uniforms.

When the Games logo itself was unveiled in 2007, there was widespread criticism of the design (by the Wolff Olins agency) and its cost (£400,000). Some could make nothing of it; others for some reason saw in it a couple (the Simpsons perhaps) engaged in an undesignated sexual act. So another fed-up critic opines
A sex act for a logo, two phallic mascots and now a parade of John Inman impersonators!
Again, to explain: the mascots are two drops of metal with a single eye, one supposes a resemblance to the membrum virile (though evidently they were designed with children in mind), and Inman was the campy character in the “Are You Being Served?” sitcom. It is true though that pink and purple are both associated with Gay Pride, and it’s unfortunate that this is liable to bring out snide remarks such as the design was the result of lobbying from Stonewall. I haven’t decided yet whether that’s a joke or a tenuous sort of homophobia. But anyway, one may sum up with
Yuk!!! It’s becoming increasingly embarrassing to admit to being British.
Which brings me once more to the naming game [English – British – Scottish], of which more perhaps in our next.

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Someone, contributing a comment to a recent story in The Scotsman, pointed out that it took a long while after 1707 for the English navy to become British (though he was quoting an 1812 date). What he was referring to was Nelson’s famous signal “England expects that every man this day will do his duty” – rightly extolled as a great and memorable phrase. It caught the imagination of the people, and features as the chorus, more or less, of Braham’s tuneful song “The Death of Nelson” (“’Twas in Trafalgar Bay”), his greatest hit, which held the stage for a hundred years. It first appeared in the opera written in collaboration with Matthew Peter King (1773-1823), The Americans, presented at the Lyceum Theatre in 1811. (We’re told that Lady Hamilton, who was in a private box for the performance, was so overcome that she suffered a fit of hysterics and had to leave the theatre). That song incidentally put the phrase “England, home and beauty” into the cliché pot. Braham himself, in 1803, sang in his own opera The English Fleet, which shows the (English) usage of the time. But the objection to “England” can be answered by an anecdote I picked up from somewhere some decades ago and used in an Immortal Memory I gave to the Los Angeles Scottish Country Dancers:
Anent the patriotism of the Scot, there’s a well-known story of the Scotsman who was twitted upon that famous signal of Lord Nelson’s before Trafalgar, “England expects that every man this day will do his duty” — and he replied, “Ye would say that Nelson reckoned that Scotland was of no account, and therefore did not address himself to Scotsmen. But it was like this: he only said expects to Englishmen, because he knew he could only expect them to do their duty. He did not mention Scotland because he knew perfectly well that every Scotsman might be relied upon to do his.”

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Tak Anither Dram

I thought I’d give you a rest, loyal readers, from political diatribes, and instead publish a song I wrote, words and music, upwards of fifty years ago. It appeared in a collection of my tunes put out by Fiddlehead Publications in Halifax N.S., but never got much publicity. It’s a drinking song, but the tune can be used (and was used by the bands I was in) as a hornpipe in medleys for Scottish country dancing. The words are as follows:

O, it’s blithe when your cronies are a’ gaithered roun’ the table,
And it’s merry when the whisky is a-flowing in the cup;
For there’s owre mony bodies want to keep us driech and dowie,
But we’ll send them to the deil and syne we’ll fill our glesses up.
O, the man that can look at us wi’ face sae dour and lang,
He is but fu’ o’ jealousy we are sae free;
Sae come on then, my jolly lads, and jine into my sang,
Gae tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.

When the nicht it is mirky and the win’ aroun’ is howlin’
Ye’ll be gled to be inside and hae a bottle at yer mou’;
And ye’ll aye be gled an’ happy when ye see yer frien’s a-comin’,
Yer frien’s that aye hae been to ye sae loyal and sae true.
There’s some will scorn and say that every friendship it must fade,
And sae it may wi’ ither men, it seems to be;
But I’m shair ye’ll aye hae mind, houever mony years hae gaed,
Hou ye’d tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.

O the days they gae by, and ilka day we’re gettin’ aulder,
But we’ll never care, for we can aye remember we were young,
When we gaed to the jiggin’, or we had a drucken rammy,
And we liltet bonny sangs that were sae sweet upon the tongue.
Let them that’s sour, and envy us, dae what the deil they may,
A better set o’ cronies they will never see;
Sae come on then, my jolly lads, we’ll hae our Hogmanay,
Gae tak anither dram, and drink wi’ me.


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Two Solitudes

In glancing over the online papers [they aren’t on paper any more, so what should we call them?] in order to keep up with the Mackintoshes, so to speak, I notice more and more that there seems to be developing a divide in the hapless United Kingdom that’s a bit unsettling. There has always been a certain minority in England that distrusts and even fears the Scots, and likewise there has always been a body of opinion in Scotland that feels the same about the English. Both groups have been vocal to a greater or lesser extent for years, and both have been discounted by the rest as risible jingoism. Nowadays however with the greater availability of soapboxes, especially on the Net, they are getting more coverage, and their message is louder. The papers that allow readers to respond to stories, at least the red-top tabloids, seem to tend to let them steam away with the most frightful invective, and it must be said that the target is mostly Scotland. Replies in kind focus on the slip-ups that those in the establishment keep on making, poking fun at Little Englanders and their isolationist stance which finds its apogee in the British National Party and UKIP. The latter seems to have no platform except “Get out of the EU”, which is understandable in a way since the involvement of the UK in the European adventure has caused a good deal of grief in many respects.
The Scottish National Party is but one group (albeit the most prominent and powerful) that favours Scottish isolationism, in that the yoke to be thrown off is that of England. Or at least of Westminster. Their insults are mostly aimed at dodgy politicians and not the inhabitants of the Home Counties. In fact it’s been pointed out that the English need independence too. They don’t have their own parliament to deal with English matters, which seems unfair. But then there’s this Referendum looming in Bannockburn Year. This is the main item in mind these days – the Establishment keeps on harping about the dangers and foolishness of a Yes vote, and finding ever more questionable reasons for attacking the very idea. They bring out big guns, or those presumed to be important and informed thinkers, practically every day, to opine from umpteen points of view about the ludicrous idea of Scottish independence. That referendum is two years away. The noise on both sides is going to get more raucous, the insults and dirty tricks and threats more vociferous, and by the time of the event will be a clamour to turn off those who are still interested. It’s going to be a long two years.


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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?


Filed under Music, Politics, Texts

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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