Tag Archives: Burns

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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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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