Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
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Sunday, 25 January 2009

Celebrating the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birthday

Today is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the man often regarded as Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns; he was born on 25th January 1759 at Alloway in Ayrshire and died on 21st July 1796 at the age of 37 in Dumfries. The National Library of Scotland also has a website devoted to Robert Burns and the ubiquitous Wikipedia entry is here. Happy Birthday!

I've selected a couple of his pieces of writing to include here; the second is one of his best known works and is included as a rather fine video-clip, followed by some notes, whereas the first is probably rather less well known, but he wrote on such a vast array of subjects that it is difficult to make a choice and these two are mine. Enjoy!


My curse upon your venom'd stang,
That shoots my tortur'd gums alang,
An' thro' my lug gies sic a twang,
                   Wi' knawing vengeance,
Tearing my nerves wi' bitter pang,
                   Like racking engines!

When fevers burn, or agues freeze us,
Rheumatics gnaw, or colics squeeze us,
Our neibor's sympathy can ease us,
                   Wi' pitying moan;
But thee - thou hell o' a' diseases -
                   They mock our groan.

Adown my beard the slavers trickle,
I throw the wee stools o'er the mickle,
While round the fire the giglets keckle,
                   To see me loup,
An', raving mad, I wish a heckle
                   Were in their doup!

In a' the numerous human dools,
Ill-hairsts, daft bargains, cutty stools,
Or worthy frien's rak'd i' the mools, -
                   Sad sight to see!
The tricks o' knaves, or fash o' fools,
                   Thou bear'st the gree!

Where'er that place be priests ca' hell,
Where a' the tones o' misery yell,
An' rankèt plagues their numbers tell,
                   In dreadfu' raw,
Thou, TOOTHACHE, surely bear'st the bell,
                   Amang them a'!

O thou grim, mischief-making chiel,
That gars the notes o' discord squeel,
Till daft mankind aft dance a reel
                   In gore, a shoe-thick,
Gie a' the faes o' SCOTLAND'S weal
                   A towmond's toothache!

Now a rather better known, if not necessarily 'better', piece:


In my edition of Burns' Poetical Works and letters (* - see at end) the notes on this poem say the following:

Notes on 'To a Mouse

"It is difficult to decide," writes Currie, "whether this address should be considered as serious or comic. If we smile at the 'bickerin' brattle' of this little flying animal, it is a smile of tenderness and pity. The descriptive part is admirable; the moral reflections beautiful, arising directly out of the occasion; and in the conclusion there is a deep melancholy, a sentiment of doubt and dread that rises to the sublime." Gilbert Burns tells how the poem was the outcome of a real incident. The poet, while farming with his brother at Mossgiel, was holding the plough, with John Blane, the hired man, acting as driver, when the little creature was observed running off across the field. Blane, having the pettle, or plough-cleaning utensil, in his hand at the moment, was thoughtlessly running after it, to kill it, when Burns checked him, but not angrily, asking what ill the poor mouse had ever done him. The poet then seemed to his driver to grow very thoughtful, and during the remainder of the afternoon he spoke not. In the night-time he awoke Blane, who slept with him, and reading the poem, which had in the meantime been composed, asked what he thought of the mouse now.

Incidentally inside the frontispiece of my copy of Burns' poems, referred to above, there is a poem in the pencilled hand-writing of the person from whom I received the book, her signature appears on another blank page at the front and I know her writing from when I was a child (she died in the 1970s, when I would have been in my mid-20s); so far as I recall she had given me the book some years before her death, although I cannot remember exactly when, but wonder if it may have been around my 21st birthday and from the date of publication (see * below) I wonder if it may have been one of her own 21st birthday gifts. I suspect strongly that the poem must have been written by her, as she had been an English teacher in a grammar school (in Cumberland) for many years, but grew up on a croft on the Black Isle, just north of Inverness; she was an aunt of my father. It is very short, but it seems to me that it is very definitely written in the style of Burns. Anyway, here is the poem:

On a Visit to Inverness

There's nothing here but Highland Pride,
And Hielan Scab & Hunger,
If Providence has sent me here,
He did it in his anger.

* - The Poetical Works and letters of Robert Burns. Introduction, Notes, and Glossary by Robert Ford, Collins (Glasgow 1903)

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