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if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer, Gie her a Haggis!

The Scots are a funny people…

Tonight is Burns Night where Scots all over the world (and other enlightened people) celebrate the life of Rabbie Burns, our national poet. When I say funny, I obviously don’t mean peculiar - it’s perfectly normal to go out on a cold winter’s night to listen to someone reciting an address to a mythical creature that is being served for dinner. After the Address to a Haggis has been performed, there’s the obligatory Toast to the Lassies, sincerely delivered and the Reply to the Toast which is equally piquant. There is usually music and song and much laughter and as the night draws late the mood can turn a little maudlin.

Burns truly was a poet for all seasons and even the dour, tough Scots have been known to shed a tear at a Burns Supper in response to whiskey and sentimental songs such as “Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, and then forever!”

I say that Scots are funny because their humour is unrivalled, if often understated. They are masters of the wry observation, they have a devastating ability to point out the obvious and we are blessed with a vocabulary and turn of phrase which can deflate pomposity and cut to the chase. I’m sure some of these character traits (of course I’m making outrageously sweeping generalisations!) come from imbibing the work of Burns at a young age. I admit that of all things I miss by living abroad, almost foremost I miss the patter.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Burns, I am can almost guarantee that you have unknowingly encountered his work. Aside from writing Auld Lang Syne, he crafted many well known lines… “The best laid plans of mice and men,” and “The Catcher in the Rye” are from Burns. I would urge you check out some of his most famous lines - you’ll be hooked. Don’t be put off by the language, although he wrote in Lowland Scots dialect and since he died in 1796. Often the unfamiliar words are translated, but even without a glossary there is music and meaning in the language he uses.

He was a prolific poet and found a fascination in the natural world, in the absurdities of humans and he was strongly rooted in the Scottish Enlightenment. He spoke out for the common man. He was intensely critical of hypocrisy, particularly of the Church, (to wit “Holy Willie’s Prayer). Who doesn’t recognise the sentiment behind?

“The fear o’ hell’s a hangman’s whip

To haud the wretch in order;

But where ye feel your honour grip,

Let that aye be your border.”

He was a man who could see the commonplace and use it to express the universal. He wrote “To a Louse” when he saw on the bonnet of the lady in front of him in Church and used it as a call to self awareness and social justice amongst other things.

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An' foolish notion...”

He wrote “To a Mouse” when he overturned a mouse’s nest as he was ploughing a field. He wrote long and thrilling story poems like Tam O’ Shanter. He wrote love songs and comic ditties.

His work is as fresh and relevant today as it was in the days when his writings influenced and were influenced by the Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions. I hope you take a moment to seek out a few gems from Burns and “tak a cup o’ kindness yet” this Burns night.

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“Suspicion is a heavy armour and with its weight it impedes more than it protects.”

Might have to use that in my next book.

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