25 January, the anniversary of Burns’ birth, is the night when thousands of Burns Suppers take place across Scotland and across the world - a tradition that dates back to 1802, just a few years after Burns’ death. The highlight is the parade of the haggis - often accompanied by a piper - followed by the recitation of Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis. Oh, and everyone sings Auld Lang Syne. All accompanied by lashings of whisky.
Like William Shakespeare in England, everything concerned with Burns’ life and work remains of abiding interest. Burns came from a humble background in Ayrshire, growing up with the hard manual labour of farming. He began to write poetry at the age of 15.
Like many ambitious young men of the period, Burns was convinced the only way he could rise out of his dire financial situation was to emigrate to Jamaica. The voyage was called off when his first collection, Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, became an unexpected success. All 612 copies sold out in the first month. It was 1786, and farmer Rabbie was about to take the Scottish literary world by storm. Soon, he was being lionised in Edinburgh society.
Burns’ poetry is often characterised by themes of solidarity, fairness, equality, liberalism and even proto-socialism. You wonder what this humanitarian would have made of working on a slave plantation.
By 1787 the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman’ had rocketed to fame and was widely regarded as the national bard. So, like any hardworking author, he went out and promoted his work. His tours of the Borders, the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and Stirlingshire were largely commercial in nature, but they also allowed him to collect traditional ballads and folk songs. Some of his finest work appeared in the six volumes of The Scots Musical Museum.
Again, like many authors, Burns’ cultural success was not matched by an equivalent financial reward. He tried to return to farming, and then worked for the unpopular excise (tax gatherers). The years of pitiless farm labour took their toll of Burns’ health. Prematurely aged, he died in Dumfries in 1796, at the age of just 37.
In 2009 STV (Scottish television) conducted a viewers’ poll to find who was regarded as the greatest Scot of all time. Burns won hands down.
Burns wrote the words for one of the most-sung songs in the world: the New Year anthem Auld Lang Syne. Which, loosely translated from scots, means roughly ‘in remembrance of old times’.
His song Scots Wha Hae with its patriotic tub-thumping, was the unofficial national anthem of Scotland for almost 200 years, and is the official party song of the Scottish National Party.
In 1965 World Heavyweight Champion boxer Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) visited the Burns Country in Ayrshire and quipped in typical rhyming style: ‘they told me his work was very, very neat, so I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?’’
Probably the best-known piece of Scottish supernaturalism is Burns’ 1791 narrative poem Tam O’Shanter, which is read aloud at Burns suppers. Tam, having been drinking late, is passing Alloway Kirk (which is still there in south Ayrshire) when he sees witches and warlocks having a knees-up, the host of the dread party being the Devil himself. Tam draws attention to himself when he shouts in approval at the appearance of an attractive semi-naked witch, and he only just escapes the subsequent hot pursuit by reaching the sanctuary of Alloway Bridge - the witches, as tradition demands, cannot cross running water, but the closest witch manages to pull out the tail of tam’s horse Meg just as he reaches safety.
Extracted from The Little Book of Scotland by Geoff Holder