If you aren’t familiar with Robbie Burns well... neither was I.
My attention was directed to his name when hearing of Robbie Burns Day, celebrated annually on the 25th of January, in the form of what is called a “Burns Supper”. Timidly searching, I glanced upon various handfuls of information: he’s a Scottish poet, he’s celebrated around the world, he was voted the “Greatest Scot of All Time” by STV (beating out William Wallace), he has been featured on postage stamps and currency, and when I asked my Dad who he was, he replied: “You don’t know who Robbie Burns is?”.
Realizing that I must have stumbled upon a household name that while being venerated by the elder generations has been lost to the bedlam of the modern media (there are lots of them I bet), I made it a point to dig deeper. What the hell did this guy do to make himself so special? Why him?
Born in 1759, his life’s story is dotted with ill-luck and misfortune for the first twenty years as he tried to make success of farming, this being the trade he was born into. Moving from pasture to pasture, this venture proved unsuccessful until an opportunity to work in the West Indies presented itself. Lacking the funds to travel there, he contrived to package his poems (which up until that time had been a consequence of a mere hobby) and try to publish them. They were, and he became instantly known throughout Scotland. From this point on, he was commissioned to write an extended volume, bringing him success in Edinburgh, as well as a massive undertaking of setting down lyrics to hundreds of old tunes of Great Britain into various dialects. He continued this work until his death in 1796 from ill-health. He is often quoted as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and his political mindset later in life had proven to be influential in the creation of liberalism and socialism for later generations.
Though this life is nothing short of monumental, does it warrant such a legacy as has been undertaken in the past three hundred years? I was left confused, thinking of countless others who could have taken his place. He was not perfect, having symptoms of ill-temperance, failed romances, lustful tendencies, and an all-around penchant for ill-fated decisions. He seemed more and more… human, with every new piece of information, abandoning the mystery and legend that cloaked his persona when I new little of him beforehand.
The “Burns Supper” is a solemn, extravagant thing, following a standard order:
1) A piper/music usually greets the guests as they enter, who mix and mingle.
2) A Host will provide a welcoming speech, after which the guests will be seated and say the “Selkirk Grace”, a variation of grace that is attributed to Burns which goes as follows:
Some hae meat an canna eat, And some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit.
3) Soup course, usually with a traditional Scottish broth.
4) “‘Piping’ of Haggis”: The piper will play the bagpipes as the haggis is brought in and presented to the table, after which the lyrical “Address to a Haggis” is pronounced.
5) Main course and other courses.
6) Toasts: at the coffee stage, various toasts are given: 1) “Immortal Memory”: a speech given by the Host about an aspect of Burns’ life. 2.) “Address to the Lassies”: a wide-ranging, amusing and inoffensive toast, portraying a view of women from the male’s perspective. 3) “Reply to the Laddies”: the women have their turn and throw it right back at the men.
The final portion of the supper entails the singing of various songs by Burns and can go on for hours. Foreign guests are also invited to sing songs from their native land.
This last point hit me a bit… perhaps I could find meaning in this by that simple fact: it’s not about Burns… it’s about poetry and art in general. It’s a celebration, and can be as simple as that.
But then I actually went to listen to what is arguably the greatest Burns song of all time: “Old Lang Syne”. You know this song, not by name, but the minute you listen to it you will recognize it, and the first time I actually listened to it with the context of who Robert Burns was, which was during the writing of this article, I cried.
No really, I fucking cried.
There’s something pure and simple about that song… “Old Lang Syne”... for Old Times Gone. It touches that unmistakable human quality… the misadventure that life seems to be that not even flashes of greatness can fully enlighten… the idea that there are things that just can’t be figured out and per the song, let us “take a cup of kindness yet, for Old Lang Syne (Old Times Gone”).
Let’s just get together and celebrate, and try to find a bit of meaning in this moment together.
I don’t care anymore about why, he made some great shit, and it affected me… and I’d love to be a part of these Suppers one day, because why not?
Even the suppers themselves were started up in the most trivial of motivations: a few of his friends celebrated the 5th anniversary of his death and it grew and grew and grew. It’s the sort of triviality and shackling to some sort of overbearing destiny that was a symptom of his life and legacy.
In this day and age of constantly trying to figure out the “why” in every situation, in trying to be politically correct to the point where searching for the “why” can end up blocking our hearts from the actual tangible, emotional, human quality of the situation, where nothing is perfect, Robbie Burns Day is to me a refreshing reminder that sometimes we can just get together, eat, and enjoy each other’s company and culture.
It is about Robbie Burns. He is important. But so are you, me, and your grandma. Let’s use him as an inspiration to be comfortable with our faults, try to be better, and if we want, reach for greatness when greatness shows up at the door asking us if we are sick of ploughing the fields and want to be poets ourselves.
I encourage you to read about him a bit and explore his work. I hope you feel something as I did, though some of you may not.
As for myself, maybe I’ll stop by a Burns Supper this year, and there are multiple venues in most cities that will be hosting one for the public, so take a look if it interests you.
Maybe I’ll see you there, and we can share a cup of kindness for old times gone.