Tag Archives: Robert Burns

The lichts o’ Hallowe’en


I have always been sceptical of the authenticity and value of modern writing in the Scots language, but I must concede a powerful example is some of the poetry of Violet Jacobs. Mind you, she lived from 1863 to 1946 so might be regarded as being closer to the era of Robert Burns  than to anyone living today.

I first came across her poem “Hallowe’en” in the musical setting by Jim Reid, which gives it added power as well as makes its reflective structure seem strangely similar to John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”. Jacobs’ narrator observes all the features of a local Hallowe’en – the children dressed up, the sharing of ghost stories – and finds them especially poignant because her loved one is in France, probably a casualty of World War One.

Burns himself also wrote a poem called “Hallowe’en”, which is a description of various folklores of the season, carried out by some named characters, with accompanying notes by the bard.

Biographer Maurice Lindsay felt it “one of Burns’ least successful poems…perhaps (because it was) a too-conscious attempt to preserve customs.” However, Lindsay did point readers in the direction of two livelier poems which probably influenced Burns’ “Hallowe’en”.

“Hallow-Fair” by Robert Fergusson, the contemporary whom Burns greatly admired  reports on a public celebration near Edinburgh, while “Hallowe’en” by the less well -known John Mayne provides tips for family celebrations at half the length of Burns and at twice the pace.


Reference :  Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns : The Man, His Work, The Legend   London : Robert Hale






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For humility and contentment


Robert Burns lived in many parts of Scotland in his short life and these places quite reasonably exploit their Burns connection for tourism purposes. For example, the Ayrshire towns of Ayr, Mauchline, Tarbolton and Irvine, where he grew up, worked, and socialised; Kilmarnock, where his poems were first published; the capital city of Edinburgh where he was feted; the town of Dumfries where he spent the last few years of his life.




One of the more overlooked is Ellisland, the farm near Dumfries of which he was the tenant for three years from 1788 until 1791. The house he built was quite expansive for the period and indicates his relative prosperity, status and self-confidence at the time.  “Not a Palace to attract the train-attended steps of pride-swoln Greatness,” observed the bard wryly, “but a plain, simple Domicile for Humility & Contentment”. “Humility” – in the 21st century, one of the least valued and encouraged of personal qualities in anyone!




This was the period when Burns was a well-paid excise-man as well as a struggling farmer, when he wrote the timeless “Tam O’Shanter” as well as other poems and song lyrics. As Maurice Lindsay describes, “The picture of Burns at Ellisland which emerges is one of a mature and passionate man, overworked, struggling with decreasing success against impoverished soil, yet playing a full part in communal life, espousing democratic causes (sometimes indiscreetly)… a kindly picture…”


Reference:   Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns: The Man, His Work, The Legend    London: Robert Hale


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Our Rabbie


In many ways, Robert Burns is the ideal representative for the Scotland he lived in, with his personal experience of both town and country, west coast and east, lowlands and highlands, religion and politics, and people from all walks of life.

Of course, he is also a figure of contradictions : the self-employed farmer who became an employee of the state, the populariser of the Scots language who was influenced equally strongly by English classical stylists like Pope and Fielding,  the hard-working literary craftsman whose posthumous reputation has been confused by both friends and foes more attracted to his life and legend.

You tend to feel that, in recent decades, it is these contradictions which have fed Burns’  iconic status : for example, someone who was never rich in his own lifetime but who features on the Clydesdale Bank £10 note or the political radical who at different times has been adopted by political spin-doctors of  various colours.

Of course, while a few Burns poems are world-famous, many are scarcely known at all. One reason for this, as hinted above, may be the popular interest in the person of Burns. As the entry in Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland says, “(Burns) is very often referred to as ‘Rabbie Burns’. The familiar form of his name signals affection and acceptance. It is as if Burns is being saluted in a very down-to-earth way, as a creative genius certainly, but also as someone who does not stand on his dignity, a friend to the common man.”

Perhaps this Burns season it’s worth paying more attention to Rabbie the poet,  and, especially, to the sheer range of his work : comic, dramatic, satirical, philosophical, and, of course, the love poems and lyrics of all styles, romantic, emotional, tender and carnal.


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The end of “Tam O’Shanter” in metalwork, on this Burns walkway in Alloway.


This BBC archive  offers a comprehensive themed list of his works and some brilliant readings.  


Reference :  Keyes, John and Julia (ed)  (1994)  Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland  London : Harper Collins


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Why is Robert Burns the only world famous writer who has a meal organised in his honour?

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“Alloway’s auld haunted kirk” in Ayrshire, key scene in Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”, and actual burial place of his parents William and Agnes.


When, as a child,  I first came across the phenomenon of the Burns Supper,  the thing which struck me was that the food served could be so plain. The idea that people would get dressed up and go out for a fancy meal at which the main course was haggis  seemed incomprehensible.  So I was reassured the first time I read an actual Burns Supper menu, to see that this very much acquired taste in food actually played only a minor role in the meal, and that beef was usually the main course.   

Later, the other question which puzzled me was: why did the poet Robert Burns have an annual meal organised in his honour, an event which started so soon after his death, when no other famous writer did? Why, indeed, did he have special societies set up in his honour?  True, Burns was a writer who celebrated conviviality and companionship, but so did others. The works of  Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce all suggest that they are writers who see food and drink as among the great pleasures of life, and surely the English and the Irish are nationalities who welcome a good party as much as the Scots?

The answer to the mystery, I am certain,  although I have found it hard to find anyone who shares this view in writing, is freemasonry.  It is well-known that Burns was a freemason, part of a religious movement which developed in the 18th century as men espoused rational and scientific thinking which was seen to be a modern alternative to the hierarchy and  doctrine of the medieval Catholic Church, and which is still popular today.  It seems highly likely to me that many of the people who wished to honour Burns after his premature death were fellow masons as well as literary admirers. The first Burns Club was set up in 1801 in Greenock, only five years after his death – a speedy appreciation, indeed. The Burns Monument in Ayr which was built in the 1820s shows Masonic design influences.

Certainly, other factors came into play soon afterwards to extend and deepen Burns’  reputation. For example,  Carol McGurk points out that many of the next couple of generations of Scots of the same social class as Burns (which she describes as “peasant”) did what he had once planned to do and emigrated. The picture of Scottish life portrayed in Burns’ work which they read now was instrumental in forming the memory of their former homeland. By the centenary of Burns’ birth, 1859, several editions of his work had appeared, and, as Carol McGurk says, “British popular culture was (now) permeated with the familiar aspects of the Burns myth”.

During the last generation, the classic Burns Supper has become less structured and formal. Nowadays, Burns events in January or early February retain the food and drink and music  but tend to have fewer speeches.  This is probably because there are fewer Burns experts around and fewer skilled public speakers who are not professional politicians or actors. Also, our Scottish culture has become more international and less text-based. Men and women now participate equally, in contrast to the men-only clubs which hosted them regularly in the past.  The result is a more varied, more welcoming type of Burns event, perhaps more in keeping with the poet’s democratic outlook.

Robert Burns’ status as a writer is still celebrated – and certainly his complex colourful life is understood better than in the past.  However, in my experience, intriguingly, the freemasonry element of the Burns story is still rarely mentioned.


Reference :  McGurk, Carol  (1994), “Burns and Nostalgia” in   Simpson, Kenneth (ed) Burns Now  Edinburgh : Canongate Academic


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