‘Tis Burns Night

Robert Burns

Robert Burns


Robert Burns was born on this day in 1759.  The bard of Scotland was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things with the language of his time.  He wrote in the Scots dialect, but he also wrote in plain English.

The great Scottish folk singer, Donnie MacDonald, once told me that in his opinion the closest American songwriter to Burns was Hank Williams, Sr. I had not thought of that comparison, so he explained. Both writers understood the common man, the person who worked hard to survive, and who lived a life of dignity and worth.  And come to think of it both Robert Burns and Hank Williams were no strangers to a hearty party.

Robert Burns wrote of the mundane, of the common person, of love of the land and its creatures and of love itself.

All across the world, on this night there will be Burns Night Suppers.  These events are treasured by those who love the genius of Burns, whether they are of Scottish descent or not.  The Burns Supper is a combination of reception, feast, entertainment and poetry reading.

The highlight of a Burns Night event is the presentation of the haggis.  The haggis is brought into the hall, preceded by a piper and accompanied by an escort of swordsmen, each carrying one of the formidable weapons of the highlands, the claidheamh mòr, or great highland claymore.  When the haggis is placed on the table of honor, a speaker will recite Ode to a Haggis. At the proper verse, the speaker will cut the haggis open with a sharp dirk.

My friend Hamish Mowat used to do the recitation at Burns Suppers. If there were to be a play-by-play announcer at Armageddon, Hamish would have been the voice needed. Not a big man, but his deep resonant voice could fill the room. Hamish passed away several years ago.

Haggis was soul food for the Scots of olden time.  It is a kind of sausage (don’t ask what is in it) with the primary ingredients being oats and sheep’s liver.  It actually tastes very much like a pâté.  The ingredients were cheap, filling, and of high nutritional value.  It was a staple in a poor highland household, and literally kept people from starving.  Burns honored this humble food with one of the most memorable poems he ever wrote.

Burns respected the smallest of creatures as well as taking note of the ruling class.  The latter did not come out as well in his poems as even a mouse, a louse or even a simple flower.

Some of his most pointed offerings were aimed at the upper class.  He was a strong defender of liberty and freedom.  In fact, one of Burns’ most scathing compositions was aimed at the ruling class.  He wrote it over the “signature” of Beelzebub (e.g.:Satan, Old Scratch, the Devil)

Address Of Beelzebub

To the Right Honourable the Earl of Breadalbane, President of the Right Honourable and Honourable the Highland Society, which met on the 23rd of May last at the Shakespeare, Covent Garden, to concert ways and means to frustrate the designs of five hundred Highlanders, who, as the Society were informed by Mr. M’Kenzie of Applecross, were so audacious as to attempt an escape from their lawful lords and masters whose property they were, by emigrating from the lands of Mr. Macdonald of Glengary to the wilds of Canada, in search of that fantastic thing-Liberty.

Long life, my Lord, an’ health be yours,
Unskaithed by hunger’d Highland boors;
Lord grant me nae duddie, desperate beggar,
Wi’ dirk, claymore, and rusty trigger,
May twin auld Scotland o’ a life
She likes-as butchers like a knife.

Faith you and Applecross were right
To keep the Highland hounds in sight:
I doubt na! they wad bid nae better,
Than let them ance out owre the water,
Then up among thae lakes and seas,
They’ll mak what rules and laws they please:
Some daring Hancocke, or a Franklin,
May set their Highland bluid a-ranklin;
Some Washington again may head them,
Or some Montgomery, fearless, lead them,
Till God knows what may be effected
When by such heads and hearts directed,
Poor dunghill sons of dirt and mire
May to Patrician rights aspire!
Nae sage North now, nor sager Sackville,
To watch and premier o’er the pack vile,
An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons
To bring them to a right repentance-
To cowe the rebel generation,
An’ save the honour o’ the nation?
They, an’ be d-d! what right hae they
To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?
Far less-to riches, pow’r, or freedom,
But what your lordship likes to gie them?

But hear, my lord! Glengarry, hear!
Your hand’s owre light to them, I fear;
Your factors, grieves, trustees, and bailies,
I canna say but they do gaylies;
They lay aside a’ tender mercies,
An’ tirl the hallions to the birses;
Yet while they’re only poind’t and herriet,
They’ll keep their stubborn Highland spirit:
But smash them! crash them a’ to spails,
An’ rot the dyvors i’ the jails!
The young dogs, swinge them to the labour;
Let wark an’ hunger mak them sober!
The hizzies, if they’re aughtlins fawsont,
Let them in Drury-lane be lesson’d!
An’ if the wives an’ dirty brats
Come thiggin at your doors an’ yetts,
Flaffin wi’ duds, an’ grey wi’ beas’,
Frightin away your ducks an’ geese;
Get out a horsewhip or a jowler,
The langest thong, the fiercest growler,
An’ gar the tatter’d gypsies pack
Wi’ a’ their bastards on their back!
Go on, my Lord! I lang to meet you,
An’ in my house at hame to greet you;
Wi’ common lords ye shanna mingle,
The benmost neuk beside the ingle,
At my right han’ assigned your seat,
‘Tween Herod’s hip an’ Polycrate:
Or if you on your station tarrow,
Between Almagro and Pizarro,
A seat, I’m sure ye’re well deservin’t;
An’ till ye come-your humble servant,


The best single example of Burn’s strong feeling for people is found in the immortal A Man’s a Man for A’ That. The performer is Dr. Ed Miller, a Scottish musician now at the University of Texas.

A bit of personal story here.  When my granddaughter was visiting for her fifth birthday, she wanted me to read her a bedtime story.  I told her to go get one of the children’s books, but she refused, saying that she wanted me to read from one of MY books.  I surveyed the bookcase but the array of science texts was hardly appropriate.  Finally, I spotted something more appropriate.  I told her to get the thick book with the ribbon hanging out.  Anthology of World Poetry.  She opened the book to the ribbon and said, “Grandpa, read that.”  I looked at it and told her it was not really appropriate for a five year old’s bedtime story.  She was insistent.  I relented and read it to her.  It was Burns’ interpretation of Robert the Bruce’s exhortation to his troops just before the Battle of Bannockburn on June 24, 1314. Seven hundred years ago this year.

She said she liked that and wanted me to read some more.  I read a few more Burns poems and told her to go to bed.  She stopped in the doorway, turned, and said, “Grandpa, I know a poem.”  I figured this cute five year old would tell me something she had learned in nursery school, such as Hickory Dickory Dock.  She put her fist on her hip, struck a pose, then in a thick Scottish burr, recited:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory!

Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour,
See approach proud Edward’s power –
Chains and slavery!

Wha will be a traitor-knave?
Wha can fill a coward’s grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!

Wha for Scotland’s king and law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand or freeman fa’,
Let him follow me!

By oppression’s woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in ev’ry foe!
Liberty’s in ev’ry blow!
Let us do or die!

Scots Wha Hae
has been set to music and for a long time was the unofficial anthem of Scotland.

Stunned, I asked her if she knew any more.  She proceeded to recite more poems I had just read to her, My Heart’s in the Highlands and Highland Mary.

Highland Mary

Ye banks, and braes, and streams around
The castle o’ Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
Your waters never drumlie!
There Simmer first unfald her robes,
And there the langest tarry:
For there I took the last Fareweel
O’my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloom’d the gay, green birk,
How rich the hawthorn’s blossom;
As underneath their fragrant shade,
I clasp’d her to my bosom!
The golden Hours, on angel wings,
Flew o’er me and my Dearie;
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary.

Wi’ mony a vow, and lock’d embrace,
Our parting was fu’tender;
And pledging aft to meet again,
We tore oursels asunder:
But Oh, fell Death’s untimely frost,
That nipt my Flower sae early!
Now green’s the sod, and cauld’s the clay,
That wraps my Highland Mary!

0 pale, pale now, those rosy lips
I aft hae kiss’d sae fondly!
And clos’d for ay, the sparkling glance,
That dwalt on me sae kindly!
And mouldering now in silent dust,
That heart that lo’ed me dearly!
But still within my bosom’s core
Shall live my Highland Mary.

Did I mention that she is very bright?  And has almost total recall?  When she was in high school, we were out driving in the mountains when, in a soft voice, she began reciting:

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer –
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North
The birth place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

Farewell to the mountains high cover’d with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forrests and wild-hanging woods;
Farwell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer
Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
My heart’s in the Highlands, whereever I go.

The first time I heard her do that, she was only five and had not started to grade school yet.

So on this 25 of January, lift a wee dram to the bard of Scotland, Robert “Rabbie” Burns.  He speaks down through the centuries for all who value freedom and liberty for ordinary people.

Sláinte Mhath

About Chuck Stanley

Dr. Charlton (Chuck) Stanley is a board certified forensic psychologist, with interests in aviation psychology, peace officer selection and training, ethics and communication skills.
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7 Responses to ‘Tis Burns Night

  1. Lisa D says:

    While Haggis is not on the menu tonight, nor any other night, Burns’ Grace graces our kitchen wall. Thank you for a good reminder to stop and listen. Happy Birthday, Robbie.

  2. Oro Lee says:

    I seventh grade a girl was teasing me about my total lack of experience or knowledge of the fair sex, and asked, “If you had a girlfriend, would you even know what to say to her?” I recited A Red, Red Rose. She laughed at me and walked off. The girl in eighth grade who was listening, however, invited me to her birthday party. i learned some things at that party. I still recite that poem to my wife.

    My early favorite was John Barleycorn because, well, it’s about booze.,The one that meant the most to me is My Father Was a Farmer. This past week my daughter told me that in her introductory remarks to the interview question “Tell us about yourself,” she often states that her father is the son of a sharecropper. Kinda explains why that song still resonates with me.

    My favorite Burns expression is, “Burn everything English but their coal.” Total devotion.

    Thanks for the reminder about Burns. I think I’ll end the evening reading some poetry,

  3. Charlton Stanley says:

    My wife liked Red, Red Rose too. My youngest liked “Corn Rigs” at an early age after she heard Alex Beaton sing it. Fortunately, she was too young to know that it was about young lovers making out in the cornfield.
    Another of his great love songs was Ae Fond Kiss. This is Eddi Reader.

  4. Blouise says:

    The Clan meeting was always held on the third Thursday of every month. The first meeting of the new year on the third Thursday of January was recitation night. Each child over the age of 5 recited 1 verse, each child over the age of 8 had to recite an entire poem. Robbie Burns was the only poet allowed. One year an incredibly brilliant 8 year suggested to all the children that they petition the Master of the Lodge to allow the children to pick a poem and dramatize it. The petition was presented in Feb. and a decision was given in April that the children would be allowed to pick one poem and work together to dramatize it for the following January’s recitation night. It was a probationary ruling to be voted on again the month after the dramatization was performed. It was a huge success and from what I understand is still being done today.

    The first performance? “Address To The Tooth-Ache” and imagine a bunch of kids dramatizing …
    A’ down 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 i’ their doup!

  5. Charlton Stanley says:

    One of my favorites is Tam O’Shanter. This All Saints Eve (Halloween) performance by Scottish comic actor Mark Day is priceless even if he did not recite it from memory. He says he is still working on memorizing it.

  6. Elaine M. says:

    Remembering Robert Burns, national poet of Scotland, with windowpanes of words
    Posted by Lorna Baldwin
    January 24, 2014

    Walk around the market town of Dumfries, Scotland, and at first glance you’ll see what looks like a kind of graffiti in the windowpanes — faint etchings in some, and in others verses written boldly in thick black pen. A few are the surviving work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, etched into the glass centuries ago when he stayed at the Globe Inn. Others are the work of contemporary poets, writing to pay him tribute.


    NOTE: At the above link, you’ll be able to hear Scotsman and English professor Jonathan Sharp recite Burn’s “Address to a Haggis,” read at Burns Suppers as the haggis is cut open.

  7. Mike Spindell says:


    One of the great pleasures of having come to know you over the years is how much you’ve taught and exposed me to the culture and music of Scotland. The continued honoring and celebration of that culture by its descendants proves its vitality and allows me to empathize with it by comparisons to my own. It would seem splendid to be present at a “Burn’s Night” celebration, sipping a “wee dram” of Scot’s nectar. When it comes to haggis though, I find you less persuasive, or perhaps its merely my tender entrails. 🙂

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