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In the course of my career (my day job) I’ve been privileged to work upon original manuscripts, diaries and letters of a number of men and women of letters.
Possibly the most memorable are Robert Burns, Mervyn Peak and George Orwell. Reading the printed word of these three literary giants gives us a very distinct impression of their characters but reading their hand written, often scribbled, thoughts gives us a much more intimate relationship.
I was given a copy of Burns’ poems in my teens, by a romantic boy friend, I didn’t read it at the time. Up to that point, though from the north of England, my only contact with Burns’ works, poems and songs, or so I thought, was Auld Lang Syne and my abiding memory of this, universally famous, song was of individuals or groups, sadly the worse for wear of alcohol, singing at the conclusion of a party or of course New Years Eve. It always struck me as a maudlin ditty.
It’s used even today at the conclusion of many events world wide for example the last night of the Proms and the Olympics. I once heard it via the BBC World Service accompanied by the sound of Big Ben on a campsite in the outback of Australia. But one of the most vividly memorable was on the 1st July 1997 when it was played in torrential rain as the Last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patton, departed China.
It sounded like a dirge and yet the original song was set to a Strathspey which is 4/4 time. There have been some unlikely versions of Auld Land Syne including a version sung by Elvis and a Samba version. This song deserves a blog in its own right Burns’ Auld Lang Syne and John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace are possibly the two most internationally recognized songs.
Though my romantic swain had long gone I finally read the Poetic Works of Robert Burns’ in my early twenties. It was a nondescript volume, regretfully not a first edition, but I still treasure it because as I read the huge variety and scope of Burns’ songs and poems I was just delighted, moved, amused and intrigued. He was described as the ‘ploughman poet’ but this certainly restricts our vision of his works which span politics, faith, sex, love, farming, family, community, hardship and humour, and much more.
I realized of course that I had known many of his songs since childhood most memorably as a member of Carlisle’s Schools combined choirs we had sung “Flow gently sweet Afton amongst thy green braes”.
My relationship with Burns would continue further as a student. In London my husband Ian and I sang Elizabethan sonnets and Scottish and Irish folk songs in an Elizabethan restaurant to pay our way through college. “My love is like a red, red rose” and “Ye Jacobites by name lend an ear lend an ear” are two that spring to mind which definitely show the diversity of Burns’ works.
Burns was a tenant farmer’s son but though he worked on the farm as a boy he did not follow in his father’s footsteps. He rose to great acclaim in Scotland, his rustic and romantic poems making him the darling of Edinburgh society being sponsored by Earl of Glencairn, Duke and Duchess of Gordon, Lord Eglinton and many more nobles and intellectuals alike. Burns was lauded to some degree in England too but the dialect that he wrote in was a bar to a wider acclaim. Whilst his success didn’t go to his head his new found wealth from his published works soon was spent and he finally took the post of Excise Officer the equivalent of the VAT or Tax man today, in effect ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’.
Burns’ personal letters that I worked on back in the 80’s were written to Agnes McLehose ‘Clarind mistress of my soul’ a married women with whom Burn’s is reputed to have had a platonic relationship and which inspired “Ay Fond kiss” ‘Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, alas, forever!’ His letters were filled with an homage and awe of women. Not as mere sexual conquest or drudges but of something to be cherished and valued for intellect and character. They came as a surprise to me because his reputation puts him squarely as a charming seducer rake, he fathered at least three illegitimate children, and though he married Jean Amour his twins by her were born before they married. She was a long suffering but fond wife she even took one of his illegitimate children into her home. He also had a number of other intimate relationships, before and during his marriage to Jean.

Of course he is still acclaimed today there are Burns’ suppers across the globe every year on the anniversary of his birth, January 25th 1759 but alas they do not seem to do him justice. We hear a lot about his Ode to a Louse – ‘Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie’ Ode to a mouse -‘Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie, and of course his Address to a haggis -‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!’ Of the 700 plus songs and poems attributed to Burns surely there are others that take him out of the ploughed furrow or the ‘Pub’ and put him on a higher plane, though I am very fond of the tim’rous beastie.