A Wee Auld Dirge for Auld Robbie Burns

Thes Robbie Burns Day invites us tae ponder th’ continued timelessness ay his works. Burns’ use ay th’ Scottish vernacular (employed thus) illustrates exactly hoo his poems an’ ballads shood be performed alood.

By Serena Ypelaar

If you’re scratching your head at the text above, I’m sure you aren’t alone. For the sake of clarity, here’s what I wrote, in what you might call “plain English”:

This Robbie Burns day invites us to ponder the continued timelessness of his works. Burns’ use of the Scottish vernacular illustrates exactly how his poems and ballads should be performed aloud.

Today is indeed Robbie Burns Day, and what better time to pay homage to Scotland’s national poet than on his 260th birthday?

Born 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns was a tenant farmer like his father, and was (unlike many poets of his day) not particularly wealthy. His works have hence been lauded as relatable portrayals of Scottish farm life, illustrating class, regional experience, religion, and traditional culture.

“Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787”, painted by Alexander Nasmyth and held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia

A “dirge”, as referred to in my title, is a lament for someone who has died. In this case, though Burns is gone, we aren’t lamenting him so much as celebrating his legacy.

I’ve been looking forward to this post, as Burns’ works speak so decisively in and of themselves, but also because his writing style lends itself perfectly to The Mindful Rambler’s mission. Exercising his own interpretive power, Burns writes in the Scottish vernacular, meaning he has spelled his words exactly as pronounced. He is known for a number of songs – you might know “Auld Lang Syne” from your New Year’s traditions – that, when performed, reflect the Scottish dialect. In writing this way, Burns has cemented the dialect into his texts, and therefore preserves his Scottish identity while also sharing it with the world.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here are a few lines from Burns’ poem A Winter Night:

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing

An’ close thy e’e?

Robbie Burns, “A Winter Night”, lines 19-24

As you can see, Burns has written the dialect straight into the poem, influencing how we read and interpret it.

I’ll be the first to admit – I tried to read Diana Gabaldon’s romance novel Outlander (an admission in itself) and put the book down for this very reason – the Scottish dialect. Apart from reaching page 178 and feeling that not much had yet happened, I also found it extraordinarily tiring to read the characters’ dialogue as written out in the vernacular, so I quit. (For those who haven’t read/attempted to read Outlander, think Hagrid’s dialogue in Harry Potter, except almost every character speaks that way.)

Nevertheless, in Burns’ short and much more digestible poems, I can appreciate the beauty of writing out the dialect so literally – Burns does half of the interpretive work for us. Instead of trying to envision a Scotsman and how he may sound uttering the words, we get his voice given straight to us. The Scottish vernacular is interwoven with the text itself, and we find ourselves transported into the shoes of the Scottish speaker.

“Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” (1787) by Robert Burns. The volume was first printed and issued in 1786. Photo: Futuremuseum

Burns was a lyrical poet as well, setting some of his poems to music but also writing words for Scottish folk melodies. His methods involved considering how songs would be sung before developing the lyrics. As a lyricist too, he therefore gave the pronunciation of his words the same consideration he would have us give them, as prompted by his literary style.

During my undergrad, my favourite British literature prof went the full mile and read a couple of Burns’ poems to us out loud, in the Scottish vernacular. It’s a participatory action that I think needs to be done to appreciate the extent of Burns’ literary voice and the conviction with which he proclaimed his identity. While it’s not always clear exactly what Burns is saying, one thing is irrefutable: who better for Scotland to have as its national poet than auld Robbie Burns?

Long Story Short, You Can’t Control Everything

Though storytelling is highly personal, it thrives on human interaction and the sharing of experiences, making storytelling and interpretation inherently collaborative processes.

By Serena Ypelaar

“You can’t control what others think, but you can control what you put out there.”

This idea is something a lot of people carry around, and it has a special relevance when we think of how we’re surrounded by stories. As we enter a brand new year of The Mindful Rambler, I’d like to reframe the discussion on storytelling and interpretation – and the methods of both processes – which we’ve been examining here on the blog.

In telling a story, whether it’s for entertainment, healing, documentation, critical analysis, or otherwise, there’s always a lot of pressure around how it will be received. Will people like it? Will they get it? Will they take from it the information you’re hoping to impart?

Shakespeare definitely distilled some information down when he wrote his history plays, inciting a multitude of different interpretations.
Photo: Giphy

I experience that pressure whenever I write something. Anything I write can be interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted, and the truth is that my writing won’t exist entirely under my control once it’s out there. Every person who hears a story brings their own unique experience to it, creating something new. Two people who read the same book, for example, might see it in completely different ways, meaning that the result – the experience of storytelling – actually becomes a hybridization, a meeting place between the “teller” and the “listener”. Storytelling is the act of bringing one’s story, through words, images, sound, and other sensory outputs, into being outside of one’s self.

To avoid delving too far into the abstract, I’ll use an example. If someone is describing a place while telling a story, they’ll describe it as best they can noting features they feel are important to the story or of personal value to them. The person listening to the story will then construct their own interpretation of the event, incorporating their past experiences, feelings, biases, and assumptions. In short, the story is changed by the listener’s reception of it. Every single person hearing that story will have a different conceptualization of it, and a different understanding.

It’s the same with novel writing. Writers describe a character, for instance, and we, the readers, each construct a mental image of that person (and then get angry when the film casting doesn’t match that). I don’t know how many people I heard, back in middle school, ranting about how they definitely, totally did not picture Robert Pattinson when they dreamed up Twilight’s Edward Cullen in their heads. There are also race-based biases toward literary characters which often become clear when a person of colour is cast as a character many assumed would be white (like the vampire Laurent from the same franchise), racial prejudices becoming evident with readers’ indignation.

As demonstrated by their reaction to Edi Gathegi being cast as Laurent, Twilight‘s preteen fanbase did not want a diverse cast for the 2009 film adaptation… and, according to director Catherine Hardwicke, neither did the author (Stephenie Meyer) herself.

Irrespective of a story and its content, creators must become comfortable with the notion that each person who hears their story is going to see something different. There’s no way a storyteller can construct their tale in a way that guarantees uniform interpretation. Attempting to do so can result in over-describing something and alienating readers by unconsciously (or consciously) trying to harness control over their perceptions. It’s possible to use photographs to aid a visual picture, for instance, but these will still foster further imaginings on the part of the listener. Gaps in information will be filled independently – so the point is not to describe every single thing that is within you, but rather what is important to the story. That’s how we get such engaging stories, whether in literature, history, entertainment, art, memoir, or otherwise. Allow the listener to meet you halfway, and together you can share the experience while expressing trust in another person.

Maybe that’s why storytelling is so important to us – on an instinctual level, it allows us to connect with each other and find common ground.