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?

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