Monday, 25 January 2010

Rabbie Burns Night

What is it about the English that when they have even an ounce of Scottish blood they like to boast about it. And, of course, it gives them an excuse to take part in any Robert Burns' evening going. I can’t talk, I’m as guilty as the next ‘One Quarter Scottish’ Angle. Perhaps it’s just that we like any excuse for a party. And, let’s face it, the Scots know how to enjoy a dram or two.

But to hear a true blue Scot read out ‘wee sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie’, in that wonderful pure lilting brogue is so romantic and evocative of a period now gone. It’s like the first time you hear Shakespeare acted and spoken properly. Suddenly everything makes sense. Years of studying the bard at school can often put a person off for life.

Shakespeare is so wooden, it’s so meaningless, you often hear school children say. But take them to a first class performance of a Shakespeare play and you will hear the laugh out loud, watching it all with rapt attentive faces as they have never done in class. It’s the nuances, the breaths taken in the correct places and the humour that the actors manage to imbue it with.

Watch amateurs enact Shakespeare, then watch a professional troupe - it is often as different as chalk from cheese. The first – no matter how polished - can be stilted, the second lively and funny, bawdy and deep. I personally don’t like Shakespeare on television or the radio – I think his plays are made for the live stage. Only there do you get that wonderful feeling of being part of it, which is how the plays were intended.

Listening to the poems of Robert Burns can be much the same: unintelligible to the English ear. In To A Mouse Burns is assuring the terrified little field mouse that he means him no harm, and goes on to apologise to the mouse for all the harm man does and the sad state of his own life.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattie!

But translate it and it loses it’s charm completely. Difficult to follow or not, just one phrase from this sad and moving verse, has been quoted by many of us at some stage, without us even knowing it came from this poem.
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Another equally well known poem of Burns, Address to A Haggis, loses all when Anglicised. The Haggis, to Burns, was a symbolic part of Scottish culture. A student of politics or history can enlarge on all the reasons why this was so important to Burns – and all Scots – at the time. But for the rest of us we simply enjoy the dialect, vivid language and humour of the poem.
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftan o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

So here’s to Robert Burns on his special night and all of you too, Slanj; Lang may yer lum reek!


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