This column was bound to happen. I can’t help it. My grandmother was Scots (Clan Walker). I’ve spent many happy days exploring the Highlands and celebrating the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie, albeit several hundred years late. I have six tartan neckties. My favorite drink is a Rob Roy cocktail. And above all I love the patriotic fervor and innate musicality of Scottish poetry.
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, wherever I go.
That verse is from the pen of Robert Burns (1759-1796), generally recognized as the National Poet of Scotland. But he shares pride of place with Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and to some degree with Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894 ) who were novelists as well as poets. Sorry to say, Scott’s and Stevenson’s birthdays are not widely celebrated, but Robert Burns with the traditional haggis and bagpipers has a grand blow-out every January 25th.
Robert Burns (originally Burnes) was born to a family of tenant farmers, and he worked on and later owned farms until the age of 32. But during this time he was also writing verses and lyrics for folk melodies. When a collection of his called “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” was published and widely applauded, his future as a poet was fixed.
The Scottish dialect he most often used is related to English but with a quite divergent vocabulary. Here are three stanzas from “To a Mouse” in Scottish and then standard English. It concerns a tiny mouse nest Burns turned up with his plow.
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a 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 pattle!
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
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!
Small, crafty, cowering, timorous little beast,
O, what a panic’s in your little breast!
You need not start away so hasty
With argumentative chatter!
I would be loath to run and chase you,
With my murdering plough-staff.
That small bit heap of leaves and stubble,
Has cost you many a weary nibble!
Now you are turned out, for all your trouble,
Without house or holding,
To endure the winter’s sleety dribble,
And hoar-frost cold.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of Mice and Men
Go oft awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
May I guess that John Steinbeck had remembered that last stanza when he needed a title?
Now here is a passage that you may like to read entirely in original Scottish. It’s from Burns’ famous narrative poem, the rollicking “Tam o ’Shanter.” As a small assist: “The Deil” is “The Devil”, “skelpit” means “raced” “bogles” are “ghosts” and “houlets” are “owls.”
The wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow’d:
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand.
Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet;
Whiles crooning o’er some auld Scots sonnet;
Whiles glowring round wi’ prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares:
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
Note: Burns may be the heart and soul of Scotland, but his poetry has travelled well. Quite literally. In 2010, a book of his poems accompanied astronauts who made a 5.7 million mile journey on 217 orbits of the Earth.
Walter Scott, later Sir Walter Scott, born 250 years ago last month, was a novelist, poet, editor and historian. And we might emphasize ”historian” because, of his 27 novels, including “Ivanhoe” and “Kenilworth,” only one has a modern setting. He essentially created the genre we now call the historical novel, and he contributed mightily to the romance of Scottish history and the glorification of the Highlands. A prolific writer, he also found time to edit and publish the complete works of John Dryden (18 volumes) and Jonathan Swift (19 volumes).
As a poet he wrote three immensely popular narrative epics, “The Lady of the Lake,” “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and “Marmion,” which is oft quoted:
Oh! What a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
Scott’s best-known poems today are “Lochinvar” (See video) and this moving excerpt from “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.”
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
Incidentally, I wonder how many occupants of our White House have paused to give credit to Sir Walter Scott for writing this, later set to music:
Hail to the chief
Who in triumph advances . . .
* * *
Another Scottish novelist-poet is Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) whose novels occupied much of my childhood: “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” ”The Black Arrow” and later “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And for raising my own family, “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Stevenson was essential. It remains the finest volume of children’s poetry in the English language.
Of his “grown-up” verse I have always liked this piece called “Romance.”
I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.
I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.
And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.
Stevenson traveled a good deal and wrote frequently about these journeys. (Who can resist the allure of a book called “Travels with a Donkey”?) The last years of his life were spent in the South Pacific, in Samoa, where he was known as Tusitala, a Teller of Tales.
* * *
Turning to other Scots poets. The first to attain an international reputation was James Macpherson (1736-1796) who instigated one of the strangest events in literary history. In 1760 he published what he called “Fragments of Ancient Poetry,” translations from Gaelic manuscripts written in the Third Century AD by a blind bard named Ossian. The world was captivated. A wonderfully diverse bag of admirers came forward: Napoleon, Thoreau, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson (“the greatest poet that has ever existed”), numerous painters and composers. We know now that Ossian was actually Macpherson, and an early critic, the skeptic philosopher David Hume, rather colorfully noted that he would not accept the authenticity of the poems even if “fifty bare-arsed Highlanders” vouched for it.
* * *
Among living poets, mention must be made of Carol Ann Duffy (1955 – ), the first woman and first Scottish-born writer to become Poet Laureate of the UK, serving from 2009 until 2019. She has written many fine poems, but I have been especially touched by a verse she wrote at the age of thirteen when her English teacher died.
You sat on your desk,
swinging your legs,
reading a poem by Yeats
to the bored girls,
except my heart stumbled and blushed
as it fell in love with the words and I saw the tree
in the scratched old desk under my hands,
heard the bird in the oak outside scribble itself on the air.
* * *
Now before introducing our video, I would like to beg your indulgence with one small request: to agree that henceforth none of us refer to Robert Burns as Bobby or Bobbie as is frequently done. His name is Robert. And by way of reinforcement, here is what Ogden Nash has to say. (excerpt)
That hero my allegiance earns
Who boldly speaks of Robert Burns.
I have an inexpensive hobby —
Simply not to call him Bobby.
But many, otherwise resolute,
While mentioning Burns go coy and cute,
Scholars hip-deep in Homer and Horace
Suddenly turn all doch-an-dorris;
Fine ladies who should pose and purr
Roll out a half-rolled Highland burr;
Conventioneers in littered lobby
Hoist their glasses in praise of Bobbie;
All, all Burns-hally and Bobbie-loopy.
They dandle him like a Scotian kewpie.
But of Robert Burns I’m a serious fan,
He wrote like an angel and lived like a man,
And I yearn to shatter a set of crockery
On this condescending Bobbie-Sockery.
Well, I’m off, before I break the law,
To read Tommy Hardy and Bernie Shaw.
VIDEO. Our video opens with a performance in concert by the First Poetry Quartet doing Sir Walter Scott’s “Lochinvar.” Next, James Walch gives us “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns. Then, another Burns poem, one that has been performed live by more people than any other poem in the English language. Can you guess?
CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO: MY HEART’S IN THE HIGHLANDS