There Was a Lad Was Born in Kyle

Two hundred and fifty-one years ago today, there was born in Ayrshire a literary figure who would come to be celebrated in some of the most far-flung corners of the world, but not always given the recognition he deserves in his own country. Today, Burns’ Suppers will be held across the globe, by and for exiled Scots and others, for whom the poems and songs of Robert Burns  are some of the best expressions of love, lust, frustration, patriotism, brotherhood, hypocricy, injustice and human frailty ever written. Jeremy Paxman dismissed his work as ‘dross’, Bob Dylan cited his poems – and in particular ‘My Love’s Like a Red, Red Rose’ – as his main source of inspiration, while it is believed that Abraham Lincoln was able to recite many of them off by heart. As far as heroes go, never was there a more obvious candidate for a big screen biopic, yet it is still to materialise. Consider how dramatic these two scenes, described by Catherine Carswell in her 1930s biography, might look if you were the director. The first describes the night of Robert’s birth and the second the funeral of his father William.


“The night of the birth coincided with a violent storm of wind and rain, through which the expectant father had to fight his way and ride the swollen Slaphouse ford for the midwife. It was one of those births about which legends are told: but the present narrative is not concerned with legends. The facts are enough. On 26 January – the morning after the birth – William, in spite of the weather, brought the parish minister from Ayr, and assembled for the baptism the needful witnesses, one of whom was his neighbour Tennant, a man younger than himself but already twice married and very fruitful. There was no custom to explain this haste. It was simply that William could not bear to wait one unnecessary hour for what he saw as the consummation of his life. The ceremony was performed in the kitchen, Agnes handing the infant to its father from the box bed, and he, after the Scottish fashion, holding it in his arms to be sprinkled, and uttering his vows aloud…

Day after day the gale continued. Along that coast such a wind could blow from the Atlantic that sometimes it uncovered the dead in their shallow, sandy graves. In this case however, it was the newborn that it exposed. For ere dawn on the tenth day a gable of the cottage fell and laid the kitchen open to the elements. William had to carry his family through the wet and roaring darkness to the nearest house where hospitality could be sought without loss of dignity – for in a land of large families and two-roomed dwellings it is no small favour to ask for a bed. Then in the inclement morning he went back alone, and set himself to repair the fault the west wind had discovered in his home.”


“On the Sabbath evening the middle-aged and elderly women crowded into Lochlie’s kitchen to witness the coffining, finger William’s winding sheet – made from wool which according to custom his wife had spun in the first year of their married life – and enjoy tea and bannocks. Tea, though now drunk daily by the gentry, was still a luxury to villagers, and was especially appropriated to funerals. On the Monday the men came up in a body. Many were merely poor or curious folk who had no connection with Tarbolton but never missed a funeral if they could help it. When all had been in to the house by relays to eat and drink and take stock of the deceased’s possessions, the coffin, preceded by the beadle with his bell, was brought out, the stragglers fell off, and the procession, consisting entirely of men, formed up. The presence of the minister had preserved decorum among the mourners, and kept the proceedings from becoming, as they were apt to do, over-festive. Further, as William had wished to be buried at Alloway kirkyard within the walls that he had repaired, the bearers and true followers – distinguished by their muslin ‘weepers’ – had the sobering distance of twenty miles to cover. The coffin was tied to long poles slipped through the stirrups of two saddled farm ponies which walked tandem.


It was a busy day for Agnes. She had now to prepare a substantial meal for the faithful hungry ones who should later return from the graveside. But withered and bent as she was, none could do this sort of thing better than she, and today she had her two grown daughters to help her as well as Bell. This was something to be thankful for, as Lizzie Paton was sick and looking blue beneath the eyes. Her mistress knew well enough what ailed the girl. She hoped her husband had died without noticing anything. He would have taken it to heart. She herself was not unduly put about. Such things came to pass and they were vexing. But Robin was a good-hearted lad. He would marry the girl when her time came, if not before.”

Read Immortal Memory Robert Burns

Listen to Burns’ most famous poems


Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York

In recent workshops and presentations to teachers, both primary and secondary, I have suggested the importance of reading aloud in the development of literacy skills. To older readers, this will not exactly come as a startling revelation, but I believe that in recent years – probably the past couple of decades – we have largely abandoned the practice as soon as young learners are deemed to be ‘able to read’, or what a good friend of mine has described as competent at ‘barking at print.’

Admittedly, in those wonderful halcyon days when I was learning in primary school along with my forty-one fellow students, being asked to read aloud could be an embarrassing, and sometimes even humiliating, experience for some. It’s little wonder then that daily ritual of reading round the class has largely been abandoned (hasn’t it?).
Unfortunately, I fear that in rightly protecting the sensitivities of young people we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and forgotten the importance of a strategy which even as mature, developed readers, we often use when faced with a text which we find challenging, or which has been written especially to be spoken – think Shakespeare, or Dylan Thomas or Laurie Lee.

So reading aloud should not be seen simply as a way of demonstrating an ability to ‘say the words’ but should be recognised as an important strategy in developing comprehension and higher order reading skills, as well as a celebration of the joys of language, and it should be encouraged at all ages! Recently I came across a programme on Teachers’ TV which does just that. It is presented by John Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs* among other things. I have included a short extract from the film, in which he talks about reading for fun, the importance of graphic novels, ‘reading’ pictures, embracing new technologies and the value of reading to your kids and having them read to you. You can see the full half-hour programme by clicking here.

*The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a good example of a classic story given a modern twist. Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes is another one which appeals to young people. Updating with a humorous take, or setting a familiar story in a different time or location can be a creative writing challenge which young people respond well to.

If It Matters, It Matters

The most frequent question I am asked when I tell people what I do for a living is, ‘Does handwriting still matter?’  To be honest, over the past few years  my responses have gone from ‘not really’ to ‘of course it does’ and everything in between, but as you can probably guess it’s something which has regularly caused me sleepless nights. So, having thought about it for a long time, the next time somebody asks me the question my answer will unhesitatingly and unequivocally be, ‘If it matters it matters’.

Let me explain. First of all, when parents and teachers and politicians and others talk about the standard of writing produced today, some of them are thinking of the legibility of the handwriting, others are thinking of the grammatical structures, and a few are thinking about the quality of the ideas. The first of these aspects of writing may well be related to the others, but on the other hand it may not. To digress slightly, I remember when I was in primary school many, many years ago and we started our first scrawling attempts at handwriting on a wooden-bordered slate which had lines on one side to guide the writing and was blank on the other side for our drawings and sums: it was cleaned using a small piece of sponge which we kept in a plastic container and regularly topped up with water. In Primary 7 we learned ‘italic writing’ as a treat and the teacher sent off for special fountain pens which had our names inscribed on the side. I won a prize for italic writing and I was pleased as Punch. Today, the only handwriting I do is to scribble some notes on a shorthand notepad while talking on the phone, or to jot down the URL for a website, or a password, or the ingredients for a recipe. Sometimes when I read it back I can’t decipher my own writing. Does handwriting still matter?

Not long ago, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, received praise and criticism in almost equal measure, when he wrote to the mother of a soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan. The handwriting was barely legible, and the letter contained several errors, including the spelling of the soldier’s surname. It’s the thought that mattered above all, said many, and the fact that he took the time from a busy schedule to write a personal letter to a grieving mother. Did it matter that the handwriting was poor, and there were one or two minor errors? Yes, I think, is the answer, because he decided to write it rather than have it word-processed. Yes, because he was either unaware that it contained errors or he didn’t bother to have it checked, both of which are inexcusable as soon as he had decided that it mattered. Finally, a key question. Did it achieve its purpose? Apparently not, as the recepient was deeply upset, which was not exactly the purpose of the letter. So, in the final analysis, when the next person asks me the question, ‘Does handwriting matter any more?’ my answer will be, ‘If it matters, it matters.’