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.”
Listen to Burns’ most famous poems