Today, January 25, is a notable day for Scots worldwide, including all Ulster Scots, as we celebrate the birth of Robert Burns on this day in 1759.
Anyone walking around Belfast city centre over the past few weeks cannot have failed to notice the posters bearing the portrait of Robert Burns.
But what connection does he have with Ulster?
It is over two hundred years since the death of Scotland’s national poet, yet Robert Burns is still a major figure today. He is read and remembered not only in his native land but as far afield as Australia and New Zealand where there are flourishing Burns Clubs, but perhaps nowhere more fondly than here in Ulster.
It was once said, in fact, that any Presbyterian home in Ulster could boast at least two good books, the Bible and a copy of Burns’ poems.
How can we explain his continuing fascination in the twenty first century? There seem to be a number of factors which are important.
Firstly there is the fact that he addresses universal themes, such as love. His best known love poem may be “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose,” but he also penned a version of the ballad “Leezie Lindsay”, in which the “poor Highlander” woos the rich lady before revealing that he is in fact, a wealthy man, and few poems could be more poignant than:
‘Ae fond kiss
‘Ae fond kiss and then we sever
‘Ae fareweel, alas forever.’
Similarly, his nature poems such as “To a mouse, on turning her up her nest with a plough” has that feeling of being in touch with the land and with nature – any Ulster farmer will be familiar with the feelings expressed in the poem, the knowledge that we have to work the land to earn our living but that in doing so we are destroying nature.
And who among us has not sat breathless with terror listening to Tam O’Shanter:
‘Warlocks and witches in a dance;
‘Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,
‘But hornpipes, jigs strathspeys, and reels,
‘Put life and mettle in their heels.
‘A winnock-bunker in the east,
‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast.’
So important is his poetry that there are Burns Clubs throughout the world whose aim is to commemorate his poetry and song. The first of these was established in Greenock in 1801, only a few years’ after the poet’s death – in fact, some of its members knew the poet personally.
Originally these were “men only” affairs but more recently women have also been admitted.
It was in 1872 that the first Burns Club was formed in Belfast and this club is still in existence today.
However, Burns was known in Belfast long before that. The first edition of his poems – the Kilmarnock edition – was published in 1786, with the Edinburgh edition appearing the following year.
A Belfast edition, printed by James Magee, appeared the same year, and extracts from Burns’ poems also appeared in the Belfast Newsletter.
His poems proved very popular with Ulster audiences and are said to have been the inspiration for the works of the Rhyming Weavers, such as Samuel Thompson. Thompson dedicated a volume of his work to Robert Burns in 1793. The following year, he travelled to Scotland where he met Burns and exchanged poems with him.
We can see how the themes of the poems speak to a universal audience but they have even more significance for Ulster Scots.
Burns writes in the “hamely tongue”, the language is familiar to the Ulsterman - or woman – reading it, they do not have to struggle to understand what is being said. Words like “sleeket” and “danner” were found in Burns’ poems and in Ulster Scots speech.
His work remains very popular in Northern Ireland today, as can be seen by the continuing interest in the Gibson collection at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library. Consisting of over 2,000 volumes of works by and about the poet, it was collected by Andrew Gibson in the last part of the nineteenth century.
Gibson, a native of Ayrshire, was a governor of the library. In 1901 a public subscription of £1,000 was raised to allow the purchase of the collection.
Some facts about Burns and Burns Night.
• The suppers were originally held on 21st July, the date of his death;
• Burns is not only the national poet of Scotland but also of Russia;
• In 2009, in a public vote on television, Burns was chosen as the greatest Scot;
• Burns was struggling financially before the publication of “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, trying to raise the money to emigrate to Jamaica but changed his mind when his writing became successful;
• For those enjoying a traditional supper of tatties, neeps and haggis, 2014 has been designated “The Year of the Haggis”.
Mary Delargy is a library assistant in the Irish and Reference section at the Linenhall Library in Belfast. She previously worked at the Institute for Ulster Scots Studies at the University of Ulster. She is also a cross-community Irish language teacher.