Today is poet Robert Burns’ 264th birthday and Burns suppers, with the traditional fare of haggis, champit tatties* and bashit neeps*, will be taking place this week all over Scotland and beyond. Burns was a prolific writer whose poetry ranged from railing against social injustice to sympathising with a field mouse evicted from a ploughed field, and embraced both the natural and the supernatural.
Generations of Scottish school children enjoyed (or endured) learning and reciting Burns poetry in the run up to Burns’ night. Sometimes, the challenge was simply to learn a piece of poetry in Scots, whether or not it was written by Burns. Few writers are so celebrated internationally as Burns (there are no Tennyson teas or Shakespeare suppers, after all) and Burns’ poetry is undoubtedly meaningful to, and enjoyed by, millions around the world. However, the focus on Burns overshadows other poets writing in Scots. For this reason, for many years after I had learned to recite it, I thought the short, humorous poem The Sair Finger was a Burns’ classic, when in fact it was penned by another Ayrshire-born poet, Walter Wingate.
Writing more than a century after Burns’ death, Wingate contributed poems to the Glasgow Herald among other newspapers and magazines while working as a teacher of maths in Glasgow. His work was published in anthologies but, unlike Burns, Wingate didn’t have his own book of poetry published until after his death in 1918. So here, to give Wingate his due, is The Sair Finger:
You’ve hurt your finger? Puir wee man! Your pinkie? Deary me! Noo, juist you haud it that wey till I get my specs and see!
My, so it is – and there’s the skelf! Noo, dinna greet nae mair. See there – my needle’s gotten’t out! I’m sure that wasna sair?
And noo, to make it hale the morn, Put on a wee bit saw, And tie a Bonnie hankie roun’t Noo, there na – rin awa’!
Your finger sair ana’? Ye rogue, You’re only lettin’ on. Weel, weel, then – see noo, there ye are, Row’d up the same as John!
But it wouldn’t be right to exclude Burns’ work from a post celebrating his birthday so here also is a beautiful rendition of one of his most famous love songs, A Red, Red Rose, sung by the wonderful tenor Jamie MacDougall as the soundtrack to a short film by his lovely daughter Laura MacDougall.
* Champit tatties are mashed potatoes. Bashit neeps are mashed turnips.
Today (July 21st) is the anniversary of Robert Burns’ death. Usually we celebrate his birthday on January 25 with Burns suppers the world over, but it seems a pity to only consider his poetry once a year. To mark the passing of Scotland’s national bard in 1796 at the age of just 37, here is a poem of his that you might not hear at a Burns supper. Burns penned songs and poems on many subjects, some rather unexpected. This one, to a mouse he found in one of his fields while ploughing, is no exception. Despite being written more than 230 years ago, some of the poem’s sentiments seem entirely in keeping with modern environmental concerns.
Hallowe’en will be a bit different this year without door-to-door guising (if you live in Scotland) or trick-or-treating but will still be an excuse for dressing up and playing games, even if it’s only with your own family.
Hallowe’en was a big thing in Scotland when I was growing up. (Even the word Hallowe’en comes from the Scots term for All Hallows Eve or evening.) We dressed up, sometimes as witches, devils, fairies or other spirits but not always, and we went guising. This involved calling at the houses of friends and neighbours in our costumes (disguises) and in return for singing a song, telling a joke or a story, reciting a poem or giving some other small performance of a ‘party-piece’, guisers were rewarded with fruit, nuts, sweets and perhaps even a few coins. We took with us a Hallowe’en lantern but made them from turnips rather than pumpkins. (Turnips are much harder to hollow out.) At home or at Hallowe’en parties we also dooked for apples. For the traditionalists, dooking for apples involves floating several in a basin of water, then trying to catch one and lift it out of the basin using only your teeth. An alternative approach is to kneel on a chair with a fork between your teeth, lean over the basin of floating apples and try to spear a fruit by dropping the fork. Another favourite Hallowe’en game was trying to eat treacle-coated scones hanging from strings with our hands tied behind our backs.All very messy, but lots of fun!
The traditional Hallowe’en festivities have their origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the end of summer and the start of winter. Samhain was part harvest festival and part commemoration of the dead and was thought to be a time when the barrier between our world and ‘the other world’ was at its most permeable. The tradition of guising at Hallowe’en comes from the idea that disguising yourself as the kind of spirit which might be abroad at Hallowe’en was a way of going unnoticed among them and so offered some protection from their mischief making.
However you mark Hallowe’en this year, I hope you enjoy it and your disguises are successful!
Gaelic was a native spoken language in The Trossachs until at least the 1950s and is still evident in the place and house names in the area. The name Tigh a’ Mhaide means ‘house of the timber’ and may have been coined because of the sections of tree trunk used to support the porch at the front of the oldest part of the house.
The familiar English names of some of the most popular places to visit in the area derive from Gaelic names which are often wonderfully descriptive of the location or feature. For example:
Ben A’an comes from the Gaelic name Am Binnein meaning the pinnacle or apex. It’s easy to see why the familiar triangular peak earned its name.
Loch Achray comes from Loch Àth a’ Chrathaidh which has the intriguing meaning of Loch of the ford of the shaking.
Ben Venue comes from A’ Bheinn Mheanbh meaning the small mountain and though it may not feel like it on the long walk to the summit, Ben Venue is a mere 729m high compared to neaby Ben Ledi at 879m, or local munro Ben Lomond at 974m.
Loch Venachar’s name is from Loch Bheannchair meaning the horn-shaped or tapering loch and a look at a map shows that it’s a good description.
Gaelic may no longer be the usual native spoken language of people living in The Trossachs, but it remains an important part of the landscape and much else in the local environment and wider culture of Scotland.
“It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320
These are the most famous lines from one of Scotland’s best-known historical documents, The Declaration of Arbroath.
Written 700 years ago and dated April 6, 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was one of three letters sent to Pope John XXII in Avignon as part of diplomatic correspondence during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Coming after King Robert the Bruce’s victory against Edward II of England at Bannockburn, the letter was part of King Robert’s efforts to gain recognition from the Pope of his right to rule and of Scotland’s independence. After 1314, King Robert was widely recognised internationally as Scotland’s lawful ruler, but not by England or the papacy.
The Declaration is the only one of the three letters to survive. The document carried the seals of eight earls and some 40 barons but was instigated by the king. Its author is unknown but it may have been written under the supervision of the king’s chancellor Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath. While its historical importance has been much debated, the ideas it conveys of the sovereignty of the people and an enduring commitment to the nation’s self-determination have captured modern imaginations.
“But… we have been set free… by our most tireless prince, king and lord, the lord Robert. He, that… divine providence… and the due consent and assent of us all have made our prince and king.”
“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.”
Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320
The letter is the first known expression by a national government in Europe of the idea that a monarch, who fails to keep his (or her) end of the constitutional bargain, could be replaced by the people. This idea of a contract between monarch and people seems surprising at a time when most believed in the ‘divine right of kings’, but there was already something of a precedent in Scotland. King Robert’s predecessor, King John (Balliol) was relieved of governmental responsibility by his subjects in 1295 because of his failure to stand up to Edward I of England. A council of bishops, earls and barons was appointed to manage the nation’s affairs instead.
However, the manner in which Robert Bruce came to the throne was a barrier to his acceptance by the papacy despite his military successes and the support he gained among the ‘community of the realm’ of Scotland.
After being stripped of the right to rule by his subjects, John Balliol remained king. Even after Edward I forced his abdication and imprisoned him, and he was later exiled in France, many considered John’s restoration a realistic prospect. When Robert Bruce had himself crowned in 1306, following his murder of John Comyn, a rival claimant to the throne, he was therefore widely regarded as a usurper because King John was still alive. John died in 1314, a few months after the Battle of Bannockburn. But the Pope still failed to recognise Robert Bruce as King of Scots. From the Pope’s perspective, Robert Bruce was a murderer and usurper. He had also refused to meet papal representatives, receive papal letters and had broken a papal truce by taking Berwick. At the same time, England’s diplomats had enjoyed some success in persuading the Pope to take their part in the continuing conflict with Scotland.
What the Pope really wanted was for Christian kingdoms to stop fighting each other and prosecute a crusade in the Holy Land instead. But his attempts to bring King Robert into line had failed. By the time the Declaration of Arbroath was written, Pope John XXII had excommunicated the king, absolved his subjects of their allegiance to him, summoned the bishops of St Andrews, Dunkeld, Aberdeen and Moray to appear before him and excommunicated them when they failed to do so, summoned the king to appear before him, renewed accusations against the king and placed Scotland under interdict so suspending ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms and some acts of worship. These and other communications, according to historian Edward J Cowan, amounted to “a hailstorm of threatening papal letters” descending on Scotland in the first few weeks of 1320. King Robert’s response was the Declaration of Arbroath.
It took a further three years for a formal truce to be agreed but this letter, and its two companion letters, marked a turning point in Scotland’s diplomatic efforts. The Pope suspended the sentences of excommunication on the king and bishops, recognised Robert as King of Scots and urged Edward II of England to make peace in a letter which quoted directly from the Declaration of Arbroath. Perhaps the Pope also took to heart the closing sentences of the Declaration which warned that if he continued to side with Edward of England, further bloodshed would be his responsibility.
“But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not… refrain from favouring them to our undoing, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge.”
Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320
The surviving Declaration is a copy of the letter, made at the same time. It is among the state papers kept by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. For more detail about the Declaration, its history and significance, try this short film made to mark its 700th anniversary.
The celebration of Christmas was banned for almost 400 years in Scotland (outlawed during the Protestant Reformation) and so Hogmanay (December 31) and the New Year became the focus of mid-winter festivities. The period after Christmas up to Handsel Monday (the first Monday of the New Year when people exchanged a small gift as a token of luck) became known as the “Daft Days”. This was a time of fun and light-hearted good cheer and was the subject of Robert Fergusson’s 1772 poem “The Daft-Days”. Here’s an extract:
When merry Yule-day comes, I trou, You’ll scantlins find a hungry mou; Sma are our cares, our stamacks fou O’ gusty gear, And kickshaws, strangers to our view, Sin fairn-year.
Today is St Andrew’s Day in Scotland, and also in Barbados, Greece, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine among others places. A bank holiday in Scotland since 2006, St Andrew’s Day marks the start of the winter festivals which run right through to Burns’ Night in February. The day is celebrated with ceilidhs, music, feasts and special events across the country. This year, the national tourism agency Visit Scotland staged an unusual celebration of our national day.
But how did Andrew become Scotland’s patron saint? St Andrew’s Day has been marked on November 30 since the middle of the 5th century, that date being widely accepted as the anniversary of his martyrdom. However, the reason for his adoption as Scotland’s patron saint is shrouded in mystery and legend.
Inversnaid, on the east shore of Loch Lomond, is the site of a magnificent waterfall. Its Gaelic name is Inbhir Snàthaid. Inbhir means a confluence of rivers, estuary or the mouth of a water course and is common in place names. Inbhir Nis (Inverness), Inbhir Aora (Inveraray), Inbhir Uaraidh (Inverurie) and Inbhir Chluaidh (Inverclyde) are all well known examples.
The Snàthaid element of the name means ‘needle’ and it’s easy to see why Inversnaid was named as it was. The waterfall plunges from the narrow Arklet Water into Loch Lomond many feet below. It is spectacular, especially after a spell of wet weather which happens regularly. Seen from the loch, this torrent of falling water could certainly look like a needle.