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Burns's night - brothers and sisters for a' that

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It won't be hard to find fellow revellers.

Robert Burns's poems and songs are widely loved and quoted around Burns suppers, held tonight on every continent to celebrate the anniversary of his birth. (The British Antarctic Survey wouldn't miss it.) The haggis arrives, and by good fortune is met by the whisky, which renders it harmless. Speeches in Burns’s honour are made, and his songs are sung.

Burns created songs of justice and brotherhood, warmth, humour, love and lament. For more than two hundred years, they have proved irresistible.

Born on January 25th 1759 in Alloway, he was deeply affected by Scottish folk songs, classical, biblical, and English literature. Their strengths and beauties appear in his poems and songs. His voice, uniquely his and Scotland's, now belongs to everyone. Professor David Purdie says that Burns inspired Lincoln -

"The Bible lay on the bedside table every night that Lincoln spent in the White House, but it was not alone. Beside it lay his copy of the collected works of Robert Burns, many of which Lincoln knew by heart, having learned them as a child in the family log cabin in Missouri.

"And that is what the poet says to me. That great lyric poetry with its graphic imagery and verbal firepower, as in Burns's The Slave's Lament, may cross oceans and yet still penetrate to the innermost labyrinth of the human heart."

Burns's song A man's a man for a' that has become an anthem of defiance to the world's way of judging. Two Scottish songwriters - Jim Malcolm and Paolo Nutrini - cover it -

Is there for honest Poverty

That hings his head, an' a' that;

The coward slave-we pass him by,

We dare be poor for a' that!

For a' that, an' a' that,

Our toils obscure an' a' that,

The rank is but the guinea's stamp,

The Man's the gowd for a' that.


What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Burns was a many-faceted artist. We love his affection for a little, frightened mouse, and we and many others have shared his fear as he looked backwards and forwards down the years. (Hannah Gordon's reading of To A Mouse is a gem.)

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim'rous beastie,

O, what 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!

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave 'S a sma' request:
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' wast,
An' weary Winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

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!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Like us, Burns had experienced the bittersweet farewell. Here Eddi Reader sings Burns's Ae Fond Kiss -

With some melancholy, love and hope, tonight we lift the cup of kindness and share our affection for Burns and for our readers -

Thine be ilka joy and treasure, 


Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure. 



This post, first published in 2009, has been edited.

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