January 25th is Burns' Night. This is a night to celebrate the life, work and spirit of Robert Burns the national poet of Scotland. It says a lot about Scotland and the world in general that in this day and age a centuries old poet is remembered every year. There are Burns' Suppers held by St Andrews and Caledonian Societies all over the world (honest, look it up). Bagpipes will be sounding, fiddles playing, glasses clinking.
Is there another artist so celebrated? Isn't it reassuring that one man's artistry is so valued? Burns' long lasting fame is due to the message carried in his work, a message of great warmth, humanity, humour, love for life and people and national pride. He spoke to the common man and the common man has carried him with him in his heart through the centuries.
For those who don't know his story, Robert Burns astounded everyone in the 1700s by proving that poor people can write poetry too. The life of the general working class was one of drudgery; all work, no rights, no education. Let them eat cake and all that. Against this background of hardship Scotland was a tiny shining light up on the northern horizon where the powers that were decided to educate its peasantry so they could read their own bibles. What an alarming revolutionary idea. Scotland suddenly had the highest literacy rate in Europe.
This is the short version of the Scottish renaissance but the effects were long ranging. The upshot was that it was discovered that some poor people had ideas and talents that until then only the upper classes were thought to be capable of. One lowly farm worker with no land of his own, no grand family name was taught to read and write and he produced screeds of poetry in his native lowlands Scots dialect. His 'Kilmarnock Edition' became the original Best Seller. It didn't hurt that he was also good looking and had a way with the ladies of every class, but his work has stood the test of time; his work with all that warmth and humanity.
Burns is the man who wrote the universally known 'Auld Lang Syne'. Lines from his poetry have been taken into every day usage, (e.g. the well laid plans of mice and men …., to see ourselves as others see us). He wrote songs still sung and he wrote verse which, if you understand the lingo, still gets a laugh and makes you see yourself in all the human frailty which hasn't changed much in 255 years.
I am ready, here in America, with my haggis, neeps, tatties, whisky and whatever one needs for a successful Burns' Supper. The only thing I am missing is a fellow Scot who will know all the quotes, get all the jokes, cry at the songs and know how to do an Eightsome Reel (with another 7 Scots). But I am keeping my chin up and am thankful for the friends who will celebrate with me.
They are not Scots, they are German, Slovakian, Italian, Irish. My only rule is that they eat haggis. I see no point in inviting people who turn up their nose at a main component of the ceremony. They have all passed this test. So I am indeed grateful that I have friends who will bring their own heritages to the table and provide the camaraderie, warmth and humanity which is what it is all about.