Burns' Night

Burns' Night

Scottish poet Robert Burns

(1759 to 1796) is probably best known, outside of Scotland, for writing "Auld Lang Syne." In Scotland he's known as a fiercely Scottish and incredibly prolific poet and balladeer. Every January 25, or near to it, people all over the world gather together for a Burns Supper, or Burns Night, in honor of the poet, and all things Scottish. The traditional meal is haggis, neeps and tatties, or a boiled mince and oat stuffing (haggis is cognate with hash) with mashed potatoes and turnips, and, in most cases, plenty of Scots whisky (better known to the Gaels as uisge beatha), and recitations and performances of Burns' works. At the more traditional and ceremonial dinners, the haggis will be presented on a platter and ceremoniously piped to the table by Scottish bagpipers. Then Burns' poem "Address to a Haggis" may be recited before the diners are served with equal ceremony.

Burns' poetry was in Scots, or Lallans, a unique dialect (some say language) with almost as much in common with Old Norse as it has with English. The difficulty of the dialect has in some cases obscured the bawdy nature of many of his lyrics, in other cases editors have neatly excised the lyrics to remove "obscene language." Burns was a bit of a womanizer, though it's not clear whether his amours, like those of Robert Herrick a century earlier, were imaginary or genuine. Nonetheless, songs like "John Anderson my Joe, John," generally reduced to two stanzas about the joys of growing old, is in actuality much longer, and includes the lady love noting that, while John is much less priapric than in their youth, he needs to perform with far greater virility—or she'll look elsewhere. The beloved "If a Body Meet A Body Comin' through the Rye" is not only longer in the original, it includes several stanzas which resort to Old English of the most familiar and least socially acceptable sort.

Burns' early occupations included agricultural labor, but just when he had just about given up hope on earning money from his poetry, the Londen poets and society set took a shine to the "Ploughman Poet," and Burns turned to poetry for his livelihood. "To a Mouse," "My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose," "Killiecrankie," "Weslin Winds"—these are all the work of Robert Burns. You can find more of his poetry here, much of it read aloud, and much of it uncensored. In all, the BBC Burns Project has recorded over 300 of Burns' works.