Robert Burns: a tribute

Och aye, ‘tis Burns Night and if you’ll permit me, I’d like a chance to reflect.

This night, a celebration of Scotland’s most famous bard, has become more generally a celebration of all things traditionally regarded as “Scottish” (haggis, neeps and tatties, kilts bought from Lidl, whisky and so on). For some, Burns has become a symbol of Scotland’s free-spirit, his Scots dialect permeates through popular culture, reminding us of the wonderful diversity of the British Isles. You may not “know” poetry and still, the words of Burns can immediately invoke romantic notions of the Scottish landscape, of heather and hills and the beautiful bleak sky that is bestowed upon the cities and countryside that make Scotland unique. I have yet to find someone who cannot at the very least provide a funny-because-it’s-so-bad drunk rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”. In so many ways, Robert Burns has survived to shape our perception of Scotland. But perhaps more importantly, Burns Night also provides a chance to recognise the enduring nature of poetry in our experience of human identity.

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For me, Robert Burns will always make me think of my maternal grandparents, Jane and John. For as long as I can remember, in spite of all their bickering, they always used affectionate pet names for one another. My Granny’s name for Grandpa was “Jo.” Granny herself sustained more nicknames than he, “Puffin” and “Daisy” spring to mind immediately. But Grandpa was always “Jo”, and often with a poetic aside. “Jo,” with a smile, “John Anderson, my Jo John”. Granny, like me, had a poem for everything. Grandpa too was an avaricious reader, he taught himself five languages, mostly through reading the translations of Agatha Christie novels. He’d always listen intently when Granny recited a poem, though. Even if old-age or private quarrels presided, there was a twinkle in his eye when she recited poetry. My Mum has since told me much about her parents in days I can’t remember, or wasn’t yet born. Time they spent together over the years softened them to one another. The poem “Jo” came from seemed perfectly to illustrate this. When my Grandpa died in 2012, we had a memorial at their house, and Robert Burns’ poem was read aloud, not for the first time, and certainly not the last. Whenever I read it I think of Granny and Grandpa, and how fondly they loved one another.

John Anderson my jo, John,

When we were first acquent;

Your locks were like the raven,

Your bonny brow was brent;

But now your brow is beld, John,

Your locks are like the snaw;

But blessings on your frosty pow,

John Anderson my Jo.

John Anderson my jo, John,

We clamb the hill the gither;

And mony a canty day, John,

We’ve had wi’ ane anither:

Now we maun totter down, John,

And hand in hand we’ll go;

And sleep the gither at the foot,

John Anderson my Jo.

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