There Was A Lad by Catherine Czerkawska

On 25th January 1759, our national poet (or one of them - we're not short of poets up here) was born.
Or as Rab himself would have it: 

There was a lad was born in Kyle, 
But whatna day o' whatna style, 
I doubt it's hardly worth the while 
To be sae nice wi' Robin. 

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane 
Was five-and-twenty days begun, 
'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' 
Blew hansel in on Robin.

Kyle is a part of Ayrshire (the others are Carrick, where I live, and which has lots of Burns associations too) and Cunningham, a bit like the Ridings of my native Yorkshire. The blast of January wind blew down the chimney of the cottage that Burn's father had built for himself and his family in Alloway, near Ayr. You can listen to the whole poem if you like, here, recited engagingly by Alan Cumming for the BBC. 

So this post is a wee pre Happy Birthday shout out to possibly my favourite poet of all time: Robert Burns. 

Here's one we did earlier!
We'll be having a smallish, private Burns Supper in this village about a week later. We'll eat traditional food: cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, steak pie, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, trifle, oatcakes and cheese. This is not, I have to confess, my favourite meal of the year. I can pretty much take or leave everything except the trifle, the oatcakes and cheese. But the company is always good. There will be plenty of wine, some whisky, excellent conversation, poetry, a few short and entertaining speeches, lots of toasts and some songs.

I have, occasionally, been invited to speak at other, more formal Burns Suppers - on one memorable occasion I had to give the 'Immortal Memory' which is the big speech of the evening. I had a tooth abscess and was on those antibiotics where they warn you not to touch a single drop of alcohol because it will have disastrous effects. (This is true, by the way. The effects are, I'm told, instantly emetic!) So I had to do it completely sober and toast Rab in mineral water.  The poet would have sympathised, both with the toothache and the abstinence.

Not quite how I first saw the cottage.

I've loved his poetry, but most particularly his songs, ever since we first moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve. I used to walk to Burns' Cottage in Alloway - still very atmospheric back then - and spend an hour or two daydreaming. The poems so precisely and heart-rendingly reflect the countryside around here. The poet himself seemed such a mass of contradictions - and the more I researched his life and work, the more intriguing those contradictions became.

My play about Robert Burns on Kindle.
I wrote a full length radio play for BBC R4 all about the writing of Tam O' Shanter, and then a stage play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, called Burns on the Solway.  As the playwright, I found the whole production more illuminating than I had believed possible - when a production goes well, and this one did, it somehow intensifies and enhances the idea you first had. And now, I seem to be writing a novel, about which I can't say any more than that it has been simmering inside me for a very long time. Perhaps since I was twelve and daydreaming in the old cottage. But even while I was writing The Physic Garden, William Lang, in that book, insisted on talking to me about Burns - who would have been a much more recent memory for my narrator. (Burns died in July 1796)

Donald Pirie and Claire Waugh, a compelling Robert and Jean.
First, William says 'I often think Mr Burns and myself might have had a great deal in common if we had had the good fortune to meet and talk about our respective experiences. Burns wrote convincingly and lovingly about the flowers of his native heath. I cannot even now read the lines, oft hae I rov'd by bonny Doon, to see the rose and woodbine twine; and ilka bird sang o' its luve, and fondly sae did I o' mine, without it bringing a lump to my throat, which is a very daft notion after all this time.'

And later, he quotes again: 'The tocher’s the jewel, as the poet Burns wrote. And so many men are but knotless threids who will slide away from lassies at time of need.'

Poets, male and female, don't always practise what they preach, and Burns was very far from being the saint depicted in so many fulsome Burns' Supper speeches. He was, in fact, capable of appalling behaviour, even by the different standards of his day. But any eighteenth century man who can write a song like The Tocher's the Jewel, has got to be applauded. Here's the original - followed by a loose translation for anyone who needs it.

O meikle thinks my Luve o' my beauty,
And meikle thinks my Luve o' my kin;
But little thinks my Luve, I ken brawlie,
My tocher's the jewel has charms for him.
It's a' for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's a' for the hinny he'll cherish the bee;
My laddie's sae meikle in love wi' the siller,
He canna hae luve to spare for me.

Your proffer o' luve's an airle-penny,
My tocher's the bargain ye wad buy;
But an ye be crafty, I am cunnin,
Sae ye wi' anither your fortune maun try.
Ye're like to the timmer o' yon rotten wood,
Ye're like to the bark o' yon rotten tree,
Ye'll slip frae me like a knotless threid,
And ye'll crack your credit wi' mae nor me.

Oh much thinks my love of my beauty,
And much thinks my love of my kin
But little thinks my love, I know fine,
My dowry's the jewel has charms for him.
It's all for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's all for the honey he'll cherish the bee
My laddie's so much in love with the silver (money)
He has no love to spare for me.

Your offer of love is an arles penny (this was money paid to seal a deal, usually between servant and master!)
My dowry's the bargain you would buy
But if you're crafty, I'll be cunning,
So you with another your fortune may try.
You're like to the timber of yon rotten wood,
You're like to the bark of yon rotten tree,
You'll slip from me like a knotless thread
And you'll  spend all your credit with more than me.

Not the best translation in the world, mostly because some of these words and phrases are virtually untranslatable - and still current, here in Ayrshire. Only a little while ago, I heard somebody describing a man sadly but accurately as a knotless threid. But it's this poem, among many other wonderful poems and songs, with its powerful and angry evocation of the voice of the young woman, that pays for all. For me, anyway.

I'll finish with another image from the play, courtesy of Leslie Black who took a series of stunning production photos.

Happy Birthday, Rab, when it comes.


Susan Price said…
Thanks for this, Catherine. I love a lot of Burns' poems, but actually know very little about him - so you've taught me something!
Lydia Bennet said…
thanks Catherine, your novel on Burns sounds wonderful especially after all those years of steeping! something very rich and powerful will emerge I'm sure.
madwippitt said…
Not intending to offend but Burns leaves me cold - all that mickle-a-muckle stuff is impenetrable as far as I'm concerned - but as he was a notable dog-lover, I can forgive him his inability to speak English! I believe it was one of his dogs which gave him the courage to chat up a girl he had his eye on?
He didn't always write in Scots, though I still think the best of his work was in his own tongue. Yes - allegedly - his collie ran over Jean's washing spread out on the green in Mauchline!
Jan Needle said…
rantin roarin robin. sez it all for me! happy birthday, master
Susan Price said…
I grew up speaking Black Country - a dialect descended from Mercian Anglo-Saxon, with lots of old words, such as 'fowd', 'reesty' and 'gleed.' Laland Scots is much the same.
My partner's Scots friends sometimes try to catch me out by using such words as 'clarty' - and are disappointed when I know exactly what they mean.
I won't pretend that I understand all of Burns at first glance, but it's not that inpenetrable - and even though he might not have behaved as well as he might all the time - who does? - there's a lovely compassion and understanding in his poetry. As well as some enjoyably vindictive stuff! I love the one about the louse on the lady's bonnet, and the one that goes something like:

The Deil gat stuff to mak a swine,
And coost it in a corner.
Then, in a while he changed his plan,
And shaped it something like a man,
And called it Andrew Turner.'

Anybody know who Andrew Turner was, and why Burns disliked him so much?
He was an (ahem) English travelling salesman of some kind. And a would-be poet. He is supposed to have been unpleasant to the poet and his friends in a Dumfries tavern and Rab wrote about him! I love Burns's love songs, but I love the vindictive stuff too. Holy Willie's prayer is amazing.
Dennis Hamley said…
I don't know that much about Burns but what I do I love. When Kay and I got married in Gretna last year his influence was heavy on us. We visited his Dumfries house, followed his track round the immediate area and three days later, when we visited Rydal Mount - to which I'd been before but never noticed, - the first thing we saw was a huge portrait of him. I hadn't realised what a big influence he had on Wordsworth. The done-to-death 'My love is like a red, red rose is, I believe, just about the greatest love poem of all time. The simple repetition of 'Till all the seas gang dry' is the touch of pure genius.
Dennis Hamley said…
Oh, and you're the ideal person to write a Burns novel. It makes me realise I have got to GET ON WITH my Coleridge novel and not keep on employing avoidence strategies such as commenting on AE posts!
I have lots of displacement activities too! (Research is a great excuse.) I didn't know about Burns inspiring Wordsworth - how interesting. I love that song too, and the house in Dumfries is so atmospheric. There's another place in Mauchline that is worth visiting. My other favourite is a little known song called Country Lass. I used it all through the play just because I love it so much. There's a version sung by Jean Redpath that is astonishing.

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