“He did not fail the muse or us or himself as one of poetry’s chosen instruments”

This Burns Night there’s a talk at Queens University on Burns and the Sense of Place, by Dr Fiona Stafford – the first of in a series of Spring Events from the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Michael Longley is scheduled for February 14. And the BBC has Seamus Heaney’s new tribute to Rabbie Burns – and a recording of the Nobel winning poet reading that tribute – A Birl for Burns [RealPlayer file]. Heaney has also been working on a modern English account of the work of the 15th-century Scottish makar Robert Henryson – as noted previously here.

A Birl for Burns

From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air.

My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They’d wet their whistles.

Old men and women getting crabbèd
Would hark like dogs who’d seen a rabbit,
Then straighten, stare and have a stab a
Standard habbie:
Custom never staled their habit
O’ quotin’ Rabbie.

Leg-lifting, heartsome, lightsome Burns!
He overflowed the well-wrought urns
Like buttermilk from slurping churns,
Rich and unruly,
Or dancers flying, doing turns
At some wild hooley.

For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
Away he goes
Like Tam-O-Shanter o’er the brig
Where no one follows.

And though his first tongue’s going, gone,
And word lists now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
Have to be glossed,
In Burn’s rhymes they travel on
And won’t be lost.

A Birl for Burns is taken from A Night Out With Robert Burns: The Greatest Poems.

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  • Rory

    The only Burns Night Supper I have ever attended was in Glasgow in the late eightie’s when I was invited as the guest of honour to represent a charity that a Round Table association had adopted as their charity of the year.

    God! It was excruciatingly dull and ever so insufferably twee. After I boarded the plane back to London the next morning I felt much as Reginald Maudling once did as I begged a large whiskey off the stewardess and swore to myself, “Never again”.

    My Scottish friends tell me that it is almost totally ignored in Scotland and is regarded as an occasion only for middle class posers and gullible wealthy tourists and that no self-respecting Scot would be seen at one. Which, if true, is ironic insofar as Burns was above all a poet of the people and like his counterpart in England, the great John Clare was looked down upon and sniffed at by the snobbish literati.

    Now I have had a great night at a John Clare commemoration in England and even managed to win the runner’s up prize for my poem in tribute to Clare. But my puny effort was a long way inferior to the winning entry by a grizzled old Canadian lumberjack who ate, breathed and slept John Clare and was a walking encyclopedia for all things Clare.

    The best Burns Nights, I am told, have always been in Russia (at least when a part of the USSR) where poetry was really appreciated and, apart from the Russian greats, none more so than Burns.

  • Turgon

    Well Elenwe and me are having our haggis tonight. Actually I am not that into all the Ulster Scots stuff but it seemed fun to eat haggis tonight.

  • susan

    Pete, I am looking forward to hearing those links. Very good tape of interview with Alex Salmond on Robert Burns at this link:


    There is even a snazzier, shorter version on youtube for those with shorter time and/or attention spans.


    I loved the Salmond interview, but I also loved the comments tearing into him at the Herald site. And I thought you lot were narky. :o)

  • Dewi

    Good stuff Pete – loved the Heaney reading.

    P.S. Best Haggis on the Euston to Inverness sleeper. Haggis Neeps and tatties for four quid. Superb !

  • RepublicanStones

    never had haggis, anyone know of anywhere in the north that does it?
    but even then it’ll probably be a poor imitation !

  • Turgon


    Marks and Spencer’s is where we got ours

  • Dewi
  • Gréagóir O’ Frainclín

    Burns view of his dominant neighbours…..

    Parcel of Rogues In A Nation

    Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,
    Fareweel our ancient glory;
    Fareweel to e’en our Scottish name
    Sae fam’d in sang and story.
    Now Sark rins tae th’ Solway sands,
    An’ Tweed runs t’ th’ ocean..
    Tae mark whaur England’s Province stands:
    Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    What force or guile could not subdue
    Thro’ many warlike ages,
    Is wrought now by a coward few
    For hireling traitor’s wages.
    The English steel we could disdain,
    Secure in valour’s station.
    But English gold has been our bane:
    Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    Oh, would or had I seen the day
    That treason thus could sell us!
    My auld grey head had lien in clay,
    Wi’ Bruce and loyal Wallace!
    But, pith and power, till my last hour,
    I’ll make this declaration:
    We were bought and sold for English gold!
    Sic a parcel of rogues in a nation!

  • Gréagóir O’ Frainclín

    “Parcel of Rogues In A Nation”

    Luke Kelly does a great rendition.