Rantin' Rovin' Robin – Happy birthday, Rabbie Burns!
Portents and prophecies
Robin was a rovin' boy,
Rantin' rovin', rantin' rovin',
Robin was a rovin' boy.
Rantin' rovin' Robin!
The story is told that, on the day the great Scottish poet Robert Burns was born in Ayr not far from the famous bridge of Doon, his father, in haste to find a doctor to attend the birth, happened upon a poor woman who asked for his help to cross the swollen river. William Burness (that's how he spelt his name at that time) was a good-natured, kindly man, and so he helped the woman, and took her to his home, seeing she was hungry and wet, and there the woman made a prophecy, which Robert later recorded in the song “Rantin' Rovin' Robin'”:
He'll hae misfortunes great and sma',
But aye a heart aboon them a';
He'll be a credit 'till us a',
We'll a' be proud o' Robin.
This happened on 25 January 1759, a day which has come, in the years since, to be celebrated as Burns' Night, wherever people of Scottish decent still remember the great poet of the people. And as one of such I remember Burns on this day every year, and so write this tribute to his memory with the Kenneth McKellar CD The Songs of Robert Burns playing on the hi-fi. (Some, knowing my love of jazz and other great music might be surprised at this – but I like McKellar and make no excuses!).
Kenneth McKellar sings one of Burns's best-known love songs
Update on Kenneth McKellar
Just three months after I first published this Hub the great Kenneth McKellar died at his daughter's home at Lake Tahoe in the United States.
He had been a frequent visitor to the United States during his singing career, singing mostly in small venues.
McKellar was born in Paisley, Scotland, where he was buried after his death at age 82. He died of pancreatic cancer.
McKellar's recording career spanned more than 25 years and he released more than 35 albums on the Decca label.
His recordings of Burns's songs are regarded by many as definitive.
Background of a great poetic imagination
Burns was born in a time of winter storms that even caused the clay bigging (cottage) to partly collapse a few days after his birth. His mother had to take refuge, with the new-born baby, in a neighbour's cottage, until theirs was repaired about a week later.
As the poet grew, he had to take on the heavy work of a farm labourer, working alongside his father and his brothers. Burns himself wrote about his father: “My father was of the north of Scotland, the son of a farmer and was thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large, where, after many years of wanderings and sojournings, he picked up a pretty large quantity of observation and experience, to which I am indebted for most of my little pretensions to wisdom. I have met with few who understand men, their manners, and their ways, equal to him; but stubborn ungainly integrity, and headlong ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying circumstances; consequently I was born a very poor man's son.”
The poet's imagination was also stirred by one of whom he wrote: “In my infant and boyish days, too, I owed much to an old woman who resided in the family, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity, and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, enchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.”
The woman he referred to was the widow of his mother's cousin. Her name was Betty Davidson and she was dependent on her son, whose wife treated her very unkindly. So Robert's father, being the kindly man he was, took her into his home for some months at a time to live with his family.
From these humble yet fertile beginnings young Robert grew into a man beloved of his fellows and eventually a name throughout the world. Along the way he certainly fulfilled the prophecy made at his birth by the old woman: he made his people proud, but was also a “rantin', rovin'” man. He had a string of lovers which led many in the staid kirk (the Scottish church) to regard the poet as a dissolute man, given to womanising and carousing.
Burns could write exceptionally beautiful love songs, biting political satires and wonderful lyric poems celebrating the scenery of the country he loved so much.
The people's poet
The poet was also much influenced by the egalitarian ideas coming from the French Revolution, which confirmed his own dislike of those who put themselves up as better than others, as in this poem entitled “Address to the unco guid, or the rigidly righteous”:
O, ye wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours' faults and folly!
The third stanza of the poem:
“Ye see your state wi' theirs compared,
And shudder at the niffer,
But cast a moment's fair regard,
What mak's the mighty differ;
Discount what scant occasion gave
That purity ye pride in,
And (what's aft mair than a' the lave)
Your better art o' hiding.”
Note: “niffer” means “difference” and “lave” means “the rest.”
John Anderson, my jo - a love poem
From such bitter, angry words he could turn so tender, as in this wonderful poem about love grown old, “John Anderson, my jo”:
John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent;
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is bel;d, 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 thegither;
And mony a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
But hand in had we'll go;
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.
I think there are few poems of love more tender and moving than this.
As mentioned before, Burns's loves were many. One of the most famous of these was his love “Highland Mary”, who was Mary Campbell of Dunoon. Burns first saw her in church at Tarbolton where he was living. They agreed to marry and Mary made plans to go back to her family at Campbleton in Kintyre to arrange for the wedding. Before she left, the story goes, on 14 May 1786, the lovers met for a solemn and tender farewell on the banks of the Ayr: “The lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook; they laved their hands in the limpid stream, and, holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to each other.” Burns wrote the song “The Highland Lassie” for Mary:
She has my heart, she has my hand;
By sacred truth and honour's band,
'Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I'm thine, my Highland Lassie, O!
Sadly, it was not Burns who was laid low by “the mortal stroke,” but Mary, who died shortly after this touching river-side parting, having contracted typhus from nursing her brother when he had the disease.
Burns had children by a number of women and was finally married to Jean Armour who bore him nine children, of whom only three survived beyond infancy.
- Jolly Beggars
Jolly Beggars is a poem in the form of a cantata, an "opera of beggary" written in 1785 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. In subject matter and style it reflects Burns' wide range of interests and gifts. He...
- Auld Lang Syne : A song for New Years celebration, by Robert Burns
This hub is dedicated to the man, Robert Burns for composing the famous song Auld Lang Syne, a song for New Years celebration. Every year, we celebrate the coming of new year, and most of us would...
Burns also had a great sense of humour and could write about mundane things as well as great love, as in this “Address to the Toothache” which many, I think, will identify with:
My curse upon thy venomed stang,
That shoots my tortured gums alang
And though my lugs gi'es mony a twang,
wi' gnawing vengeance;
Tearing my nerves wi' bitter pang,
Like racking engines!
Most people surely know “Auld Lang Syne” but I wonder how many know about the poet who wrote it? He was certainly a poet of far more than just that one song, and he is revered in many countries around the world as the “peoples's poet” for his humble origins and egalitarian bent.
So this evening, raise a glass of Scotland's finest and toast the great Rabbie Burns:
Let kings and courtiers rise and fa'
This world has mony turns,
But brightly beams abune them aw'
The Star o' Rabbie Burns.
(From The Star of Rabbie Burns by James Thompson)
Much of the information for this Hub I have gleaned from the Introduction to the 1897 edition of The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, which is the only copy I have of his works.
More by this Author
Two of my favourite poems by South African poet Lionel Abrahams with some of my thoughts about them.
How relevant are the English Romantic poets in today's world? They help us keep a sense of proportion and rootedness. They help us see the wonder of nature with clearer eyes
Empathy is an attitude and more than that, it is a skill that can be used to deepen all kinds of relationships - at work and at home.