Robert Burns: Scottish poetry for everyone

Burns Statue Portrait Gallery Christmas
Burns Statue, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Burns: The Words

You may think you don’t know any poetry by Robert Burns– but you do!

Ever linked arms and sung Auld Lang Syne? Or remarked that “the best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray?” Or hummed the song “Coming through the rye”? You may be surprised that they are all works by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

The Man

Burns was a ploughman, born and raised in Ayrshire to tenant farmers. His parents paid for a decent basic education, and he continued to study on his own. His poetry was very much in tune with the literary tastes of the time: he was just ahead of the countryside loving Romantics (Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge).  Thus the general public loved his use of his country experiences to reflect on universal considerations. Although he was very adept at writing in English Burns chose to write in Scots language or dialect.  Many readers feel that the lilt and language add beauty and atmosphere to his work.

When he moved to Edinburgh in 1786 (on a borrowed pony!) the Scottish enlightenment was in full swing. So it was that young Burns found himself amongst some learned men – metaphysicians, philosophers and Earls!  The egalitarian poet must have been happy with the set-up in Edinburgh Old Town, where all levels of society lived side-by-side.  However, he was also a womaniser and heavy drinker, and he soon spent the fortune he made through his poetry.  Consequently, he took a job as an Exciseman (tax collector) in Dumfries – not something that particularly suited to his personality, rockstar lifestyle (whisky, women and song!) or his social views. But he continued to write poetry and during this period wrote some of his most stunning works.  Amongst them was the glorious Tam O’ Shanter. (Once you know the story, have a wee listen to Malcolm Arnold’s musical interpretation.  It’s great!)

Sadly, Burns’ health deteriorated rapidly, and he died of endocarditis at age 37.  He was buried in St Michael’s churchyard in Dumfries, with full military honours.

Although “Burns Country” remains his beloved Ayrshire, there are monuments to him in Edinburgh: a beautiful statue in the main hall of the National Portrait Gallery, and a Monument down from Calton Hill, looking towards Arthur’s Seat – a short walk away from Anthemion.

Burns Monument Edinburgh
Burns Monument, Edinburgh

The Memory

Scots throughout the world celebrate Burns’ Night on 25th January each year, on the anniversary of the poet’s birthday.  In the past, Burns Suppers were an all-male affair, but nowadays both men and women attend.

If you attend a traditional Burns supper, the format will go something like this:

 

Selkirk Grace

Piping in of the Haggis

Recital of the “Toast to the Haggis” by Robert Burns

Meal

Speeches:

“The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”, a speech about the poet and his life

“Toast tae the Lassies”, a speech (by a man) celebrating the fairer sex. This is normally humorous and can be quite risqué! (Burns would have approved, as he wasn’t averse to the odd risqueé poem himself!)

“Reply on Behalf of the Lassies”, a speech (now normally by a lady) that gives as good as it gets in terms of humour at the expense of the men!

Toasts, of course, are with a wee dram, so keep your glass filled!

The night ends with everyone standing in a circle singing Auld Lang Syne.  Please note, for the purist, that there is no “for the sake of” in the song, and that you shouldn’t link arms until the verse that starts “And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere”.  Oh, and it’s Syne with an “s”, not a “z”!  There you go, you’re all set!

There are plenty of less formal Burns Suppers on the go, and a three-day event this year on New Town’s Rose Street.  In other venues, you might still expect a haggis, whisky – and sometimes a good going ceilidh (Scottish dancing) to round off the night.

And when it’s all over, you could do worse than listen to some Burns songs.  One of my favourite albums is Dougie MacLean‘s  “Tribute“.  Well worth a listen.  I’ve taken it with me all around the world!

 

 

 

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The Unicorn: An unusual national animal

England has its lion, France its cockerel, the United States their eagle, and Scotland has ……. the unicorn!

Unicorn figurehead ship Dundee
Frigate HMS Unicorn, Dundee Harbour

Symbolism

coat of arms with unicorn
James V Royal Arms, main door Holyrood Palace

But why would Scotland make this extremely strange choice of national animal? To find out, we have to go back in time to Celtic lore and legend.   The ancients believed unicorns had healing powers. Throughout the ages, people thought they could purify water, and heal rubella, measles, and even the plague! Although the unicorn symbolised purity and innocence, it also stood for masculinity, power and courage (eat your heart out, My Little Pony!) It was such a free, wild animal that it had to be chained – and only a virgin maiden could tame it! It would choose to die rather than be taken alive. One can see how our Scottish kings would appreciate the symbolism.

 

Unicorns in Heraldry

edinburgh ice sculptures unicorn
Unicorn Ice Sculpture, Ice Adventure, Edinburgh Christmas

In Scottish heraldry, it goes back to the 12th century, when William I used it in his coat of arms. The unicorn was the enemy of the lion – perhaps another reason to keep it in chains.  Might King Robert the Bruce have seen the significance of this enmity when he adopted it as Scotland’s national animal in the 14th century?  The unicorn also appeared on Scottish coins in the 1400s and 1500s.  Then, in 1603 came the Union of the Crowns.  James VI of Scotland, now also James I of England, decided to change the coat of arms.  He replaced one of the two unicorns in his Scottish Royal Arms with a lion to symbolise the unity of England and Scotland.

unicorn chains edinburgh Holyrood
Holyrood Palace

Unicorn Horn Marketing

While unicorn horn isn’t the marketing draw it used to be (in the middle ages merchants could make a pretty penny because of its well-advertised healing powers) we can still enjoy going searching for the motif as we travel through Scotland.  There are several close to Anthemion!And don’t worry if you don’t believe in uhttp://www.anthemionapartmentedinburgh.co.unicorns – gone are the days when Inquisition could burn you at the stake for doubting its existence!

Unicorn sign for antiques shops
Unicorn Antiques, Dundas St, Edinburgh

To get you started, here are a few examples unicorns in Scotland – where have you spotted our national animal?

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Soldier’s Trunk in Edinburgh Castle

Quite a mascot at the Castle!

As there’s been wonderful winter weather in Edinburgh recently, I took a dauner from Anthemion up to Edinburgh Castle.  When I go there, I always make a point of looking at the 78th Highlanders monument on the Esplanade.  Edinburgh Castle Monument Edinburgh Castle Elephant

What makes it special is the elephant – and there’s a reason he’s there!

In 1838 when the regiment came back from their posting in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) they came home with an unusual souvenir – an elephant they had adopted as a pet during their time abroad.  The elephant became the regimental mascot and headed their parades.  He lived on site in the Castle stables, looked after by Private McIntosh.  Before long the soldier discovered he had a drinking buddy: the elephant showed a taste for beer, and used to reach its trunk through the bars in the canteen windows to get its evening brew!

 

Oddly, the elephants toenails are on display in the National War Museum within the Castle!

 

 

 

 

Check prices and availability now!

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Poppy Day Comes to Edinburgh

Poppy Day

Anyone visiting Scotland (and indeed the UK in general) between now and 12 November will no doubt notice that many people are wearing red poppies. The Answer is Poppy Day.

Remembrance Sunday is the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the end of the First World War, when Armistice was declared in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Poppy Day Adam Smith

Why Poppies?

As a symbol, they come from the 1915 poem “On Flanders Field” by Canadian Lt Col Dr John McCrae. He saw the poppies popping up as the first signs of life on the muddy battlefields of Ypres. The poem inspired Moina Michael, an American teacher, to have disabled ex-servicemen make and sell silk poppies. A member of the French YWCA, Anna Guerin, saw how these poppies could support ex-servicemen and families affected by the war. She spread the idea to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In 1921 she met Field Marshall Earl Haig, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy for the British Legion.

Poppies move to Britain

The Legion ordered 9 million poppies for the first Poppy Day in November of that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately.  The demand was so high that Scotland did not see many of these poppies for sale, and in 1926 Earl Haig’s wife set up a poppy factory in Edinburgh for Scottish sales.

The Edinburgh Connection

When you walk along the Royal Mile, look out for Panmure Close. The entrance has wrought ironwork poppies on top. This close was the location of the poppy factory from 1931 to 1965. The factory has now moved to Warriston in Edinburgh, and poppies are still made there by hand by disabled ex-servicemen.

The photo shows the entrance to Panmure Close. On the left, the plaque to the poppy factory. On the right is a plaque to the Adam Smith, pioneer of political economy, who lived in Panmure House for 12 years!  Edinburgh does indeed have a multi-layered history.

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