This month I seem fated to write about the Scottish bard, Robert Burns. For those unfamiliar with this esteemed poet and lyricist, take note that January 25th is Robbie Burns Day, the anniversary of his birth in 1759. All the topics I had considered for this month’s article, though they appear disparate (cookbooks, New Year’s Day, and stonecutters) instead have converged upon Burns.
First, I contemplated the importance of cookbooks to the family historian, having recently attended a lecture on this subject. Inspired, I interviewed my relatives about foods they recalled from childhood. This led to a discussion of traditional holiday foods and before I knew it, consumption of treats ensued and I became a stuffed, rounded blob, too full to even think about writing.
My second idea for a topic was to make reference to a timely event and the turning of the year was, naturally, “brought to mind.” Researching New Year’s Eve traditions, I discovered that the song we associate with this occasion was written down by a Scottish poet — guess who? “Auld Lang Syne” was collected, revised, and submitted by Robert Burns to a compilation of traditional Scottish songs at the end of the 18th century. It has undergone a few changes in melody and Burns’ words can be translated from Scots to English, but it is essentially the same as he recorded it “long, long ago.” A detailed study of this song’s history, including an analysis of its musical evolution, can be found here. “Auld Lang Syne,” a song about honouring old friendships, is the culmination of Hogmanay, the Scottish year-end celebration. Revels then extend into the New Year with visits to the homes of family and friends where gifts symbolizing various types of luck are given; special significance is placed on the first-foot, meaning first visitor. This was the extent of my investigation into the subject of Scottish New Year traditions, however, so I cast about for a third alternate topic.
Usually this column is inspired by my current historical research and this month I stumbled upon a fabulous source, “The Stone Cutters’ Journal,” a scanned publication available online through HathiTrust. This early union magazine recorded details relevant to my Glenbow Town and Quarry research, since some of the Glenbow men were mentioned in its pages. I found evidence of union involvement, as well as obituaries and photographs. While thrilling to me, I wasn’t sure this discovery warranted a whole column, the main moral for family historians being the value of the HathiTrust database.
Still uncertain about my article’s subject, I idly perused the journal, dallying over photos of detailed stone carving, when what should I spy but a bust of Robbie Burns! The caption informed me that he was a Free Mason, a secretary of his Lodge, in fact, and that he had married the daughter of a stonecutter. Inspired to find out more about this man who kept popping into my studies, I looked him up, starting with a cute video summarizing his life.
Robbie Burns was an influential writer who was appreciated from his first publication in 1786, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Although he died at the young age of 37, he had a great impact. His words have passed into popular culture, and most of us have heard them without even knowing they are his. An example that struck me was “My love is like a red, red rose, that’s newly sprung in June.” Robbie was a pioneer of the Romantic Movement, expressing passion in love songs, striving to preserve traditional works, noting the beauty of nature in his poems, as well as writing about the plight of the poor and the necessity of social change. He composed over 550 poems and songs, and fathered twelve children (with four different women). He is said to have over 600 descendants living today. In short, he was prolific. However, it is not the sheer quantity of his creations, but the quality that is notable. Although he wrote political commentary and criticism, he also wrote with passion and frequently, humour. I found many of his works online and reading several I had a good giggle or two. His work is commemorated today with special Burns Night celebrations, particularly on Robbie Burns Day.
The key to the Night is the supper, primarily consisting of haggis, a savoury pudding of sheep’s stomach stuffed with sheep’s organs, oatmeal, suet, and spices. Sides are “neeps and tatties,” turnips and potatoes mashed separately. The beverage of choice is a “dram,” or glass of Scotch whisky. The main event surrounding the meal is the recital of Burns’ poem, “Address to a Haggis,” wherein Burns calls the haggis the “Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race” and elevates this peasant food to the level of French cuisine. So great is the Scottish love of haggis, promoted by Burns, that even vegetarian versions have been created to suit the modern age.
So, as you bid adieu to the previous year, you can renew acquaintances of “times gone by.” Invite them round to supper, search your cookbooks for a haggis recipe, and put your whetstone to good use. Practice your Scottish accent and dust off your volumes of poetry. You see, this month all paths lead to “Rabbie!”
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.