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Robert Burns for Catholics: Singing Auld Lang Syne with the Angels

Tomorrow night, the 25th January, has been a deeply anchored part of my personal calendar since I became a student of Edinburgh University nearly twenty years ago. That night is the night of heavily distilled Scottishness that commemorates the nation’s most famous and beloved bard, a night known throughout the world simply as Burns Night.

Robert Burns, known by Scots as Rabbie Burns, was born into a farming family at Alloway in Ayrshire in 1759. He died in Dumfries at the early age of 37. During his short life he took the Scottish literary world by storm, and secured a place for himself in history and in legend. Every year, lovers of Scotland throughout the world mark the 25th of January, the day of his birth (in 1759) with an evening of song, poetry, speeches, comradeship, food and what he affectionately called Scotch Drink:

Gie him strong Drink until he wink,
That's sinking in despair;
An' liquor guid to fie his bluid,
That's prest wi' grief an' care;
There let him bowse an' deep carouse,
Wi' bumpers flowing o'er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An' minds his griefs no more.
Solomon's Proverbs, xxxi. 6,7.[1]

Of course, there are other occasions where people praise each other, celebrate their friendship and let the emotions flow freely; some dry, and others not. I remember experiencing something like this many times at a certain kind of prayer meeting, and similar scenes can be witnessed in Glasgow pubs on most nights of the week. But there is something particularly striking about a setting which combines this with the solidity of ceremony and tradition. It is a noble thing, I think, to confer a sense of the sacred on such a celebration of comradeship and gratitude. It reminds us of the deep dignity of the simplest of our emotions. It does the religious man no harm to remember that these things are always and everywhere sacred, even for non-religious people.

After all, a man’s a man, for a’ that, as the Bard would have it. God created men to live in friendship and good cheer, and Rabbie Burns famously saw through the pessimism of Calvinism to the Catholic truth that all men, places and things have an intrinsic goodness about them that we should try to love.

Somehow January seems just the right time for this kind of consolation. It is such a long month, and in this part of the world much colder and darker than December. The solace in winter that Burns Night undeniably brings is probably the only reason why, in modern times, the Scots managed to resist the public celebration of Christmas for so long; until the nineteen seventies, in fact. They already had one winter feast of loving, forgiving and remembering the poor. Why spend good money on another? (You know how careful the Scots are with their money.)

Which puts me in mind of an occasion, about ten years ago, when I borrowed 7o pounds 50 pence from my friend, Mr Asch; you know that he is called Rabbie, like our Bard, tonight, and that with his family’s Hebrew origins, his brother Russell, nearly became a Rabbi. That would have made a Rabbie and a Rabbi, which would have been confusing for the postman.

Anyway, back to the 70 pounds and 50 pence I once borrowed from Mr Robbie Asch.
A week later I pressed three twenties and a tenner into his hand and thanked him warmly. “What about the 50p” said Mr Asch.
“Ach, Robbie,” said I, “only a Jew would ask for the 50p!”
“Aye,” said Mr Asch, “And only a Scot would begrudge giving it.”

Thirty years after Scotland started celebrating Christmas publicly, we have managed to spoil it (or at least our public observance of it) in Scotland and everywhere else. But the potential for genuine cheer that Burns Night possesses remains mysteriously intact, and so for any of you with the scantiest claim to Caledonian kinship, I recommend its observance without reserve.

Burns and his poetry evoke all the joys and sufferings of raw humanity, and with the help of the whisky that accompanies the other traditional fare for the evening – haggis (a surprisingly delicious sausage made of minced sheep offal, oats, onion and pepper), turnips and potatoes – the event, with all its speeches, laughter and song brings people closer together as they reflect on what makes us human and why, despite its hardships, life is always worth living. (Burns had, incidentally, no time for those who would disagree with this sentiment. In his On a Suicide, he harshly quipped: Earth'd up, here lies an imp o' hell, /Planted by Satan's dibble; /Poor silly wretch, he's damned himsel', /To save the Lord the trouble. )

Scottish culture is about heavy and unsubtle things: the pipes, haggis, potatoes, predestination. Even the nation's favourite drink, the Uisce beatha (water of life) can be very un-nuanced in its effects on man. The architecture too is heavy and solid.
Perhaps all this heaviness owes something also to Scotland’s historic poverty, geography, climate and the rugged closeness of its people to the harsh realities of existence.

It is in such circumstances that sometimes the purest and most enduring expressions of human emotions are forged. Because with those bass notes reverberating in our bones – the drone of the pipes, the swell of the ocean, the reality of constant wet weather, the closeness to death and illness - we are apt to express deep emotion with great facility.

Millions living today have (even many times) sung these words of Burns: “Now here’s a hand, my trusty friend; and gie’s a hand o’ thine … We’ll tak’ a cup of kindness yet for the sake of auld lang syne.” And that moment for all of us, I wager, has often been one of great emotion.
But Burns’ passion was not just reserved for brotherly love. His fascination with the ladies was a constant leitmotif of his short life. It puts me in mind of a scandalous thing an old priest of the Isles once said to me, as I enjoyed his Gaelic hospitality: “you’ll find us all a bit Jansenist, but at least we enjoy our falls from grace.”

A similarly bracing (if somewhat theologically problematic) message is found in Burns’ popular song, Green Grow the Rashes O’.

Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e'er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

There's nought but care on ev'ry han',
In ev'ry hour that passes, O:
What signifies the life o' man,
An' 'twere na for the lasses, O.
Green grow, &c. …

For you sae douce, ye sneer at this;
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O:
The wisest man the warl' e'er saw,
He dearly lov'd the lasses,
O. Green grow, &c.

Auld Nature swears, the lovely dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han' she try'd on man,
An' then she made the lasses,
O. Green grow, &c.

Burns fathered twelve children by four women, including nine by his wife Jean Armour. Seven of his children were illegitimate, including the first four by Jean before they were married in 1788. So the man knew his subject.

The poet himself analyses “the various species of young men” whom he divides into two kinds: “the grave and the merry”. The former are either “goaded on by the love of money,” or wish only “to make a figure in the world." He much prefers "the jovial lads, who have too much fire and spirit to have any settled rule of action, but without much deliberation follow the strong impulses of nature”. “I do not see,” he continues, “that the turn of mind and pursuits of such a one as the following verses describe - who steals thro' the vale of life, amusing himself with every little flower that fortune throws in his way, is, in the least, more inimical to the sacred interests of piety and virtue. I do not see but he may gain heaven as well as he who, straining straight forward, and perhaps bespattering all about him, gains some of life's little eminences, where, after all, he can only see and be seen a little more conspicuously than he whom in the pride of his heart, he is apt to term the poor, indolent devil he has left behind him.”[2] But perhaps we will hear more of this anon, when we come to toast the lassies.

Burns is a proto-Romantic. His poetry is in clear continuity with the medieval machars of Scotland, professional poets who composed poetry to mark the highs and lows of everyday life for recitation to their noble patrons. He shared with later Romantics such as Scott a nostalgic affection for his country’s medieval heritage, an attitude which went some way to healing the historic distrust for all things Catholic. Burns, in common with most of his generation, certainly perceived Catholicism as ‘other’ and laying no particular claim on his universe, but he had Catholic friends and admirers.

In a day when most of Scotland’s chattering classes were content with the new appellation ‘North British’, Burns made a stand for the defence of Scottishness and what he saw as the Scottish virtues of honesty, simplicity and natural nobility:

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, and a' that.
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A Man's a Man for a' that.

For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, and a' that;
The honest man, though e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that. [3]

He bewailed the fact that Scotland was content to sell her culture and soul for English gold:

The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valor's station;
But English gold has been our bane,
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation! [4]

One of Burns’ most enthusiastic admirers was Dr John Geddes, Catholic bishop and Vicar Apostolic for the Lowlands. He was the elder brother of the biblical critic and priest Alexander Geddes, also known to Burns. John and Alexander Geddes knew something of the harsh, rural life that Burns had lived: the two brothers had been junior seminarians at Scalan, a tiny (illegal) house of formation near Glenlivet for lads destined for the priesthood. They wore the kilt, lived on salmon and porridge, and washed in an icy stream each morning, in a valley surrounded by moutains where, according to Alexander, the sun never shone.

Burns first met Dr John Geddes at the house of Lord Monboddo in Edinburgh during the winter of 1786-7. Geddes took an interest in the poet's work, and was responsible for persuading five seminaries, including that of the Scots College at Valladolid (of which he had once been Rector) to subscribe to the Edinburgh Edition of Burns’ work in 1787. Burns took Geddes's own copy, bound with blank sheets for taking notes, with him on his Highland tour, and delayed returning it for two years. Writing to Geddes from Ellisland on 3rd February 1789, the poet apologised for having kept the book so long: 'You will see in your book, which I beg your pardon for detaining so long, that I have been turning my lyre on the banks of the Nith. Some larger poetic plans that are floating in my imagination, or partly put in execution, I shall impart to you when I have the pleasure of meeting with you...'

Letters of Bishop Geddes about Burns were recently discovered in a collection held by the Scottish Catholic Archives[5]. They give us an interesting snapshot of Burns' activity in Edinburgh and Ayrshire, at a time when, although on the brink of literary success, he was still effectively on the run from the parents of his future wife, by whom he had already sired two illegitimate children. His star was clearly rising nonetheless.

In one letter, Bishop Geddes writes:
“Burns, with whom I am intimately acquainted, though he was only Hireman to his elder Brother until August 1786 and never before that time master of ten pounds: yet read a great deal having been for many years a subscriber to a circulating library at Kilmarnock; had a little chest for holding books at the fireside, and on the Sundays, if the weather was good, instead of going to the Kirk, went to a wood with some Poet[ry]. Amendments were offered to him by Dr Gregory and others; but he would not adopt one of them; because he said; he was to publish his own Poetry. The Excuses he made to me for the Irreligion and some Licentiousness in the book were, that he only attracted the wild notions of the Religionists in the west, and that he had done good [and] that when he published his Poems he was not acquainted with that, [but of that] I am not a competent judge.”

In many letters throughout 1787 Geddes introduced, with some considerable zeal, more and more of his acquaintances to the work of Burns:
“You will have heard of the Ayrshire Poet Mr Burns, who was a ploughman until a few months ago. His poems have been lately printed here, and the subscribers were near to three thousand: he has truly a great genius and might improve himself much, as he is only twenty eight years of Age: but, I think, he will not be easily advised: he is one of those, who think for themselves, which to some degrees is laudable. I have been twice in company with him, and we are great friends.”

Another manuscript in the collection highlights Burns’ discreet Jacobite sympathy that has become synonymous with most Scottish patriotism, and his nostalgia for the Stewart (Catholic) kings.

“Wrote by Burns on the window of an Inn at Stirling at the sight of Stirling castle:
Here once the Noble Stewarts reigned
and laws to Scotia well ordaind
But now unroofd their palace stands
Their sceptre swayd by other hands
In idiot race to honour lost
who knows them best despise them most”

Burns was a fine satirist. His victims included the political and religious hypocrites of his day. When Burns was made to do public penance for three weeks, after his being admonished by the Kirk for his dalliance with Jean Armour (whom he later married), he recast in immortal Scots the Pharisee’s prayer of our Lord’s parable, featuring a drunken and debauched elder who has a lively appreciation of God’s mercy for himself but not for others. The elder Holy Willie praises himself and God in the same breath:

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.[6]

The irony is delicious; and the conceited attitude it commemorates is - we must admit - a familiar part of everyone’s experience of religion. Of course, we are always ready to see Holy Wille in anyone else but ourselves. But Burns was aware enough of his own wretchedness, and frequently begs Heaven for mercy.

He also, famously, asks for self-awareness:
“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as other see us.”[7]

A journalist visiting us a couple of years ago was bemused to hear one of our boys talk about St Burns. The poor innocent had assumed that with all the fuss we made of the man he must surely be a saint.

For my part, I certainly pray to meet old Rabbie one day, with his ‘enthusiastic heart of love’ alongside his generous and courteous friend, Bishop John, if – that is – I am forgiven all my sins as I pray the Power above has forgiven them theirs.

The Bard made these verses for the family of a Minister whose hospitality he once enjoyed. Turning to the angels, we can make them our own: for all those we have loved and lost, and all those we have loved and kept, over the years.

The beauteous, seraph sister-band-
With earnest tears I pray-
Thou know'st the snares on ev'ry hand,
Guide Thou their steps alway.

When, soon or late, they reach that coast,
O'er Life's rough ocean driven,
May they rejoice, no wand'rer lost,
A family in Heaven![8]

[1] ie. “Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” Proverbs xxvi 6,7.
[2] Burns’ 1st Commonplace Book (April 1783 - October 1785)
[3] For A’ That and A’ That
[4] Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation
[5] Facsimiles of some of Geddes’ letters can be consulted on line at
[6] Holy Willie’s Prayer
[7] In To a Louse, where the poet records the shame of a lady in church who is unaware that a large louse is crawling around on her new hat.
[8] From O Thou Dread Power


Anonymous said…
Yes, but those letters about Robert Burns will soon be going up to Aberdeen University Library and Columba House, home of the Scottish Catholic Archives, will be sold. Why not pop in to the Scottish Catholic Archives? Before it is too late contact The Scottish Catholic Archives at:
Columba House
16 Drummond Place
Edinburgh EH3 6PL

Telephone: 44 (0) 131 556 3661
Fax: 44 (0) 131 556 3661

Anonymous said…
Just a shame Mr Burns was a freemason, which however quaint his verses cannot be said to be in his favour especially when he is praised so extravagently on an otherwise impeccable website.

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