I was in Ayrshire a while ago, strolling the picturesque streets of Mauchline, and found the parish church, famous for one of its trickier parishioners, Robert Burns. The great Scottish poet lived there and his memorials are everywhere. I noticed his date of birth, January 25th 1759, and thought ‘oh, he was born on Burns Night, how appropriate’ before the penny dropped. Derr.
He farmed near Mauchline when he was a young man, and got a local girl, Jean Armour, into trouble, for which he was obliged to do penance in front of the congregation. This involved sitting on the creepie stool in front of the pulpit for three services, there to suffer the reproving gaze of his neighbours.
We used to do something like it here a hundred and fifty years ago (I’m not suggesting we revive this custom, by the way). Burns went on to make an honest woman of her, and I was showed their signatures in the Clerk’s Record Book from 1788.
They had nine children, four of them buried as infants in the same churchyard, and she outlived him by forty years. Burns was a man of extraordinary appetites, a difficult dog to keep on the porch, as Hillary Clinton remarked of her husband Bill. But what we remember of him is not his messy life, nor I hope that humiliation in the kirk, but his poetry, which is as fresh and distinctive today as it was back then. He’s so celebrated that Burns Night is observed with great ceremony around the world from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
Love it, but then I love Scotland, adore haggis, and have been known occasionally to enjoy a wee dram and a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
Most of all I love finding something to celebrate when the world is cold and dark, and the promise of spring seems lost to the deep mid winter.
Don’t forget, it’s coming, it’s coming, and it will bloom again, like a red, red rose.