During the next few days, right across the world glasses will be lifted and toasts drunk, to the haggis and of course, to the immortal memory of the life of a humble ploughman, who turned out to be the most gifted of Scottish poets. Amazingly, outside Scotland, the greatest number of Burns Night celebrations will occur in Russia. In Moscow, between this coming Sunday and next Wednesday - the poet's birthday - there will be much celebration, much quaffing of the 'barley-bree' and in general, much admiration shown for everything Scottish.
Of course, we have, with the Russians, a shared patron saint in St Andrew. But the connection with Burns is even stronger, to the extent that his works, which of course, have been translated and are studied widely in their schools. How they translated some of his poems into Russian begs an interesting question, not least, what they made of,
"Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
Oh what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na' start awa' sae hasty
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle!"
I cannot imagine how that translates into Russian but Burns' egalitarian philosophy, possibly appealed greatly to a post revolutionary Russia, hence his continuing popularity.
Of course, Burns night will be celebrated in many countries, especially with a strong Scottish heritage such as Canada and of course, the United States. However what president Donald Trump, not I suspect an advocate of egalitarianism, (his inauguration is happening on this very Friday) might make of it, goodness knows.
However, the genius of Burns was manifold. He did advocate egalitarianism and indeed he didn't write exclusively in the Scots' tongue, for many of his more serious poems are written in English. This is perhaps a tribute to an education which in the eighteenth century might have been regarded as inadequate. He wrote as a patriot, as a romantic and as a man who loved the landscape and its wildlife.
I may wonder what the Russians make of "Wee sleekit, cow'ring, tim'rous beastie ...." and the rest of that epic poem. Not only does it represent the language of eighteenth century Ayrshire, it also gives us a glimpse into the character of the Bard, clearly a man who was at one with nature. Throughout his poems, especially those of a romantic nature, he fashions a tapestry that gives us more manicured landscape of the twenty first century. Life for Burns in that landscape must have been uncommonly hard. How can we compare today's tractor driver with the ploughman, walking behind a horse-drawn plough, in hail, rain or snow. That was hard work and perhaps was at the root of his early death!
And yet despite his labours, somehow Burns still made the time to observe the creatures of that relatively wild Ayrshire countryside and so often include them in his writings. His use of a whole raft of the Scots' colloquial names is interesting. Some of these names still resonate today. 'Gled' for instance is the old name for a red kite. The buzzard he called the 'buzzard gled' and the cuckoo of course, 'the gowk', a soubriquet still used in modern day language. Interestingly, he also makes reference to 'the craik' which I presume translates as the corncrake then it may safely be assumed considerably more commonplace than it is now, confined as it is, largely to the islands off the west coast.
He also refers to 'the foumart', better known as the polecat, now of course extinct in Scotland. And 'the gor cock' which translates into 'moor-cock', alias the red grouse, which during his time, before the sport of grouse shooting on heather moors had become popular, would have been less common than it is nowadays. Another bird which, like the corncrake, these days is a rare sighting indeed, 'the pailtrick' or partridge - the native grey partridge, not the imported red legged partridge now so commonly released into the Scottish countryside - is frequently featured.
But he definitely had his favourites, which were mostly song-birds. There is no doubt in my mind, that his romantic approach to life, for which he was of course, renowned, was accentuated by the romantic melodies provided by the birds he listened to and included in so many of his works. Chiefly, it was the 'laverock' or skylark, now sadly also becoming something of a rarity in many parts of Scotland that so often moved him. The 'mavis' too appears regularly and was probably more common in his day than is the case nowadays, albeit that in my experience, the song thrush seemed last year to enjoy something of a revival. But predominant throughout his verses, is the 'merle', our still extremely common blackbird, and as sweet a singer as you will hear. Time and again, Burns uses the merle as an adjunct to some real or perhaps, imagined liaison.
The pictures thus painted by him in word, tell us of a much wilder, less tamed and manicured landscape than it is these days. Nor was it of course, anything like as intensively farmed. Burns and his contemporaries in the farming world lived at a considerably slower pace compared with today's mechanised tillers of the land. Perhaps, without modern accoutrements, without gismos such as satellite precision sowing and chemicals, it is little wonder that he was never able to make a decent living from his farming labours.
However, it may well be that the landscape in which he laboured, was then so much richer in terms of its wildlife, than are today's intensively farmed hectares! One of the most serious consequences of the perpetual modernisation of agriculture is indeed the loss of so many of our farmland birds. Comparisons with the seventeenth century farming landscape might well reveal a much wider range of wild birds and animals then ... if the constant references to such a diversity of creatures in the poems of Robert Burns, is anything to go by.
Hereabouts, during the past few decades, there have been many very noticeable casualties. There was a time for instance, when I could hardly look across the neighbouring fields without catching glimpses of brown hares - Burns 'maukin or poussie'. There have been in recent years, been signs of the local hare population experiencing something of a revival, yet compared with say forty years ago, they still represent no more than a rump of their numbers then. In those days the regular hare shoots, then unfortunately so popular with the shooters, seemed more like the start of World War 3!
It will come as no surprise then that I regard one of the most sympathetic of Burns' verses is that to which he surely gave, the longest title of all his poems, "On seeing a wounded hare limp by me which a fellow had just shot at". Its first verse reads thus,
"Inhuman man! Curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor never pleasure glad thy cruel heart!"
Several years ago, I shared the sentiments expressed by Burns in that verse when I came across a hare, which like the one seen by the poet, had indeed been shot at! The poor creature, which, of course I had to put out of its misery, had three broken legs and was accordingly utterly immobilised, condemned otherwise to a slow and agonising death. Yes, I thought, inhuman man! Happily however, most of Burns' wild creature references are entirely benign. Indeed, most of them are seen as intrinsic parts of his landscape backdrops, which were the essence of his romantic poems. Slainte!