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June 9, 2013

Re-Discovering Robert Burns

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Who couldn’t like Robbie Burns? Well, the British, I suppose.  And he didn’t wear well with the Edinburgh Scots.  When I turned the page from William Blake in my trek through The Norton Anthology of English Literature, there was Robert Burns with all his apostrophes.  After I got used to the a’s, the whas and the gies, I found him oozing warmth and conviviality.  I also found a flood of associations that go back to my childhood.

As a girl, I loved a book called Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. As a result of a shipwreck in the Pacific, Mary and Jean Wallace, age 12 and 10, find themselves in a lifeboat with four babies.  When the boat washes up on an island, the intrepid girls find a way to not only survive but make a home for themselves and the babies. 

There was an old salt of a British sailor on that island who had a parrot that would squawk, “Oh Bedelia, I’d like to steal ya,” a line of verse that I have remembered all these years, having no idea of the song’s context.  It’s one of those stray pieces of ephemera that float to the top of my consciousness at odd moments.  I might be pulling a weed from the garden or rolling down a window at a stoplight and suddenly I think, “Oh Bedelia, I’d like to steal ya.”

When the girls got scared they would chant “Scots Wha Hae,” by Robert Burns. The lines I remember from way back in second grade are:

Now’s the day and now’s the hour,

See the front of battle lour.


I had no idea what that meant.

I didn’t know that “Scots Wha Hae” had been put to a beautiful tune until a piano student came in one day talking about her paper on William Wallace.  We found this arrangement of “Scots Wha Hae” by The Corries.  It’s quieter than the one from the Braveheart soundtrack and, I think, much more moving.

In 1980, when I first visited my cousin Hazel who lived in the Cornish village of my great grandfather, I kept a copious journal of everything she and I did: the walks, the vegetation in the hedge-rows, the biscuits and cakes we had for tea, and the weekly bus to Tavistock.  Back home I typed up my journal and sent her a copy with photographs I had taken.  One of the photos was of Hazel and me in her sitting room in the middle cottage of the three miner’s cottage that had been remodeled together into one house.

Hazel wrote me a letter in which she quoted from Robert Burns’ “To a Louse:”

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

And as a rider, she added, “I don’t usually allow my knees to be photographed.”

The verses of Robert Burns have gifted the world with songs: “Afton Water” and “Coming Through the Rye,” both of which I grew up singing because they were in the Mark Nevin series for piano Tunes You Like.  “Ye Flowery Banks,” sometimes called “Caledonian Air,” sometimes “Bonnie Doon” does indeed break my heart with its line:

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird

That sings upon the bough.

Thou minds me o’ the happy days,

When my fause luve was true.

None of Burn’s poems are as famous as “Auld Lang Syne” so it’s a pity that most people don’t know the whole song because it’s another that will break your heart with joy, sadness, and longing. It’s probably the most requested song we do in the OK Chorale. Here’s Susan McKeown and Johnny Cunningham from the album A Winter Talisman: Auld Lang Syne

And here is an intimate view of The OK Chorale singing “Auld Lang Syne”last Christmas:

Auld Lang Syne


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