A Journey into Scotland
Part Two of the Bibliography
The South West of Scotland
Selected Poems : Robert Burns
I bought my copy of this book at a church hall jumble sale when I was an impressionable teenager. I have always been drawn to the presence of the poet in the verse. A funny, satirical, observant, subversive voice that celebrates the verities of decency and the pleasures of youth. A voice in tune with the natural world and critical of hypocrisy, vanity and cant. Just as every Englishman over the age of forty loves to have an opportunity to sing along with Lee Marvin’s gravel delivery of Wandrin’ Star from Paint Your Wagon, there isn’t a true-blooded Englishman who doesn’t get pleasure out of trying out his Scottish voice and Burns is a place to try this out.
Who hasn’t twisted their vocal chords into their best celtic snarl to observe a “wee sleekit, cowrin’ tim’rous beastie” ? or to pipe in the
“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!”?
The well known poems are rightly famous but his reputation, as a poet, rests upon a considerable body of work and he is one of the poets who repays reading his verses at length. I’m sure Scots would rightly cringe at our feeble attempts to imitate a Caledonian brogue but these poems simply have to be read aloud and you would kill them if you gave them your best RP Donald Sinden.
Burns is most associated with Ayr and in particular the village of Alloway where he was born but he spent significant periods of his life in Edinburgh and around Dumfries. He is for all of Scotland and he has a true Scottish voice: intelligent, articulate, musical and not slow to point out the faults of the ruling classes. There is something wonderful in encapsulating the superior vanity of the upper class lady in church, with her finery outshining the rest of the congregation, and keeping them in their place, only to have the effect under-mined by a louse crawling out from beneath her collar. She sees everyone looking up to her admiringly. Everyone else sees someone to keep clear of.
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”
My journey took me on an evening cycle along the very route followed by Tam O’Shanter in my favourite of the better known verses. Happily I wasn’t in the same state as Tam (Burns like many of his fellow Romantics was a powerful advocate of the dissolute life and the power of drink). The ride led ultimately to the superb Auld Brig ‘o Doon which was lit by a slanting evening sun when I reached it. An ancient bridge over the River Doon. No finer spot could be devised for a story of witches.
A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid
My friend Laurence and I used to walk the moors above Saddleworth taking it in turns to recite verses of this poem to each other. He was from Bray near Dublin and I was from Barrow in Furness. The poem is beyond Burns’ use of the Scottish dialect. Here MacDiarmid helps to develop a new form of literary Scottish called Lallans. With our various Irish and Northern accents we loved the sounds we could get out of the words. The poem is now regarded as one of the most important of what became the Scottish Renaissance. It’s a state of the nation work and one that is informed both by a desire to establish a new Scottishness and by MacDiarmid’s communism. (As students at Manchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s we were very much in the spirit of Marxism that was the beating heart of that institution).
The poem contains a warning that an understanding of Burns’ shouldn’t be taken as a Scottish birthright. That the Ayrshire Bard is mis-applied throughout the world by bogus scots (and almost certainly clumsy English twerps like me). There is something angry about MacDiarmid that we loved, even though we suspected the anger was as much directed at us as at anybody.
No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’s be the last a kennin haund to gie –
Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin
Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.
Power Without Principles by Jimmy Reid
Jimmy Reid became a hero to me in the 1970s. His is a voice we don’t hear anymore in these most political of unpolitical times. Today the dominant political creed is of understanding the need for greed and justifying it on the flawed principle that if you let a few people become unbelievably rich and powerful they might sprinkle a little of their great wealth on the undeserving poor. That we should shuffle along being grateful that we also (or so runs the trick) can have our dreams and that good things go to those who deserve them. I found a copy of this in a Sheffield Library and read with equal admiration and disillusion as he points out what everyone came to loathe about New Labour (he wrote these essays in 1997 when everyone was cheering the odious Blair to the rafters). I didn’t have my ticket with me and didn’t take the book out. A huge pity as the book is now very hard to come by.
We loved Jimmy Reid for having principles. For understanding the dignity and value of the working man. He was brought face to face with Kenneth Williams on the Parkinson show which allowed the brilliant comic actor but seriously flawed human being a supposed equal platform with the Scottish trades unionist. Williams dominated the encounter through his inability to shut up. That a great man should be put on a light-weight talk-show to debate politics with a reactionary member of the Carry-On team seems to say something quite tragic about the truth behind truth in modern Britain.
Scottish politics are light-years ahead of English. They had sign posts where we settled for weather vanes. They maintained principles of decency and integrity. We ended up with politicians run by news baron(s?) who blow whichever way the current wind takes them; who would as happily trade on hate and fear as right and wrong. Jimmy Reid may never have been given the platform he deserved but he remains a hero of mine.
Scottish Journey by Edwin Muir
OK so it’s another man of the left on a tour of Scotland. Did you expect me to take “The Astute Observations on the Economic Condition of the Celtic Nations” by Mark Thatcher with me in my saddlebag? I’m drawn to those who tell a Scottish story that they know from personal experience. I was led to this book by reading George Mackay Brown’s Portrait of Orkney. Muir is a fellow Orcadian and made his journey as Scotland was still reeling from the First World War and on the verge of the second. In the words of academic TC Smout “Muir held up a mirror to the face of Scotland all those years ago. It is frightening to see so many recognisable features in its glass.”
I gained an insight into Scotland through Edwin Muir as well as finding him a clever and amiable travelling companion. He intensified my dislike of injustice and (on a lesser theme) justified my reluctance to find very much to like in the works of Walter Scott. (Or at least in Scott himself.) He also painted a Scotland with so many different facets and faces that I became reluctant to define anything as Scottish or to talk of Scottishness. (A reluctance I seem to have (at least partly) overcome.
A wonderful book.
To be continued…