A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I visited some good friends, native Scots, for their nearly-annual Burns Night Supper. We’ve shared this traditional Scottish event with them for years, taking part in all the rituals of a traditional Burns Supper -– toasts and responses, poetry, whisky tasting, traditional Scottish dishes, and of course, celebrating the arrival of the haggis, carried steaming hot into the dining room accompanied by the bagpipes (LIVE bagpipe music, played by other friends who definitely know how to pipe in the haggis and regale the guests!).
A typical Burns Night includes more than just a great meal and great company, several wee sippies of good whisky, and plenty of Burns poetry and songs. There’s also the sequence of evening's events: the ritual carrying in of the haggis accompanied by bagpipe music, the Address to a Haggis (and slicing with a sword), the Immortal Memory, the Toast to the Lassies and Reply to the Laddies, poetry readings, more toasts, and Auld Lang Syne. Our meal this year included the haggis, a savory big sausagey sort of thing that's apparently quite tasty (being a non-meat-eater, I always skip it), and we enjoyed neeps ‘n tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), delicious salmon and veggies, fresh-baked shortbread and a superb trifle. And whisky. And, to polish it all off, hot tea made as only Brits and Scots can make it. That, and friendship and Burns — perfection.
Since Burns Night is a January holiday, just past (celebrated around January 25, his birthday), I thought I’d trot out a portion of an Immortal Memory Toast that I wrote for one of these annual suppers. And since it’s also just past Valentine's Dayk, it seems a fitting time to take a look at Robert Burns, the famous (or infamous) lover of women, and lover of love–
Susan's Immortal Memory Toast to Robert Burns
Born in 1759, Robert Burns grew up in a time when Scotland needed a poet more than a hero—the time for martial heroics had ended with the defeat at Culloden, and soon the poetry and songs of Burns, Hogg and later Scott helped to heal and restore Scottish national pride. Burns wrote in the vernacular, showed a disdain for government and authority, and wrote wry, astute observations on life with sympathy for the common man. He died in his thirties, leaving a rich legacy of verses, and while it’s not always his best work, much of it is brilliant, humorous, sometimes profound. He wrote of Scottish freedom with fire and fervor in a poem celebrating Bruce and victories past:
Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots wham Bruce has aften led
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victorie!
And (in keeping with Valentine’s week!) he wrote reams of romantic verses in love songs and poetry. He was a handsome, charming, talented guy who loved women (as often as he could)… and to his credit, he seems to have greatly appreciated females, and did make an effort to understand them to a better degree than many of his 18th century contemporaries. But he enjoyed them too much, with a wickedly roving eye and heart. Robert was in love with love, and seemed to have some difficulties with commitment …
He said of himself that he was "a miserable dupe to love."
There was Nellie, when he was 15: And whilst that virtue warms my breast/I'll love my handsome Nell.
Margaret, to whom he proposed when he was 16: Peggy dear…My fair, my lovely charmer!
Allison, to whom he proposed: And by thy een sae bonie blue/ I swear I’m thine forever, O!
Entering dancing school, Rob found many opportunities to research his love songs. And he helped found the Tarbolton Bachelors Club as its president. Each member was required to be “a professed lover of one or more of the female sex." No Hellfire Club for these lusty young gents, no dark catacombs and lechery, just passionate admirers of the opposite gender. They debated dilemmas of love and broken hearts. Robbie himself favored, in one debate, the lass with no fortune, bless his idealistic heart.
In 1784, he met Jean Armour: My heart was caught before I thought, and by a Mauchlin lady
We'll get back to her, long-suffering, tolerant lady that she was.
Then there was Elizabeth, who gives birth to Robbie’s first child, whom he called Dear-Bought Bess: Welcome, lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for…
Jean Armour is pregnant when she and Robert serve penance for fornication:
For I've lately been on quarantine/A proven fornicator …
Robert is ordered to sit in the pew; Jean, seven months pregnant, must stand in repentance.
Then he meets the lovely Mary Campbell, who was his famous “Highland Mary” —
Burns wanted to marry her, but Jean was pregnant with twins this time…and Mary died unexpectedly, possibly with child. A year later, Meg, another servant girl, demands legal security from Burns for their unborn child. He denies it–-the only time he did.
Soon he meets Agnes Craig, a married woman whom he called Clarinda in years of correspondence that indicated a love affair: Had we never lov'd sae kindly/Had we never lov'd sae blindly/Never met–or never parted/We had ne'er been broken-hearted.
During that time, Jenny Clow bears Robert a son. Two months later, Jean Armour gives birth to a second set of twins. Her family throws her out and serves Robert with a writ. Meanwhile, Robert begins work as an excise man along the Solway firth. He acknowledges Jean as his wife by Scottish law with a binding spoken agreemen to marry. Months later, another son is born to Jean and Robert.
I hae a wife o' my ain
I'll partake wi' naebody
I'll tak Cuckold frae nane
I'll gie Cuckold to naebody.
A year later, his daughter is born to Helen Parks. Jean Armour takes the baby in as her own, and a week later, gives birth to her own son. She nurses both infants.
"Oor Rob should hae two wives," she said patiently.
In the three years following, she had another daughter and another son.
Robert died on July 21, 1796, of pneumonia or rheumatic fever that developed after he walked hom drunk in a pouring rain, pausing to lie down in the road for a little nap. On the day of his funeral, Jean gave birth to yet another boy.
Burns, passionate, irrepressible, charming, handsome, brilliant and out of control, had relationships, affairs, at least a dozen children –- and of those children that survived, he acknowledged and did his best to provide for them, though he barely made ends meet. A parade of crushes, loves, and dalliances notwithstanding, he seems to have understood love in all its forms, joyful and sad, frolicking and profound. He loved being in love. He understood passion (perhaps too well…) and he experienced the full gamut of love and life himself in three short decades. And though he died young, still in his thirties, he had a rare ability to express emotional richness.
Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart, thou warbling birds
That wanton lightly through the air
Thou minds me o' departed joys
Departed, never to return.
The ritual of the Burns Supper was started by Robert Burns' close friends just a few years after his death to honor him, his contributions and genius, and the good times they had. The format that began then is still very much the same today, including the various whisky toasts, the welcome to the Haggis, and so on. We can be grateful to Burns for many things, among them, his famous Address to the Haggis:
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudden race!
We are na fou, we're na that fou/But just a drappie in our ee;
Food fills the wame, an' keeps us livin
Tho life's a gift no worth receivin
When heavy-dragg'd wi' pine an' grievin
But oil'd by thee
The wheel's o' life gae down-hill scrievin
Wi' rattlin glee.
So here's to the wheels o' life, and here's to Robbie Burns!
Have you ever been to a Burns Supper? If you were in a relationship with Robbie Burns today, how long would it take before you told him what you thought? What advice would you give Jean Armour?