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Issue 13 - A legacy that grows with each year

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


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A legacy that grows with each year

Roddy Martine talks...

A matter of days before the New Year bells, I received an urgent e-mail from Manhattan. Liz Smith, columnist on the New York Post, was asking for a translation for “pint-stowp” and “a right gude willie waught”, both expression’s to be found in Robert Burn’s immortal Auld Lang Syne. It started me thinking just how big an influence Scotland’s national bard commands around the world, not just at Hogmanay, or on the night of the 25th January when we celebrate his birthday, but throughout each and every year since his death in 1796.

His name crops up in the most unexpected places – a bar named after him in Tenerife, a whisky shop in Tokyo, at a seminar in Alberta. His audiences are legion. Such is his worldwide following, that two years ago saw the launch in May of an annual Burns Festival in and around
his birthplace in South Ayrshire.

His words resonate throughout Scottish life, so much so that A Man’s A Man for a’ that was chosen as pivotal point of the 1999 opening of Scotland’s parliament.

What I find astonishing – and humbling – about such legendary figures is how young they were when they died, having achieved so much in their short lives.

Rabbie was only 37. But what an amazing body of work he left behind him – the classic love songs, the political polemics, the canny observations on human foibles.

I have never found verse to match the likes of Tam O’Shanter or Scot’s wha hae or Ae Fond Kiss. And he still found the time to father at least the 14 children that we know about.

Now I have to confess to a very slight personal connection with Robert Burns in that several of my ancestors share an East Lothian graveyard at Bolton with his mother Agnes, his sisters Isabella, Agnes, Janet and Annabella, and his younger brother Gilbert, who was factor of Lord Blantyre’s Lethington estate, which is today known as Lennoxlove.

Scotland is such a small village. I was recently at Colstoun House which is next to Lennoxlove, and the owner said to me, “You used to live in our Mill.” “No, I don’t think so,“ I said. “I’ve always lived in Edinburgh.”

“No, no, no!” she exclaimed. “1700. You lived in our Mill.”

Well, actually she was right. Memories are long in rural Scotland. My great-great-great-great grandparents did live at Colstoun Mill.

Around 1800, the family moved to nearby Haddington.

And therefore, there is a very strong possibility that they would have known the Burns Family. They even might have met the Bard himself, although I think it unlikely since it was only after his brother’s death that Gilbert became factor at Lethington.

Of Gilbert Burns it was said, “His moral excellence and frugality were beyond reproach.” Not quite the image we have of his brother, but it does give yet another insight into the home life of this remarkable man and, of course, I mean no disrespect to Gilbert Burns since this was told to me by his direct descendant Dr Eric Anderson, who incidentally, taught Prime Minister Tony Blair at Fettes School in Edinburgh and was named by him as his role model.

So you could say that Gilbert Burns has a lot to answer for, but it also goes to prove that it is not just Robert Burns whose influence – albeit through another generation – has stretched so impressively across the centuries.

Robert Burns was no saint. He philandered and he drank. He spent his money freely when he had it, then attempted to earn a living as a farmer until the land let him down.

He worked as an excise man on the Solway Coast, an unforgivable vocation for a red-blooded Scotsman. He knew triumph and he knew failure. He knew passion and he knew despair.

To my mind the reason he survives as both a Scottish icon and a literary giant, and why he means so much to so many of us, in Scotland and internationally, is that he wore all the vulnerability that goes with the human condition on his sleeve.

Most people learn to subjugate and control their emotions. Robert Burns never felt he needed to. Nor was he ashamed to write about them.

Oh, incidentally, “pint-stowp” means a large bevy (a tankard full) and “a right gude willie waught”, a skinful. I’m sorry if Liz Smith was hoping for a more raunchy translation.