This evening – January 25th – sees Burns Night, the annual bash held in honour of Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns. At countless Burns suppers, toasts will be made and speeches delivered; poems recited in lusty, melodramatic Scots-English and ballads sung with wavering, damp-eyed maudlin-ness; and copious amounts of haggis munched and copious amounts of whisky downed. And for hoteliers up and down the land, profits will be made – because Robert Burns, his poetry and his birthday are big business. For example, I’ve heard reports that the hotel along the road from my Dad’s farm in the Scottish Borders is charging £125 a head for attendance at its Burns supper.
The more commercial things get, the less controversial they’re allowed to be. So unfortunately, I doubt if many of the speakers at tonight’s multitude of Burns suppers will be dwelling on Burns’ propensity for poking fun at organised religion and getting up the noses of its most devout practitioners.
This was the man, after all, who in 1785 penned the poetic monologue Holy Willie’s Prayer, in which a supposedly pious elder in the Presbyterian Kirk addresses the Almighty. Willie believes in the doctrine of predestination, which means he assumes his soul will be saved no matter how well or badly he behaves; whilst other souls are damned irrespective of the tone of their behaviour. Thus he begins, “Oh Thou that in the heavens does dwell / As it pleases best Thysel’ / Sends ane to Heaven an’ ten to Hell…”
With one breath, the wretched Willie atones – or makes excuses – for his sins, which are salacious in nature. Regarding a lady called Meg, he promises: “…I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg / Again upon her.” Meanwhile, an amorous encounter with another lady, ‘Leezie’s lass’, is explained by the fact that he was drunk at the time: “But Lord, that Friday I was fou / When I cam near her / Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true / Wad never steer her.” So it’s all okay.
With his next breath, Willie pursues a different tack. He calls on the Lord to deliver damnation to all those he believes have wronged him. These are his rival Gavin Hamilton, who “drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes”, and a ‘glib-tongu’d’ character called Aitken, whom he begs God to “in Thy day o’ vengeance try him / …visit them wha did employ him / And pass not in Thy mercy by them.” He also calls on God to sort out the Presbytery of Ayr: “Lord, visit them, an’ dinna spare / For their misdeeds.”
Like a modern factual-based movie that opens with a caption saying, “All the characters in this film are real…”, the characters in Holy Willie’s Prayer were real ones too. Holy Willie was Willie Fisher, an elder in the Kirk at Mauchline in East Ayrshire, who was engaged in a feud with the popular and respected church treasurer Gavin Hamilton. Fisher accused him of financial irregularities, as well as a slew of ungodly acts such as tending to his garden on the Sabbath and not bothering to read the Bible on the same day. Fisher’s case against Hamilton was heard at the nearby Presbytery of Ayr, where the latter was defended by one Robert Aitken. The Presbytery decided in Hamilton’s favour, much to Fisher’s fury. According to popular mythology, Fisher later came to an ignominious end – his corpse was discovered in a ditch, next to a whisky-bottle.
More digs at religion can be found in a Burns poem from the same year, The Holy Fair. Describing the effect on a congregation wrought by a pulpit-bashing preacher called Black Russell, who rants about the terrible, unforgiving hellfire that awaits all disbelievers, he writes: “The half-asleep start up wi’ fear / An’ think they hear it roarin’ / When presently it does appear / Twas but some neibor snorin’.”
The Holy Fair features some real-life personalities too. Burns mentions ‘Peebles, frae the water-fit’, who was the Reverend Dr William Peebles of Newton-on-Ayr. The Reverend Peebles wasn’t amused about being name-checked in the poem. In 1811, 15 years after Burns’ death, he wrote a work called Burnomania in which he accused the poet of “sinfulness, gross immoralities and irreligion” and his works of indulging “the worst of passions”, treating “the sacred truths of religion… with levity” and making “the song of the drunkard and the abandoned profligate.”
With organised religion depicted the way it is in Burns’ work, it’s perhaps unsurprising that in his greatest poem of all, Tam O’Shanter, the Devil literally has the best tunes. In the middle of Tam O’Shanter, the hero creeps into the de-sanctified Alloway Kirk at night-time and spies “(w)arlocks and witches in a dance / …hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels” with the music provided by Auld Nick himself, who “scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl / Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl”. Soon “(t)he mirth and fun grew fast and furious / The piper loud and louder blew / The dancers quick and quicker flew.”
It would nice to think that at some of tonight’s Burns suppers the speakers will make reference to Burns’ brave irreverence towards organised religion, to how he mocked its hypocrisy, ridiculousness, joylessness and cruelty. It would be even nicer to think they’ll point out how appropriate and necessary this irreverence remains today; especially given events in Paris just three weeks ago. However, with most of the modern Burns cult so conservative, commercialised, sentimental and – worst of all – safe, I doubt if anyone will want to perplex and trouble those well-fed, well-whiskied supper-guests with comparisons to Charlie Hebdo.