Yet another 25 Scots words that must not die

 

© Vanity Fair

 

My better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, recently drew my attention to a Youtube video in which Gerard Butler, now a meaty big Hollywood action-movie star but once a humble wee lad from the Scottish town of Paisley, talked about his favourite lexical items in the Scots language.  These included words like ‘bawbags’ and ‘jobbies’ and phrases like “Yer bum’s oot the windae!” and “Haud yer wheesht!”  Come to think of it, Gerard was probably shouting all of these things last year when he read the reviews of his movie Geostorm.

 

(The script for Geostorm would actually have made more sense if it’d been written in Scots: “Och shite, they’ve jist drapt a muckle heat-jobbie on Hong Kong!”)

 

This, along with the fact that today is January 25th and tonight is Burns Night – annual celebration of the life and works of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and one of literature’s greatest writers in the medium of Scots – has inspired me to list 25 more of my favourite Scots words and expressions.  Previous lists can be read here, here and here.

 

Awaw an’ bile yer heid (idiom) – basically, “Go away and boil your head.”  Or less elegantly still, “F**k off.”

 

Clamjamfry (n) – a troublesome, noisy, chaotic mob of people.

 

Clawbaws (n) – a derogatory term for a male who constantly has his hand down the front of his trousers, presumably playing with himself.  The suffix ‘baws’ is a popular one in Scots – see also fannybaws, believed to have originated in the Scottish TV comedy sketch-show Chewin’ the Fat (1999-2005) and being, according to the Urban Dictionary website, a “Glasgow word meaning stupid bastard”.

 

Fankle (n) – a confused tangle.  One reason why I gave up fishing as a kid was because I always managed to get my fishing line in a ‘fankle’.

 

Fash (n / v) – to do with annoyance.  “Dae fash yerself” means “Don’t get annoyed”, while “He’s in a right fash” means “He’s having a right strop.”  The word dates back to old French (and no doubt to the days of Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France) and is related to the French verb fâcher, to be or make angry.

 

© Channel Four Films / PolyGram / Miramax

 

Gash (adv) – meaning badly, grimly, terribly.  ‘Gash’ is a word that got a new lease of life thanks to the success of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993) and its subsequent 1996 movie adaptation by Danny Boyle.  In the movie, Kevin McKidd’s Tommy shudderingly recounts how he once played a game of pool against Robert Carlyle’s psychotic Begbie: “…But Begbie is playing absolutely f**king gash…  He’s got a hangover so bad he can hardly hold the cue…”

 

Haar (n) – a weather-word and, like most weather-words in Scots, one that refers to crappy climatic conditions.  A ‘haar’ is a wet, clammy fog you might encounter along the coast.

 

Heid bummer (n) – the person in charge.

 

Hoachin (adj) – infested with or full of, as in: “The puir bairn’s hair wis hoachin wi nits.” The late A.A. Gill, born in Edinburgh and a notoriously snobby food-critic at the Sunday Times, once remarked during a diatribe about the awfulness of Scotland’s cuisine: “The place is hoaching with some of the best raw ingredients in the world, yet finding a scallop on a menu is like trying to go dogging in Riyadh.”  I assume that by dropping ‘hoachin’ into that sentence, Gill was trying to show his Scottish street-credibility even while he slammed the place.  It didn’t work.

 

Lug (n) – a well-known word for ear, ‘lug’ also appears in the compound adjective lang-luggit, referring to a nosy person who likes listening in on other people’s conversations; and in the phrase to nip someone’s lugs, meaning to irritate someone with constant nagging or meaningless chatter.

 

Messages (n) – shopping.  So ‘doing my messages’ means ‘doing my shopping’.

 

© Antony Spencer / E+ / Getty Images

 

Moonbroch (n) – a lovely astronomical term.  Historically, a broch was a round stone tower.  From that, a ‘moonbroch’ is the ghostly rainbow-like halo you see around the moon on a night when the moonlight refracts through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.

 

Orraman (n) – an odd-job man able to turn his hand to a variety of tasks, very useful to have on a farm.   An ‘orraman’ figures in the lyrics of The Portree Kid, a spoof on the country-and-western classic Ghost Riders in the Sky, composed and sung by the legendary Scottish folk duo The Corries: “His sidekick was an orraman and oh but he was mean / He was called the Midnight Ploughboy and he came fae Aberdeen…

 

Plook (n) – the Scots equivalent of the English slang word ‘zit’, meaning a pus-filled pimple.  When I was at school, kids used to assure me that “evrae time ye eat a Mars Bar, ye get a plook”.  (Lawyers for Cadbury UK Limited please note – there is absolutely no scientific proof that this assertion is true.)

 

Poke (n) – a bag.  I think this must have been a common word in English generally at one point – see the expression ‘to buy a pig in a poke’.  However, I’ve only ever heard this word used in Scotland, in the context of fish-and-chip shops where customers might ask for ‘a poke o’ chips’.

 

Polis (n) – not a city-state in ancient Greece like Athens, Delphi, Rhodes or Sparta, but the Scots word for ‘police’.

 

Puddock (n) – a frog or toad.  A particularly ill-fated one appears in the 1930s poem The Puddock by John M. Caie, which ends with the lines: “A heron was hungry an’ needin’ tae sup / So he nabbit th’ puddock and gollup’t him up.”

 

© The Muppets Studio / Walt Disney

 

Skelp (n / v) – to slap or beat with your hand.  Not to be confused with the more fleeting but possibly sharper blow implied by the word skite.  Therefore, you might say, “Not only did the teacher skelp him on his lug but he skited him roond his legs wi the cane.”

 

Skrieve (v) – to write.

 

Sleekit (adj) – dangerously crafty and cunning, but with a deceptively charming exterior.  In the 1980s, I remember Scottish Labour Members of Parliament denouncing the SNP MP Jim Sillars for being ‘sleekit’.  However, for outright, concentrated ‘sleekitness’, the Labour Party outdid themselves later on when they invented Tony Blair.

 

Smeddum (n) – a flour or fine powder.  From that, it has also come to mean the kernel or unbreakable essence of something; and from that, to mean someone’s spirit, energy and drive.  It’s no doubt the third of these meanings that’s referenced by the title of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s short story Smeddum (1934), about a tough matriarch called Meg Menzies who works ‘like a big roan mare’ in the harsh environment of rural north-eastern Scotland.

 

Stowed oot (adj) – packed with people.  On many an occasion in my youth, I was turned away from a bar or club by a not-so-apologetic bouncer who told me, “Sorry pal, it’s awready stowed oot.”

 

Tablet (n) – not, in this post-Trainspotting era, a drugs reference but a type of Scottish confectionery.  According to my well-thumbed copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, it’s “like a firmer version of fudge, made from butter, sugar and sometimes condensed milk.”

 

Tumshie (n) – a turnip.  By extension, if you call someone a tumshie-heid, you’re calling them a ‘turnip-head’, i.e. a moron.

 

Tattiebogle (n) – a scarecrow.  This quaint word is derived from the words tattie, meaning a potato, and bogle, meaning a ghost.  It implies the roughness of the Scottish soil compared with that of England, in that the ‘tattiebogle’ is more likely to be scaring craws or corbies away from a potato-patch than from a wheat-field.

 

From Pixabay.com

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 1: haggis

 

From donaldrussell.com

 

Food is something I’d like to write more about on this blog – especially since I’ve eaten a lot of unusual and occasionally mind-bogglingly strange varieties of food in different parts of the world.

 

And where better to start this new series of postings about glorious international foodstuffs than with Scotland’s national dish, haggis?  After all, today is January 25th, 2017: the 258th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard.  And tonight, the devouring of haggis will be one of the main activities (alongside the reciting of Scots-dialect poetry, the playing of bagpipes and the downing of industrial quantities of Scotch whisky) at Burns suppers held in honour of the great man the world over.

 

Haggis is a mash of oatmeal, suet, onion, salt, spices, stock, sheep’s lungs, sheep’s heart and sheep’s liver, traditionally (though not normally these days) boiled inside a sheep’s stomach.  The fact that the main ingredients of haggis are offal has earned it a lot of abuse over the centuries.  For example, someone called Lils Emslie once wrote a famous piece of doggerel that went: ‘One often yearns / For the Land of Burns / The only snag is / The haggis.’  More recently, in the 1990s, I remember the London-published Q magazine describing haggis inelegantly as ‘a bag of shite’.

 

Well, the ignorant may sneer.  But in my experience anyone adventurous enough to try haggis for the first time usually ends up enjoying it.  The Wikipedia entry on it describes its taste as being ‘nutty’ (as in ‘nut-like’, not ‘crazy’); but I can’t say I’ve ever thought of it like that.  ‘Spicy’ is the adjective I’d use – though spicy in a dark, subtle, slightly teasing way.

 

Culinary historians have argued about where haggis originated, although I’m sure it wasn’t in Scotland itself.  I’ve seen the invention of the dish attributed to northern England, to medieval Scandinavia and to ancient Rome and Greece.  Personally, I suspect the basic format of haggis dates back in history to soon after humans started hunting and killing their food.  Once you’d tracked down and slain a big animal like, say, a stag and removed the best cuts of meat, there’d still be a fair amount of flesh in the carcass that you couldn’t let go to waste – especially not when there was no guarantee when you’d be getting your next meal.  So you’d gather up the squelchy bits too – the heart, lungs, intestines – and find something to put them in.  And handily, there was another squelchy bit you could use as a container – the stomach.  Then you’d cook all this before the contents went off.  Hence, haggis.

 

And that’s one reason to cherish it.  Haggis, or the original concept of haggis, is the meat dish of the common man.  You can bet that by feudal times it was the aristocrat or wealthy landowner who was carting off the best meat from the big game animals he’d hunted down.  Whereas it was the serfs – who’d done all the hard work, looking after his horses and hounds, carrying his weapons, chasing the wild animals out into the open – who’d be stashing the left-behind offal into left-behind stomachs, boiling them and tucking into them afterwards.

 

© Daily Record

 

Appropriately, Robert Burns, of humble origins himself, appreciated a good haggis and wrote a poem in honour of the dish – Address to the Haggis, customarily the first poem to be recited at a Burns Supper, with the carrying in and cutting of haggis the first thing on the schedule.  It begins: “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face / Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” Though it’s usually around the third verse that things get exciting and the reciter-cum-haggis-cutter starts waving a big blade in the air: “His knife sees rustic labour dight / An’ cut you up wi ready slight / Trenching your gushing entrails bright / Like onie ditch / And then, o what a glorious sight / Warm-reekin’, rich!

 

Not that haggis has remained unchanged since the time of Burns.  It’s evolved.  As culinary tastes and habits have developed, so has the way it’s been eaten.  It’s possible now to get haggis burgers, haggis pakora and haggis-topped pizza.  Vegetarian haggis – with the squelchy meaty bits replaced by nuts, lentils, beans and other vegetables – has been on sale for many years and it’s also been a long time since I munched my first-ever bag of haggis-flavoured crisps.  If someone hasn’t already invented haggis-flavoured ice cream, I’m sure they’re working on it.

 

From guff.com

 

And of course, the deep-fried haggis supper has long been a fixture of Scotland’s many fish-and-chip shops.  One admirer of haggis in its deep-fried form is New York chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who’s presented the TV shows No Reservations (2005-2012) and Parts Unknown (2013-present).  In one episode where he visited Scotland, he identified it as his favourite Scottish dish and described it as “battered and floating adrift in a sea of mysterious life-giving oil, the accumulated flavours of many magical things as it bobs like Noah’s Ark, bringing life in all its infinitive variety…”

 

A tribute to haggis that’s almost worthy of Robert Burns in its eloquence.

 

Another 25 Scots words that must not die

 

Today is January 25th and this evening is Burns Night – commemorating the 257th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s national bard and globally-loved ‘ploughman-poet’ Robert Burns.  And as usual, I’ll mark the occasion by listing 25 words and expressions that I like from the medium in which Burns wrote his poetry, the Scots language.  25 words and expressions that, despite the onslaught of modern-day standardised TV-friendly, IT-friendly English, still appear in speech and writing north of the border.

 

From etims.net

 

Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for ‘cauld’, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.  I first encountered this term when a character used it in an Irvine Welsh novella I was reading, contained in Welsh’s 1994 collection The Acid House and called A Smart C**t.  (Yes, Irvine is so hard-core that even his story titles have to be asterixed.)

 

Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.

 

Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.

 

Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.

 

From themodernantiquarian.com

 

Dunt (n / v) – a heavy but dull-sounding blow.  The word appears in an old Scottish saying, “Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil,” which I guess is a version of “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”

 

Eejit (n) – idiot.  Inevitably, in 2008, when Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt got around to translating Roald Dahl’s 1980 children’s book The Twits into Scots, he retitled it… The Eejits.

 

Flyte (v) – to trade insults in the form of verse.  This combative literary tradition can be found in Norse and Anglo-Saxon cultures, but flyting was made an art-form in 15th / 16th-century Scotland by poets like William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy and Sir David Lyndsay.  There’s a poetic account of one flyting contest between Dunbar and Kennedy that’s called, unsurprisingly, The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie and consists of 28 stanzas of anti-Kennedy abuse penned by Dunbar and another 41 stanzas of Kennedy sticking it back to Dunbar.  According to Wikipedia, this work contains “the earliest recorded use of the word ‘shit’ as a personal insult.”  Thus, flyting was the Scottish Middle-Ages literary equivalent of two rappers dissing each other in their ‘rhymes’; and Dunbar and Kennedy were the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls of their day.

 

Gallus (adj) – a word that’s probably used by one or two Glaswegians when describing themselves, meaning bold, cheeky, reckless, show-offy and irrepressible.  However, the online Collins Dictionary tells me that gallus is derived from the word ‘gallows’ and it originally meant ‘fit for the gallows’.  Which is appropriate in a way.  On a few occasions I’ve tried to have a quiet, reflective pint in a Glaswegian pub, only to have my space invaded and my meditation disrupted by a would-be gallus local wanting to entertain me with his amazing patter.  With the result that I’d have liked to see that gallus Glaswegian strung up on a gallows.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Gloaming (n) – The period after sunset but before it gets completely dark.  It inspired the famous 1911 song Roamin’ in the Gloamin’, written and performed by Sir Harry Lauder.  The song’s chorus goes: “Roamin’ in the gloamin’ on the bonnie banks o’ Clyde / Roamin’ in the gloamin’ wi ma lassie by ma side!”  There’s also a song by Radiohead called The Gloaming, found on their 2003 album Hail to the Thief, which you’ll be surprised to hear is a wee bit less jaunty than the Harry Lauder song.

 

Guddle (n) – a confused mess (similar to a ‘muddle’).  Guddle also exists in Scots as a verb and means to catch a fish with your bare hands, using the mysterious technique of tickling the fish’s belly.

 

Harled (adj) – a harled building has had its external stonework covered in a mixture of lime and gravel, giving it a roughcast coating that protects it against the worst of the Scottish elements.  Famous harled buildings include Stirling Castle and Aberdeenshire’s Crathes Castle.

 

Hirple (v) – to hobble or limp.

 

Howk (v) – to dig, rake or poke around in.  Once upon a time, the activity of manually picking potatoes out of the ground was called tattiehowking.  A more abusive derivation is binhowker, meaning someone who has to find sustenance by rummaging in other people’s bins.

 

Jakey (n) – a down-at-heels, worse-for-wear vagrant with an alcohol dependency – the alcohol in question usually being Buckfast Tonic Wine or Carlsberg Special Brew.  The Scottish-based, English-born bestselling author J.K. Rowling is sometimes referred to as Jakey Rowling by Scottish-independence enthusiasts, irritated at her high-profile support for Scotland remaining part of the United Kingdom.

 

(c) The Sun

 

Janny (n) – a janitor.

 

Kent yer faither! (idiom) – (I) knew your father!  In other words, “Don’t give yourself airs and graces because I know you’re from humble stock, same as the rest of us.”  I’ve never heard anyone use this as a putdown, but I’ve heard folk complain about the ‘kent-yer-faither syndrome’ in Scotland, i.e. Scotland’s a place where if you manage to improve yourself and be a success, you have deal with a bunch of jealous, moaning gits trying to cut you down to size.

 

Makar (n) – a poet or bard.  In 2004, the Scottish Parliament established the post of ‘Scots Makar’, i.e. a national bard or poet laureate.  The post has been occupied by the late Edwin Morgan and, since 2011, by Liz Lochhead.

 

(c) STV

 

Rammy (n) – a fight or brawl.  A stairheid rammy is a brawl that breaks out among the womenfolk in the staircases and on the landings of Scotland’s urban tenement buildings.  During the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, stairhead rammies took place in Scotland’s TV studios too.  A television debate between then-SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont was described afterwards by journalist Ruth Wishart as “a right good stairheid rammy” that “made strong men avert their eyes”.

 

Scooby (n), as in “I havenae a Scooby” – rhyming slang for ‘clue’, as in “I haven’t a clue.”  Scooby refers to Scooby Doo, the famous American TV cartoon dog who accompanied some ‘meddling kids’, without whose investigations many, many, many criminals “would have gotten away with it.”

 

Shilpit (adj) – thin, pale and weak-looking.

 

From bushcraftuk.com

 

Spurtle (n) – a long wooden utensil once used in Scottish cooking, sometimes a spatula for turning over oatcakes, sometimes a stick for stirring porridge.  I can’t recall the name of the story it was in, but I vividly remember reading a description of a sheep’s carcass lying on a Scottish hillside with its four stiff legs “sticking up like spurtles”.

 

Thrawn (adj) – stubborn, obstinate and bloody-minded, inclined to do the opposite of what everyone urges you to do.  However, there’s a macabre short story called Thrawn Janet by Robert Louis Stevenson, in which the word has a different meaning – ‘twisted’ or ‘deformed’.  The title character is described as having “her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit

 

Trews (n) – tartan trousers, once worn by Scotland’s southern regiments and regarded as a traditional garment of the country’s Lowlands (although in reality, like kilts, trews originated in the Highlands).  I’ve heard it said that trews were the prototype for the tartan plus-fours that golfers used to wear.  Scotland’s ebullient, publicity-loving former First Minister Alex Salmond had a fondness for trews and was pictured wearing them on several occasions.  Although looking at those pictures now, I think that even the world’s biggest Salmond-admirer would have to admit that Alex Salmond + trews = sight for sore eyes.

 

(c) The Daily Record

 

Vennel (n) – an alleyway or narrow lane.  See also wynd and close.

 

Winch (v) – to be romantically involved with someone; though I’ve heard it used in more graphic situations where it clearly meant ‘get off with’ or ‘stick your tongue down the throat of’ someone.  Winch is a verb that seems to add some effort to the act of getting romantically acquainted – it makes it sound like it requires heavy lifting.  Yes, if you’re going to winch someone, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and shed some sweat.

 

(c) Hanna-Barbera Productions, Inc

 

Je suis Rabbie… et Charlie

 

From robertburns.org.uk 

 

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.

 

25 more Scots words that must not die

 

In my previous post I mentioned two men with the surname Burns: Robert Burns, the famous 18th-century Scottish poet, and Montgomery Burns, the infamous 21st-century billionaire owner of Springfield Nuclear Power Station in The Simpsons.  This has reminded me that back on January 25th, to celebrate Burns Night – which is held in honour of Robert Burns, not Monty – I posted an article called 25 Scots Words That Must Not Die.  At the time I promised I would write an article about 25 more Scots words that mustn’t die, either.

 

Here now is that sequel.

 

Bawbag (n) – literally a scrotum, but normally, to quote the online Urban Dictionary site, bawbag is used as “a derogatory name given to one who is annoying, useless or just plain stupid.”  (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=bawbag)  Thus, when United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage steamed into Edinburgh last May in a bid to raise UKIP’s profile north of the border, he ended up besieged inside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile by a horde of anti-racism protestors who chanted: “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag.  Nigel, ye’re a bawbag.  Na, na, na, hey!”

 

(c) The Huffington Post

 

Bide (v) – to live.  Derived from this verb is the compound noun bidie-hame, which technically refers to a partner whom the speaker is living with but isn’t actually married to.  However, I’ve heard married men describe their wives – wives who aren’t in formal employment and spend their time doing housework – as bidie-hames too.  In fact, in the 1980s, when one of the most popular programmes on British television was Minder, the comedy-drama series about a lovable pair of Cockney spivs played by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, Minder was helpfully subtitled into Scots to help Scottish people understand the impenetrable London accents of its characters.  Whenever George Cole referred to his wife as ‘Her Indoors’, this was translated in the subtitles as ‘the Bidie Hame’.  Alright, I made that last bit up.  You can dream, though.

 

Blether (v) – to talk or chatter.  Journalist, editor and Rupert Murdoch’s one-time right-hand-man Andrew Neil used this word a lot while he was editor-in-chief at Scotsman publications.  He was forever fulminating against Scotland’s blethering classes – the equivalent of the ‘chattering classes’ in England who were so despised at the time by London’s right-wing press, i.e. left-leaning middle-class people who spent their time holding dinner parties, drinking Chardonnay and indulging in airy-fairy political discussion about how Britain should have a written constitution, proportional representation and devolution.  Then, however, Neil started working for the BBC in London and suddenly all his references to ‘blethering’ ceased.

 

(c) BBC

 

Bourach (n) – sometimes a mound or hillock, but more commonly a mess or muddle.  Like midden, then, it’s a vital word when you have to bawl out a teenager about the state of his or her bedroom.

 

Chib (n/v) – a knife, or to stab someone.  Considering the popularity in modern times of wearing Highland dress at Scottish weddings, and considering the custom of having a ceremonial sgian-dhu (i.e. dagger) tucked down the side of the hose (i.e. socks) in said Highland dress, and considering the amount of alcohol consumed at such affairs, it’s amazing that Scottish weddings don’t see more chibbing than they do.

 

Clarty (adj) – dirty.  A dirty person, meanwhile, is often called a clart.  And a pre-pubescent boy who avoids soap, shampoo, showers and clean socks and underwear, like Pig Pen used to do in the Charlie Brown comic strips, would undoubtedly be described in Scotland as a wee clart.

 

From www.funnyjunk.com

 

Cloots (n) – a plural noun meaning hooves (and having nothing to do with Anacharsis Cloots, the Prussian nobleman who became a leading figure in the French Revolution).  By extension, Cloots came to be a nickname for the world’s most famous possessor of a pair of hooves, Auld Nick, a.k.a. the Devil.  In his poem Address to the Deil, Robert Burns not only mocks Auld Nick but brags that, despite his wild and wanton behaviour in this present life, he’ll escape the fiend’s clutches and avoid going to hell.

 

“An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin,

A certain bardie’s rantin, drinkin,

Some luckless hour will send him linkin

To your black pit;

But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin

An’ cheat ye yet.”

 

Clype (n) – a contemptible sub-species of schoolchild, i.e. the type who’s always running to the teachers and telling tales on his or her schoolmates.

 

Colliebuckie (n) – a piggy-back.  Yes, Scottish playgrounds once echoed with cries of “Gie’s a colliebuckie!”  (And yes, I’m getting misty-eyed with nostalgia now.)

 

Drouth (n) – a thirst.  Many an epic drinking session has started when someone declared that they had “a right drouth” and then herded the company into a pub to rectify matters.  Tam O’Shanter, perhaps Burns’ most famous poem, begins with an evocation of the boozing that happens when “drouthy neebors, neebors meet.”  Indeed, Drouthy Neebors has become a popular pub-name in Scotland and there are, or at least have been, Drouthy Neebors serving alcohol in Edinburgh, St Andrews and Stirling.

 

Flit (v) – to move house.  Commonly used in Scotland, this verb has had success in the English language generally, as is evidenced by the use of moonlight flit to describe the act of moving house swiftly and secretly to avoid paying overdue rent-money.

 

Glaikit (adj) – silly, foolish, thoughtless.  Like a lot of Scots vocabulary, there’s a wonderful, near-onomatopoeic quality to this word.  You hear those two syllables, ‘glai-kit’, and immediately you begin to visualise a blank face, a dull pair of eyes, an expression that indicates zero intelligence.  Yes, it’s that man Nigel Farage again.

 

Hackit (adj) – ugly.  Thus, if the third and final instalment of Sergio Leone’s epic Dollars trilogy of 1960s spaghetti westerns was ever remade and relocated in Scotland, it presumably wouldn’t be called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  It’d be called The Braw, the Shite an’ the Hackit.

 

(c) Warner Bros

 

Hoor (n) – literally a prostitute, but generally a very nasty, abusive term for a woman.  Indeed, for sheer horribleness, nothing can compare with this word.  Uttered with its long vowel sound and its rolled ‘r’, it feels far more insulting than the plain old standard-English word ‘whore’.  On the other hand, the phrase ya hoor is merely an exclamation of surprise.  I remember sitting in a cinema in Edinburgh in 1999 and seeing The Matrix for the first time.  At the moment when Carrie Ann Moss sprang upwards, froze in mid-air, and the camera rotated around her in an early and unexpected display of the cinematic technique known as ‘flo-mo’, there was a stunned silence in the auditorium.  Apart from one guy in the row behind me, who promptly exclaimed: “Ya hoor!”

 

Jings! (exclamation) – another exclamation of surprise, though one more acceptable in polite company than ya hoor!  I don’t think I know anyone under the age of fifty who goes “Jings!” nowadays.  However, it’s still used by the eternally-juvenile, dungaree-wearing ragamuffin Oor Wullie, who’s the star of the Sunday Post newspaper’s comic-strip pages.  See also crivvens! and help ma boab!

 

(c) D.C. Thomson

 

Merle (n) – a blackbird.  For that reason, whenever someone mentions the name Meryl Streep, the first image that forms in my head is not the acclaimed and world-famous star of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Plenty, Out of Africa and The Iron Lady, but a big, noisy, dark-feathered, flappy-winged bird.  I understand that ‘merle’ is also the French word for ‘blackbird’, so presumably it’s another example of the linguistic legacy of the Auld Alliance that once existed between Scotland and France.

 

Neep (n) – a turnip.  Hence in the 1970s kids’ TV show Wurzel Gummidge, Billy Connolly played a turnip-headed Scottish scarecrow called ‘Bogle MacNeep’.  Turnips and potatoes together on a plate are, of course, known as neeps an’ tatties.  I have an American friend who tells me that whenever I talk about neeps an’ tatties, it sounds like I’m describing something extremely lewd and filthy.  Goodness!  Or better still, jings!

 

From www.listal.com

 

Oxster (n) – an armpit. Dundonian poet Matthew Fitt deployed this word when he wrote the Scots-language translation of the new Asterix-the-Gaul book, Asterix and the Picts.  In the original French text, Asterix’s hulking sidekick Obelisk made a joke about ‘oysters’.  Fitt converted it into a joke about armpits to make it more Scottish-friendly.  As you do.

 

Peely-wally (adj) – pale and ill-looking.  That’s why in Solo, the new James Bond novel written by William Boyd, there’s a bit where an injured Bond is scolded by May, his formidable old Scottish housekeeper, for looking “awfy peely-wally”.

 

Quine (n) – a girl or young woman.  This is commonly used in North-East Scotland, where boys and young men are also described as loons, so you hear a lot there about quines an’ loons.  In the early 1990s, a group of Scottish feminists, including the journalist Lesley Riddich, started up a magazine called Harpies and Quines – harpy being a word commonly used in Scotland to describe a grumpy, ill-tempered and mean-minded woman.  The famous high-society magazine Harpers and Queen failed to see the joke and attempted to sue them.

 

From en.wikipedia.org 

 

Shoogly (adj) – wobbly.  To hang on a shoogly peg means to be in dodgy, precarious or dire circumstances.  For example, since the Liberal Democrat party formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, the peg that their electoral fortunes have hung on has been a shoogly one indeed.

 

Skoosh (n / v) – a squirt or spray of liquid.  A commonly heard exchange in Scottish pubs: “Dae ye want water in yer whisky?”  “Aye, but just a wee skoosh.”

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

Sook (n) – nothing to do with an Arabic marketplace or commercial district, a sook is a person who grovels to, and sucks up to, those in authority.  The term is commonly used for school pupils who suck up to their teachers.  However, in his book Scots – The Mither Tongue, Billy Kay identifies the first great sook in history as being James Boswell, the companion, biographer and toady of Dr Samuel Johnson, who was perfectly happy to pander to the Doctor’s brazen anti-Scottish prejudices even though he was Scottish himself.  (“I do indeed come from Scotland,” he whined when he first met Johnson.  “But I cannot help it.”  To which the Doctor snorted contemptuously, “That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”)

 

Spaver (n): a trouser zip or fly.  (Another Scots word with a similar meaning is ballop.)  The Doric Dictionary at www.doricdictionary.com provides this eye-watering example sentence: “Help, mither, av nipped ma tadger in ma spaver!”

 

Tod (n) – a fox.  James Robertson (who, like Matthew Fitt, does a lot of this stuff) once translated Roald Dahl’s children’s book Fantastic Mr Fox into Scots, where it sported the more Caledonian-friendly title Sleekit Mr Tod.

 

(c) Itchy Coo

 

It’s possible that the future will see a post called Yet More 25 Scots Words That Must Not Die.

 

25 Scots words that must not die

 

This evening is Burns Night, marking the 255th anniversary of the birth of Alloway ploughman-poet Robert Burns.  During the past few days, no doubt, children in schools the length and breadth of Scotland have stood in front of their classmates and teachers reciting Burns’ poems.  Those poems, of course, were written in Scots; so this must be the only time in the year when kids can come out with certain Scots-language words in the classroom without their teachers correcting them: “Actually, that’s not what we say in proper English…”

 

However, it’s not teachers’ disapproval that looks likely to do for the Scots language – and it has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic websites like Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/).  It’s more probable that the death-blow will be delivered by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of London-based soap operas where manically-depressed, faux-Cockney, shaven-headed petty criminals shout at their family members and tell them to ‘shaddup’.

 

Maybe a decade or two from now, everyone north of the border will be talking, if not in Eastenders-style Mockney, then in a bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.  That’s the glottal-stop-ridden vernacular that is sometimes adopted by wealthy politicians during public speeches – Tony Blair, for example, when he was attempting to sound what Nu-Labour strategists thought was ‘street’; or George Osborne, when he wants to show that despite his inherited millions he can speak oik, just like 99.9 percent of the British electorate do.

 

Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are 25 of my favourite Scots words, which I would be very sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily-used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.

 

Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  Actually, the other night, I was watching an episode of Star Trek – the original series – and I heard Scottie lament, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, ‘the Bairns’ is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon.  As you head towards Glasgow, though, I think more folk refer to their young offspring as ‘weans’.

 

From startrek,com

 

Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  In the 1970s, this word became the height of cool among me and my mates when we saw Big Banana Feet, the documentary about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, and we heard Connolly respond to a heckler with the gruff putdown, “F**king bampot.”

 

Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  For example: “Hae ye seen the new Richard Curtis film?”  “Aye.  It wis a load o’ boak.”  In his sort-of-stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.

 

Bowffin (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, ‘mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, ‘mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  (“See that Miley Cyrus?  She’s a right minger.”)  Thus, it has fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective ‘bowffin’ to describe the odour of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, old socks, certain species of orchids, on-heat male goats, hippies, etc.

 

Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable, as in “Thon Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight is a carnaptious auld bugger.”  This is another Scots word that somehow feels like it’s onomatopoeic even though it isn’t.

 

Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.

 

From salon.com

 

Cowpit (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coach-load of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a ‘cowpit ewe’ in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpit ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.

 

Dreich (adj) – dreary or tedious, especially in regard to wet, dismal weather.  A Presbyterian-sounding adjective that, needless to say, is heavily used in Scotland.

 

Haver (v) – to talk nonsense.  This is word is essential for understanding the end of the first verse of the Proclaimers’ song 500 Miles, which goes: “And if I haver, yeah, I know I’m gonnae be, I’m gonnae be the man who’s havering to you.”

 

Haud yer wheesht! (exclamation) – be quiet!  Incidentally, Haud Yer Wheesht was also the name of a rather good folk band that operated in Edinburgh in the late 1990s, headed by Jimmy the Bagpiper who used to busk around St Giles’ Cathedral.  (If you were familiar with Edinburgh at the time, he was the one who dressed up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart.)

 

Hochmagandy (n) – a jocular or poetic word for sexual intercourse, for recreation, not procreation, between people who are not married to each other.  Unsurprisingly, Robert Burns was familiar with this saucy noun, as indicated by the final lines of his poem The Holy Fair:

 

‘There’s some are fou o’ love divine,

There’s some are fou o’ brandy,

An’ mony jobs that day begin,

May end in hochmagandy…’

 

Hoolet (n) – an owl.  This charming Scots word, like a number of others, is derived from the French language, where the word is ‘hulotte’.  (A historical example of Scots-borrowing-from-French is ‘gardyloo!’  This was the cry given by people in the densely built-up tenements of 18th century Edinburgh when they emptied their buckets out of their windows.  This supposedly comes from the French, ‘Gardez l’eau!’ which means, ‘Watch out, water!’  Though in the Edinburgh context a more accurate meaning might have been, ‘Watch oot or ye’ll get pish an’ shite dumped aw ower yer heid!’)

 

Jobbie (n) – a turd.  A word much loved by Billy Connolly, as in his routine about the mechanism that expels faecal matter from underneath airplane toilets, the ‘jobbie-wheecher’.  (‘Wheech’ – to remove something quickly and suddenly.)

 

(c) Daily Telegraph

 

Jouk (v) – to duck or dodge.  A nice story I’ve heard is that this word found its way to the American south.  There, a ‘juke joint’ became a roughhouse dancing venue where people had to keep jouking this way and that to avoid punches, bottles, etc., thrown on the dance floor.  In turn, this led to the machines that played records of the music you heard at such places being called jukeboxes.

 

Keek (v) – to peep or glance at something.  The derivative ‘keeker’ refers not, as you might expect, to a peeping Tom, but to a black eye.

 

Lum (n) – a chimney.  A while back, the Guardian reviewed a collection of short stories by Alasdair Gray and the reviewer complained about the number of typos in the book.  He cited as an example ‘Edinburgh lums’, which he assumed was a misprint of ‘Edinburgh slums’.  But no, Gray was actually referring to the smoky chimneys of the Scottish capital.

 

Midden (n) – a dunghill.  A word often employed by Scottish parents while they complain about the condition of their teenage kids’ bedrooms.  Also, at one point, the celebrated British sci-fi comic 2000 AD featured a character who was a futuristic Scottish bounty hunter with a gruesomely mutated visage: his name was Middenface McNulty.

 

From forbiddenplanet.co.uk

 

Neb (n) – a nose, beak or projecting point.  Once upon a time, ladies of a certain age had to put up with uncomplimentary remarks about ‘nebs’ whenever they stuck their Barry Manilow records on the household stereo.

 

Nippie sweetie (n) – an irritable sharp-tongued person.  This is usually applied to the female of the species, and currently Scotland’s leading example of a nippie sweetie is the Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.  Actually, in a recent televised debate between Sturgeon and Alastair Carmichael, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Carmichael discovered that she wasn’t particularly sweet and she delivered considerably more than a nip.

 

Numpty (n) – a stupid person.  To me, though, a numpty is more than that – it’s a preposterous, pompous person who is also stupid.  In In the Loop, the movie spin-off from the satirical TV show The Thick of It, the preposterous, pompous politician played by Tom Hollander becomes a laughing stock when the wall of his constituency office collapses.  Jamie MacDonald, the ferocious Motherwell-born spin doctor played by Paul Higgins, taunts him about ‘Wallgate’ by calling him ‘Humpty Numpty’.

 

(c) BBC

 

Pisht (adj) – drunk.  Just as the Eskimos are said to have a hundred words for snow, there must be at least a hundred words in Scots for being inebriated.  (See also ‘arsed’, ‘bevied’, ‘bleezin’, ‘blootered’, ‘buckled’, ‘fou’, ‘gubbered’, ‘hingin’, ‘minced’, ‘mingin’, ‘miraculous’, ‘miracked’, ‘mortal’, ‘reekin’, ‘reelin’, ‘steamboats’, ‘steamin’, ‘stocious’, ‘wellied’, etc.)  Which I suppose is a tragic reflection on the state of the Scottish psyche.  Now excuse me while I pour myself another dram.

 

Scunnered (adj) – sickened or disgusted.  During the 1980s and 1990s, this word was commonly used in Scotland on the mornings following general elections, when it became clear that a majority of people in Scotland had voted for the Labour Party and a majority of people in the south of England had voted for the Conservatives.  Guess who ended up ruling Scotland each time?

 

Smirr (n) – a drizzly rain falling in small drops.  A sad, ghostly word that perfectly describes the sad, ghostly semi-rain that seems to envelop the Scottish landscape… well, 365 days of the year.

 

Stramash (n) – a disorderly commotion or argument.  A word popularised by the Scottish TV commentator Arthur Montford, he of the extravagantly checked jackets, who would rarely let a football match go by without referring to some sort of ‘stramash’ breaking out in the penalty box.

 

From scottishleague.net

 

Widdershins (adv) – anti-clockwise.  I like this word because of its spooky connotations.  In olden times, to perform something ‘widdershins’ was to do it in the opposite way from how it was naturally done, which was to invite bad luck.  This gave the word occult overtones too.

 

Very soon I will print a list of 25 more Scots words that must not die.

 

The Rabbie, Robbie and Wally Museum

 

 

It says a lot about changing notions of life-expectancy and longevity that, in many of the tributes and obituaries written in the wake of Iain Banks’ death this year, Banks was considered to have died at the ‘comparatively young’ age of 59.  In facts, Banks’ innings was just two years short of that achieved by Sir Walter Scott who, when he passed away in 1832 at the age of 61, was deemed to have reached a reasonable old age.

 

Meanwhile, Scott at the end of his life seemed positively ancient when compared with the two towering figures of Scottish literature who came immediately before and shortly after him – Robert Burns, who died in 1796 at the age of 37 (from excess, if you believe the unforgiving Presbyterian accounts of his life); and the always-sickly Robert Louis Stevenson, who died in 1894 at the age of 44.  Yes, there was no time for procrastination in that era of Scottish letters – you got your work down on paper as quick as you could, in case the Grim Reaper came knocking soon.

 

Such melancholy thoughts were inspired by a recent visit I paid to the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which would be more accurately titled the Three Writers’ Museum, since it deals only with Burns, Scott and Stevenson.  Situated on the Royal Mile in Lady Stair’s Close, which is on the same side as and a little way further up from Deacon Brodie’s Tavern (Deacon Brodie was the outwardly respectable but secretly criminal Edinburgh citizen who may have planted the idea for Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Stevenson’s head), the museum is squeezed into three floors of a narrow corner building whose last private owner was the 5th Earl of Rosebury.  In 1907 the Earl gifted the building to the City of Edinburgh on the understanding that it would be used as a museum.

 

Don’t go to the museum expecting the latest in interactive displays, animatronics, sound and visual effects.  It’s solidly old-fashioned – you read the information on the panels and look at stuff in display cases, which includes Burns’ writing desk and the swordstick he carried whilst employed as an Excise Officer, Scott’s chess set and his boyhood rocking horse (one foot-rest positioned higher than the other to accommodate his lifelong lameness) and the boots that Stevenson wore during the final days of his life on Samoa.  There’s also an eight-foot-or-so model of the Sir Walter Scott Monument, whose presence there seems a bit pointless when a ten-minute walk will take you to the real thing on Princes Street.

 

I have to say I like the austere, no-frills manner of the Writers’ Museum, which seemingly hasn’t changed for a century.  Once in a while, it’s nice to encounter a historical museum whose presentation style is rooted almost in the same era that its subjects lived in.

 

One word of advice, though.  Visit the Writers’ Museum before you visit Deacon Brodie’s Tavern or any of the other picturesque pubs that central Edinburgh has to offer because, with its low doorways and treacherous stone stairs, it’s not a place to negotiate when you’re a bit tipsy.  I cracked my forehead on a stone door-frame coming down from the first to the ground floor and I was entirely sober.  Honest!

 

 

Seven reasons why Robert Burns still rocks

 

From robertburns.org.uk

 

Tonight and over the weekend, whisky will be guzzled, haggis devoured, bagpipes blasted and Scots-dialect poetry recited with gusto at thousands of special suppers and get-togethers organised around the globe.  This is because today, January 25th, is the 254th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard and one of its most popular contributions to international culture.

 

Burns’ fame on the global stage is perhaps a little surprising, given that most of his poetry is written in Scots, rather than in standard English (whatever that is).  So why, more than two centuries after he died at the age of 37, is Robert Burns such a big deal?  Here are some reasons.

 

One.  Burns was a champion of the common man.  Born in humble circumstances, one of seven children of a farmer in Ayrshire, he was much more in tune with the ordinary masses than any of his literary contemporaries.  The American poet Waldo Emerson described him as the poet of ‘the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity’.  The fullest expression of his egalitarian instincts was the song A Man’s a Man for a’ That, which was adopted as an anthem by the anti-slavery abolitionist movement.

 

Unsurprisingly, later, socialists claimed Burns as one of their own.  A 1929 translation of his works into Russian sold a million copies and the Soviet Union honoured him with a commemorative stamp in 1954.  However, Burns obviously had appeal for capitalists too, for there are allegedly more statues of him in North America than of any other writer.

 

Two.  Burns was a songwriter too.  Indeed, if anything, he is more pervasive as a songwriter than as a poet.  In addition to A Man’s a Man…, he put Auld Lang Syne on paper – which, by virtue of being belted out at New Year celebrations everywhere, is arguably the most universally-sung song in the world.  In Japan it is played at everything from high school graduation ceremonies to evening closing-time in department stores.

 

Three.  Burns wasn’t afraid to criticise the moral and religious mores of his time.  His contempt for the censorious regime of Scotland’s Presbyterian Church was expressed most famously in Holy Willie’s Prayer, wherein a supposedly pious pillar of the church prays to God and unwittingly reveals himself as a scheming, bitter, drunken, lecherous hypocrite.  John Betjeman was so impressed by the conceit that he borrowed it for his poem In Westminster Abbey.

 

Four.  Burns has a massive cult that keeps his memory alive.  The first Burns societies began to congregate in his honour in about 1800, four years after his death. In 1859, the first centenary of his birth, almost 900 events were staged – 60 of them taking place outside Britain and the US.  Today, Burns societies are to be found everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo and from Winnipeg to Jakarta.  It is claimed that the Russians have more such societies than even the Scots do.

 

Burns suppers on January 25th are marked by lusty recitals of his greatest poems, speeches and copious consumption of whisky and haggis.  Praised as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ in Burns’ Address to a Haggis, haggis is surely the only offal-based foodstuff to have a piece of world-class literature written in its honour.  No other writer is commemorated by a yearly celebration on this scale.  Dublin’s James Joyce-themed Bloomsday on June 16th doesn’t come close.

 

Five.  Burns invented the concept of the doomed, decadent romantic poet.  Long before Byron and Shelley were painting the towns of Europe red and proving themselves mad, bad and dangerous to know, Burns had earned himself a mighty reputation for dissipation, both in the pub and in the bedchamber.  His love of strong drink is obvious in poems like John Barleycorn while his promiscuity led to him siring at least a dozen children with at least four different women – a common jibe at the time was that you could see his face in every pram on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

 

Six.  Burns is controversial.  No doubt the arguments that have raged about him over the centuries have helped keep his fame alive.  Much debate has centred on whether or not someone with Burns’ obvious character flaws deserves such veneration.  At the beginning of 2009, just before the 250th anniversary of his birth, right-wing Scottish historian Michael Fry caused a storm in Scotland’s media when he denounced Burns as a ‘racist misogynist drunk’ who didn’t deserve to be presented to people as a role model – unwittingly echoing modern-day concerns about the examples that the likes of Pete Docherty or the late Amy Winehouse set for young people.

 

Seven.  It might be written in a particular dialect, but Burns’ work has had a considerable influence on the English language and on English-language culture.  Here are a few examples:

 

Proverbs from Burns:

The best laid plans of mice and men will go astray (‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ / from To a Mouse).

To see ourselves as others see us (‘To see ousel’s as ithers see us’ / from To a Louse).

There is no such uncertainty as a sure thing (attributed to Burns).

 

Phrases from Burns:

Man’s inhumanity to man (from Man was Made to Mourn).

Do or die (from Bannockburn).

Clean as a whistle (‘as toom’s a whissle’ / from The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer).

Fast and furious (from Tam O’Shanter).

Time nor tide (from Tam O’Shanter).

A parcel of rogues (from A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation).

 

Titles taken from Burns:

John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.

M.R. James’ short story, reckoned by some to be the greatest ghost story in English literature, O, Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad (the title of a Burns poem).

Ken Loach’s film, Ae Fond Kiss (the title of a Burns song).

The Vin Diesel car-chase / street-racing movie The Fast and the Furious.  (All right, with that one, the producers may not have been aware of the Robert Burns connection when they chose the title.)