Crooning Over Burns – December 1900

It may seem odd to be suggesting to a circle of Scotch farming folks that they should familiarise their minds with the poems of Burns but the suggestion is not out of place to the younger generation who are mostly criminally ignorant of the national bard while their fathers and mothers have him off by heart with hardly any education.

The cause of this is not far to seek. There was no such thing as popular literature acceptable to country folks 50 years ago. There was the bible for the Sabbath and Burns for the week day.

In the long winter nights, the father or son would sit in the ingle neuk and, by the light of the blazing peat, read selections from Rabbie. Burns, words which were those of a dear and familiar friend to be quoted at the down-sitting and at the uprising, becoming woven into the fibre of the brain and rising naturally to the lips on every homely occasion.

For what aspect or incident of humble farm life is there in which Burns has not expressed himself in vigorous and illuminating verse. Some years ago when I was a young lassie and poetry mad I crooned over Burns to myself till I mastered the best of him, yet I have not assimilated his verses like the old folk who will say that they never tried to learn Burns.

Here is an illustration. We had a cowboy, whose lumpish walk and bucolic countenance was a constant entertainment to us. Robbie could describe him, said one who had been nurtured on Burns, the bible and the “seengle questions” of the catechism, and who felt the following verse described him:

When Hughoc he cam doytin by
Wi’ glow’rin’ een an’ liftit han’s
Poor Hughoc like a statue stans.

That was our cowboy Pat and didn’t we enjoy his simplicity all the more after Burns had described him. I had neglected to make the acquaintance of “Poor Maillie” but it was not long before I had mastered her “Dying Words.”

Suggested programme of poetic memories. In a week you could have Hallowe’en off by heart; another week will give you the Cottar’s Saturday night. Then there is the Holy Fair, Address to the De’il, The Twa Dogs, Death and Dr Hornbrook (the latter half of this is best left out) and Holy Willie’s Prayer. Doytin’ is such an expressive word that it alone gives a complete picture of Hughoc. There is no English for it. (Doitin’ — walk or move unsteadily, walk with stumbling steps).

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