Robert Burns


Robert Burns and the Scots Tongue

By David Murison

(Published originally in "Scotland's Magazine", January 1959)

"The appellation of a Scottish bard is by far my highest pride."(To Mrs. Dunlop)

"If you are for English verses , there is, on my part an end of the matter ... I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. In fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish." (To George Thomson)

"They spak their thoughts in plain braid lallans, like you or me." (To W. Simpson)

Robert Burns StatueIn these three quotations Burns makes his position clear as to the matter and the manner of his poetry. He is to adhere to traditions of Scottish Literature and song, and it is to be Scots not English that he will write. And he did it, in spite of a great deal of bad advice to the contrary from his critics.

He himself tells us how he had read the works of his predecessors, Ramsay, Fergusson and others, and had been inspired to "string a new my wildly-sounding lyre with emulating vigour." The results of such study are apparent in the poems of the Kilmarnock Edition, where the models for the "Twa Dogs", "The Holy Fair", "The Cotter's Saturday Night", "Scotch Drink", are to be found in Fergussons's dialogues between "Plainstanes and Causey" or in the "Twa Ghaists", his "Farmer's Ingle", his"Caller Water" or "Braid Claith", and for the various episodes and elegies in Ramsey's exchange of poetical epistles with Hamilton of Gilbertfield, the author, incidentally, of "The Dying Words of Bonny Heck" which Burns imitated in his "Death of Mailie."

[The image to the right > is of the Robert Burns statue in Glasgow's George Square.]

Comparison of the lines of the two earlier Scots poets with Burns shows that he carried in his head a great deal of what they had written, and the revealing phrase comes out in his own work - the use for instance of gash and gawsie in the sense of sedate, imposing, sagacious and reference to the hallan or partition behind which hawkie, the brindled cow, contentedly "chows her cood", the words lyart (grey-haired) and haffits (the temples) already in Fergusson, reappear in "The Cotter's Saturday Night", chapman billies (packman fellows) found its way from "Hallowfair" to "Tam o' Shanter"; stand abeigh (remain aloof, keep one's distance), bughtin-time, Land o' Cakes are other borrowings; the line from the "Jolly Beggars" "To drink their orra duddies" is obviously suggested by the earlier poet's "their orra pennies there to ware" while the description of Nannie in "Tam o' Shanter" "She was a winsome wench and walie" is lifted out of Ramsay's "Three bonnets", who also gave to Burn's poetic vocabulary clark (learned), flewit (a wallop), skellum (a scamp), clishmaclaver (idle talk), whigmaleeries (vagaries), and the expression Fair fa (good luck to!), to mention only a few examples.

The influence of Ramsay and Fergusson on Burns's language is of course simple to trace. Another more subtle one is that of the ballads and folk-songs of which he says in his commonplace book "there is a degree of wild irregularity in many of the compositions and fragments which are daily sung by my compeers, the common people - a certain happy arrangement of old Scotch syllables." In the final analysis it is from his exact and prolonged study of the folk-songs of Scotland, shown for instance by his commentary on them preserved in the Glenriddell MS., that Burns acquired that uncanny mastery over the Scots tongue and the unerring flair for the right word in the right place that makes him one of the world's great lyric poets. It is well known how Burns took hundreds of traditional songs weaving old phrases and lines into new patterns and imposing new imagery and ideas on them. Half a dozen old lyrics, Scots and English alike, went into the making of O My Luve is Like a Red, Red, Rose". one of the most exquisitely chiseled of all his productions, where the art of the genius with words has made a perfect unity of all the shreds and patches of the past. Out of a stodgy seventeenth century song which ran:

Should old acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon
The flames of love extinguished
And freely past and gone?
Is thy kind heart now grown so cold
In that loving breast of thine,
Than thou canst never once reflect
On old-long-syne?

Burns made the song that has gone round the world and it needs no repeating here. It is easy enough to see what he has done with it - made the whole thing direct and real, brought it off the high-falutin' plane of metaphysical emotion down to the solid earth of homely universal experience and as a result simplified the language and incidentally made it much more Scots, with words like stowp (drinking vessel), gowans, burn, fiere (comrade), gude-willie waught (drink of goodwill), all of them, with the possible exception of fiere, which had survivied mainly in ballad currency, common everyday words in Burns's Scotland.

Al of this, of course, is not to suggest that Burns was merely a clever stitcher together of old rags and remnants. It is true that Scots poetry is strongly traditional, that there is always a powerful tendency to hark back to the past and to repeat well-established forms, and Burns is as good an example of this as any, but mere imitation alone will not account for him. He makes the old words live because Scots was still a living speech around him and he had a good Scots tongue in his own head. From it he gets the pithy sinewy turn of phrase, the sententious type of utterance that shines out most clearly in his epistles and satires and has indeed added several proverbs to our language: "Yill-caup commentators", "grace proud faces", "the heart ay's the pairt ay, that makes us right or wrang", "the glorious privilege of being independent", "the fear o' Hell's a hangman's whip to haud the wretch in order", "facts are chiels that winna ding", "freedom and whisky gang thegither", "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us", "sends ane to heaven and ten to Hell, a' for thy glory".

One notes incidentally how aptly the metre of of the short concluding line fits the pointed thrust of the words. Indeed another feature of Burns's language is its melodic quality, the perfect marriage of sense and sound that one sees in for instance in the description of the burn in "Hallowe'en" or in the first verse of "Ca' the Yowes":

Hark the mavis' e'ening sang,
Sounding Clouden's woods amang,
Then a-faulding let us gang,
My bonie Dearie.

Here we have a subtle blending of the English forms in -ing with the Scots a's in sang, etc. and faulding to reproduce the ringing echoes of the bird's song, where the Scots -in and the English folding would ruin the whole effect. And it is worth adding a little about this Anglo-Scots style of Burns about which there is much confusion. Burns does not always write pure Scots, as a look at "A Rosebud by my Early Walk", or "Mary Morison" or "Ae Fond Kiss" or above all "Scots wha Hae" will show, all of them songs, significantly enough, where his fastidiousness for the exact sound led him to prefer the English rather than the Scots form if it suited his ear better, but he well knew the value of the "old Scots syllables" and in such a line as "O wert thou in the cauld blast" the Scots form cauld is quite indispensable.

On the other hand the spelling of much of Burns is deceptive in that he followed the less happy tradition of Ramsay who anglicised the Scots orthography as much as he could in the interests of English readers though he expressly intended the Scots pronunciation to remain. Hence writes of night, mouse, pure, laugh, heart, head, etc. where nicht, moose, puir, lauch, hert, heid should be read. As a general rule it might be said that euphony apart, the Scots form should be preferred to the English one.

It is in his non-lyrical work, however, that Burns's Scots comes out at its richest and best. Sometimes he seems to revel in the old words for their own sake: a daimen icker in a thrave, faulding jocteleg or lang-kail gulli, the tapetless ramfeezled hizzie, tirl the hullions to the birses, she dights her grunie wi' a hushion, Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick or Clootie, a smytrie o' wee duddie weans, hilch and stilt and jimp, and more localised words like kiaugh (anxiety), raucle (strong, tough), risk (rend), snirtle (snigger), wiel (pool), wintle (wobble) and in "Hallowe'en" in particular the various superstitious practices give him an excuse for unloading a great deal of Scottish folk-lore and its vocabulary on his readers.

As for its variety, think of the plain farmer's speech of "Mailie", "The Auld Mare" and the "inventory", the highly-polished wit of the "Twa Herds" or "Death and Doctor Hornbrook", the subtle mixture of theological diction with profanity in "Holy Willie's Prayer" or "The Holy Fair" and for sustained force and animation the incomparable "Tam o' SHanter".

When one considers that the Scots tongue was arrested in its development in the sixteenth century, lost caste in the seventeenth, and was relegated to the position of a despised and exhausted patois by the self-appointed intellegentsia of Scotland in the eighteenth, one can appreciate more fully the achievement of Burns in bringing out to the full its half-hidden strength and resources and in restoring it to an honoured place among the poetic languages of the world. Would that our generation could do half as well, or even thought that it was worth doing.

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