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How well do you know our UK poets? Many English people will hotly debate that the world’s best poet and playwright is indisputably “The Bard of Avon”, aka William Shakespeare; and yet in Ireland, that honour may well be bestowed upon James Joyce, author of “Ulysses” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. The Welsh may hail Dylan Thomas as perhaps their most celebrated writer, extolling the virtues of “Under Milk Wood” and “Deaths and Entrances” as holding their own against anything that Joyce or Shakespeare could proffer. However, if you ask a Scot for the name of the greatest poet of all time, then you could bet your bottom Scottish ‘punnd’ that the name Robbie or “Rabbie” Burns would be at the top! For despite this most famous son of Scotland’s short-lived career, (he died at the age of only 37), he has become one of the most celebrated poets of all time and is remembered with revelry and tradition each year on 25 January, now known as Burns Night!

Robert Burns and his legacy

Robert Burns was born the son of a farmer in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1759, at a time when the country was undergoing great political and social change. In his short life, he wrote more than 550 poems and songs, many of which focused on the themes of love and nature and were written in the Scottish Ayrshire dialect, which was not particularly popular in Scottish literary circles at the time. Despite this, through his humour and ability to use small subjects to highlight big ideas, he was able to speak to the common man in ways they could understand and appreciate, and his work became popular across the country in all social spheres. He understood hardship and wrote of his Scottish life and times, becoming an everlasting inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism which followed.

The journalist, Ruth Wishart said of him, “ it is in his celebration of international brotherhood, of social equality, of honest toil and just reward that his global adherents still rejoice more than two centuries after his death.”

Burns died of rheumatic fever in 1796, on the same day his son, Maxwell, was born, and his remains lie in a mausoleum in St Michael’s Church in Dumfries. In 2009, Burns was dubbed “the greatest Scot of all time” by STV which is not a bad legacy for the son of a 18th century tenant farmer!

Many people may know the songs or poems of Burns but be unaware that they are by the Scottish bard, so we’ve listed 10 of his most famous ones here.

  1. Auld Lang Syne
  2. A Red, Red Rose
  3. Tam o’ Shanter
  4. A Man’s a Man for A’ That
  5. Address to a Haggis
  6. My Heart’s in the Highlands
  7. To a Louse
  8. To a Mouse
  9. Selkirk Grace
  10. Address to the Deil (devil)

A traditional Burns Night celebration

While the first Burns Supper was held only a few years after his death back in 1801, and modern times have brought new ideas, the basic celebration remains unchanged and revolves around paying tribute to Burns in whatever way feels most fitting. Burns Night suppers have become a traditional January celebration, not just in Scotland, but around the world. Bagpipes play as the diners enter and they enjoy a traditional Scottish meal which usually consists of some Cock-a-Leekie (chicken and vegetable) soup; haggis neeps and tatties (a savoury pudding with ‘sheep’s pluck’ minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and spices, encased in a sheep’s gut). Neeps are mashed swede (or carrot) and turnip, and tatties are mashed potatoes! There is a tradition of reading some of Burns’ work including saying the ”Selkirk Grace”, having a toastmaster read the “Address to a Haggis” and some light-hearted fun when the men make fun of the girls in the ‘Toast to the Lassies’, whilst the girls get their own back in the ‘Reply from the Lassies’. No Burns Supper would be complete without a rendition of that homage to friends everywhere, “Auld Lang Syne”.

A Red, Red Rose

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair are thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my Dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile!

Celebrate Burns Night in your setting

Why not celebrate Burns Night and Scottish poetry in your setting this January? Here are a few ideas to try:

  1. Read some of Burns’ poetry
  2. Make your own tartan designs, drawing, painting or paper-weaving
  3. Learn the meaning of some Scottish words such as ‘neeps’ and ‘tatties’
  4. Create a display about Scotland
  5. Make some traditional Burns Night food
  6. Paint or draw some Scottish flags and decorate your setting with them
  7. Teach the children, the famous song “Auld Lang Syne” (or the chorus at least!)
  8. Try some Scottish dancing and run a ceilidh
  9. Print some Scottish-themed colouring such as a unicorn, a cartoon haggis character or some bagpipes
  10. Have a go at writing your own poetry – Burns style!

The internet is full of resources to use for a Burns Night theme (see below). And if you want to read more of Burns’ work, head over to the Scottish Poetry Library or http://www.robertburns.org/. Whatever you do, have fun.

For internet resources with a Burns Night theme, see:

DLTK-kids.com – free resources
ichild.co.uk – free resources but registration required
activityvillage.co.uk – lot so of resources available on different topics for a small membership fee
Twinkl.co.uk – more resources for every age group – subscription needed

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