Meeting date: Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 25 January 2017
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Supreme Court Judgment (Article 50), Draft Budget 2017-18, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Celebrating Burns and the Scots Language
- Portfolio Question Time
- Supreme Court Judgment (Article 50)
- Draft Budget 2017-18
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
- Celebrating Burns and the Scots Language
Celebrating Burns and the Scots Language
Happy Burns day, everyone. I am pleased to say that the next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03351, in the name of Emma Harper, on celebrating Burns and the Scots language. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
There are a lot of subscribers to the debate, so I ask members to be quite tight with their time.
That the Parliament welcomes the annual celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, which is held on 25 January each year to mark the Bard’s birthday; considers that Burns was one of the greatest poets and that his work has influenced thinkers across the world; notes that Burns’ first published collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, also known as the “Kilmarnock Edition”, published in 1786, did much to popularise and champion the Scots language, and considers that this is one of his most important legacies; believes that the celebration of Burns Night is an opportunity to raise awareness of the cultural significance of Scots and its status as one of the indigenous languages of Scotland, and further believes in the importance of the writing down of the Scots language to ensure its continuation through written documentation, as well as oral tradition.
The member has provided the following translation in Scots:
That the Pairlament walcomes the annual celebration o Scotland’s national makar, Robert Burns, whilk is haudit oan January 25th ilka year tae mark the Bard’s birthday; conseeders that Burns waes ane o the greatest makars, an that his wark haes influenced thinkers the warld o’er; notes that Burns’ first setten furth collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, kent tae as the “Kilmarnock Edition”, setten furth in 1786, did muckle tae mak better kent an tae forder the Scots leid, an conseeders that this bides amang his maist important legacies; believes that the celebration o Burns Nicht is an opportunity tae heize fowk’s kennin o the cultural significance o Scots an its status as ane o the indigenous leids o Scotland, an believes forby in the importance o the scrievin doon o the Scots leid fur tae mak siccar its bidin throu scrievit documentation, as weel as oral tradeetion.17:39
Today is Robert Burns’s birthday—the ideal day tae celebrate Robert Burns and the Scots language 221 years efter his death. I declare an interest as president of Dumfries ladies Burns club number 1.
Fowk fae a’ ower the world an here in Scotland celebrate Burns on this day whether they are in the Globe Inn in Dumfries, wi the Howff club, or in the place o the bard’s birth in Alloway.
Burns’s mither tongue was Scots. He spoke and wrote the Scots language: he speired and screived the Scots leid. My mither tongue was Scots when I was a wee lassie; then, as I grew up, I lost a lot because it wasnae acceptable tae yaise the Scots words at scuil. I am rediscovering the mony words that I used as a wean that wernae yaised in scuil when I grew up on the ferm wi the other weans. We were happy tae get clarty when we louped the burns, jouked awa fae the kickin kye in the byre, managin tae hing on tae oor jammy pieces, which were clapped in oor wally naeves. I am saddened—it gars me greet—that, 40 years efter bein telt, “Don’t speak like that—speak properly,” I am now learning ma lost leid again.
Robert Burns was asked to avoid his Scots and, for the Kilmarnock edition, submit poems in English. In further correspondence to his publisher, George Thomson, when he was requested to write supplementary poems in English, Burns wrote:
“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.”
The Kilmarnock edition was printed in Scots. It did much to support, popularise and champion the Scots leid. I ergue that we are richer for this decision.
Ma motion states that Robert Burns influenced thinkers around the world, such as Abraham Lincoln, Che Guevara and Hugh MacDiarmid. Even Bob Dylan said that Robert Burns was his greatest inspiration. This year, the influence of Burns on the USA is marked in a special TV documentary on the BBC, which I am gey looking furrit tae watching.
Burns wrote about fairness and equality in many of his songs. When Midge Ure sang one of them—“A Man’s A Man For A’ That”—at the opening of this session of Parliament, it showed how powerful and relevant the words are the day:
“Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His ribband, star and a’ that:
The man of independent mind
He looks and laughs at a’ that.”
The Scottish Parliament recognises that Robert Burns, and many efter him, should be celebrated fur screivin and speirin in thar ain leid. Burns’s words have such muckle stannin as they have been embedded on the outside of the walls o this vera building.
Jackie Kay, the Scots makar, has a wee Scots poem fur the baby box; and, in 2016, Billy Kay was given the award for services tae Scots fur his commitment tae advancing the leid for mony years.
The cultural significance of the Scots language has been promoted by the Scottish Government. Much progress has bin made tae advance the knowledge an unnerstaunin o the cultural importance o recognisin the Scots leid in recent years. Meenister Alasdair Allan must be commended.
We now have the Scots Language Centre, the National Library of Scotland, the wee windaes website and great Scots language resources for teachers.
There has been great work done by mony scientists, neurolinguisticists sic as Dr Michael Dempster and an exceptional champion of the Scots leid, Matthew Fitt. Baith are here the day in the gallery. Matthew Fitt is teaching weans in some of the most deprived areas. He telt me the ither day:
“Scots is the silver bullet for raising the confidence of so many of Scotland’s weans who’ve been telt they arenae clever simply because they speak Scots.”
I am jist stertin tae unnerstaun the implications for the weans and how not only allowin, but expectin, that better attainment—there is that wird again—can be achieved by focusing mair on oor native tongue.
An then there is the neurolinguistical research conducted by Dr Michael Dempster. He is exploring development o language in the brain and how learning the Scots at an early age—even at the same time as English—is key to unnerstaunin oor functional development. He is caain for Scots to be a central consideration in a’ speech research carried out in Scotland. Members can watch him on the YouTube video, “We’r Needin Tae Talk Aboot Wir Language”.
Worldwide evidence suggests that bilingual people hae mony cognitive advantages, includin later onset o dementia, by aroon five years. That suggests the use o Scots is a potential untapped goldmine in care an wellbeing work in Scotland.
Websites, videos, educational materials an a’ the experts I hae spoken tae promote furthering Scots language and bringing the benefits tae us a’. We need tae mac siccer that the leid gans furrit. I am asking the Scottish Government tae continue tae support the leid. We need tae celebrate Burns for keeping oor language alive. Let us continue to transmit it orally, but perhaps even mair important is screivin it, recordin it an getting it written doon. That is crucial.
Finally, Presiding Officer, I commend my motion, Burns and the Scots language, tae yer sonsie face. [Laughter.]
Talking of sonsie faces, I call John Scott.17:46
“When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate;
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps, and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Whare sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o’ Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter,
(Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonny lasses.)”
I will stop there, before members all become too enthralled in that magnificent poem, which defines Burns, Ayrshire and broad Scots.
At this point, let me agree with Emma Harper that one of Burns’s great achievements was to help to firmly establish Scots, or indeed broad Scots, as a language in its own right. The reason is that “Tam o’ Shanter” is an epic poem, on a par with Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and is recognised worldwide as being so.
Another reason for reciting those lines is to show that in addition to Scots still being the living language of many lowland Scots, the observations in Burns’s works are as relevant to this day as they were to his.
“Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
nursing her wrath to keep it warm”
still describes the welcome on many a doorstep, for many men in Ayrshire at any rate, following enjoyment at a hostelry of their choice, and a forewarning of a row to come.
And the lines
“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion”
were and remain a shorthand for mockery and condemnation of vanity and stupidity in daily and political life.
Many more quotations from Burns have become part of many people’s lives and language, my own included—like Emma Harper, I come from a farming background.
Burns was unique, which is why his words have been translated into so many different languages. The Russians put aside Tolstoy and the French put aside Voltaire to read and recognise the quality of his work, and every year at this time, more than 10,000 Burns suppers are held, to celebrate the range of his work.
Burns suppers bring people together to discuss, debate, analyse, appreciate and enjoy the value and meaning of his work, whether that be his poetry, his songs or his letters. Because Burns’s own life was so convivial, his legacy has engendered spirited gatherings and suppers at which fun and laughter predominate—with philosophical discourse on offer, too. Indeed, tonight, as we speak, here in our Parliament building our Presiding Officer is welcoming guests from all over the world and parliamentarians to the Presiding Officer’s Burns supper, which is well established as one of the highlights of our parliamentary year.
However, what sets Burns apart is not his observations of human nature, his wit, his satire, his views of the church or his ambivalent political views. It is his empathy that makes him so special—his unique ability to connect with and relate and appeal to all levels of society, in his own time in Edinburgh and his beloved Ayrshire, and to this day. He is still relevant and connected. That is what sets him apart from others. His ability to take the ordinary day-to-day aspects of life and love, and to comment on them in verse or song, makes him and his legacy unique.
Tonight, Presiding Officer, we celebrate that legacy, which has established Ayrshire, his birthplace, and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum as must-visit destinations for the worldwide Scottish diaspora and others who are rightly so proud of him and who flock to Ayrshire, to Alloway, to Burns Cottage and to the Banks of the Doon to see for themselves the landscape and buildings that inspired “Tam o’ Shanter” and many other great works.17:50
Congratulations tae Emma Harper for securing this members’ debate celebrating Burns and the Scots language.
There was, indeed, a blast o Jan’war win on or shortly after the night that Burns was born in 1759. A portion of the auld clay biggin in Alloway that was built by his father, William, was said to have blown in during a storm—a fitting entrance to this world, perhaps, for Scotland’s greatest poet. That same blast o win still blaws as strongly today as it did then.
We are eternally grateful to Robert Burns for what he did, and not just for the magnificent poetic legacy that he left us during his 37 short years. By writing in his native Scots/Ayrshire tongue, he gave credibility to the Scots language and probably set the foundations for its recognition internationally.
Are we not relieved that Burns basically ignored the pleas by Dr John Moore and others in 1787—just a year after the Kilmarnock edition was published—to write not in Scots but in English to reach, as Moore put it, a “wider audience of admirers”? Burns attempted some work in standard English but quickly abandoned it. His book was already a huge success, he was working on his Edinburgh edition and lots of his works in Scots had already been penned awaiting publication. Thank God for that and the legacy that we now enjoy, written in that rich Scots language of Ayrshire, where much of it can still be heard today.
Do you recall, Presiding Officer, this small but famous extract from “Tam o’ Shanter”, which John Scott quoted from?
“O Tam! had’st thou but been sae wise,
As ta’en thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was nae sober.”
The unthinkable version of it in English is:
“Oh Thomas, had you but been so wise,
As to have taken your own wife Kate’s advice!
She told you well you were a waster,
A rambling, blustering, drunken boaster,
That from November until October,
Each market day you were not sober.”
Much, much more is lost than the Scots words themselves. The equivalent words are there, but for me there is no real connection with the sense of drama and devilment. As a result, the impact of such a wonderful depiction that that scene illustrates would have been diminished beyond repair.
Interestingly, most—if not all—of Burns’s letters were written in highly polished, technical English, even more elaborate than we see today, reflecting the style of the 18th century. However, when it came to exercising his creative talents in poetry, or shaping and crafting the lyrics of many hundreds of Scots folk songs that would have been lost had he not intervened, Burns was clearly at home using the everyday language of his own people. I think that he knew that.
We have other more contemporary Scots writers to thank as well for keeping our language fresh and current. MacDiarmid wrote masterpieces, of course, such as “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” in Scots; in it, he even has a conversation with Burns, saying:
“Rabbie, wad’st thou were here—the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o the likes o thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for aa loquacity.”
That is a plea, I think, for more intelligent and informed discourse among the people, especially when talking about Burns himself.
Back in Ayrshire again, we are proud of our other two sons: Billy Kay fae Ga’ston and Rab Wilson fae New Cumnock. Billy made a huge contribution to the Scots language in his book “The Mither Tongue” and his numerous radio and TV productions, delighting in using Scots as his preferred medium. Rab Wilson, the distinguished writer and poet, wrote a magnificent poem for us in Scots in 2009 during the dispute with Diageo over its ridiculous decision to take Johnnie Walker away from Kilmarnock after 189 years.
Our Scots language is very much alive today, but it could always benefit from more exposure and more encouragement, especially among our youngsters, to create new works, poems and songs in their native language. We also have a role to play as members in the Scottish Parliament; we should use our own language much more than we probably do. Efter a, it is who we are, and we shouldnae be feart tae yaise it.
Well done tae Emma Harper for bringing this matter to the attention of the Parliament.17:54
I am sorry that I will have to leave before the minister's reply, Presiding Officer, so I offer my apologies to all concerned.
I am grateful to Emma Harper for bringing the debate to Parliament, in part because of my father, the Rev Roderick Macdonald. He was first a published poet in Gaelic—Scotland’s other language that has been too-long neglected—and an enthusiastic translator between Gaelic and English. He was deeply honoured to be crowned Bàrd at the National Mòd in 1977. However, when he went from St Columba’s parish church in Stornoway to Insch parish church in Aberdeenshire, he discovered a third Scottish tongue for poetry and prose—just as we, his children, discovered it in daily life. Aberdeenshire Scots is known today as Doric, thanks to the classical preoccupations of 19th century scholars, but it is, in truth, one of the richest regional varieties of a language that can be heard in many places, from Shetland to Galloway. Lowland Scots is not heard in the Outer Hebrides, but it is still the mother tongue of local children in Insch and the Garioch, and many other communities, besides.
Roddy Macdonald would have fully agreed with the view that is expressed in the motion this evening—that the written word, in a standard form, is vital to sustaining and transmitting a living but largely oral culture from one generation to the next. He considered himself to be bilingual, which he defined as not just speaking and writing in two languages, or even just thinking in two languages, but as dreaming in both Gaelic and English, which he had done for most of his life. I do not think that he ever dreamed in Scots, but he made understanding and explaining the relationships of Scots, English and Gaelic a focus of his learning and his creativity in the second half of his life.
A book that reflects that focus very well is one that he wrote in collaboration with Joyce Collie and Derrick McClure in 1995. It goes not by one name, but three: “Trilingual Poetry”, “Bàrdachd Thrì-Chànanach” and “Sangs in Three Tongues”. That was original and groundbreaking, but it was in the translation of the entire works of Robert Burns from Scots and English into Gaelic that Roddy Macdonald’s scholarship in Scots and creativity in Gaelic found their perfect fusion. As Derrick McClure has said since, what is impressive about the work is not just its scale but the fact that the translations succeed in retaining the metre and rhythms in which Burns wrote, while presenting them in a quite different language.
However, my father would have said that achieving that was not so hard, or down only to his own poetic gifts. He was delighted to discover that a good deal of the Scots of Robert Burns had Gaelic roots, which some earlier translators had failed to recognise. The Scots tongue of Robert Burns is not, as some would have it, different from northern English only because of loan words from Scandinavia, the low countries or France—such loan words are to be found in Northumbria and Yorkshire, too. What makes the Scots language unique is its roots in Scottish Gaelic, combined with those other influences.
Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire in 1759, the same year in which the last speaker of Ayrshire or Galloway Gaelic died. His family had moved not long before from the north-east, at a time when Gaelic was still the first language in places such as upper Deeside and Glengairn. The cadences and metres of Burns could readily translate from Scots to Gaelic precisely because Gaelic had helped to shape many of those rhythms and metres in the first place, and Roddy Macdonald was proud to make the connections among Scotland’s three tongues because he believed that those connections strengthened them all. I am certain that, if he were still with us, he would want to join us in celebrating that view today.
Afore we gang any further, I am minded to accept a motion under rule 8.14.3 that, due to the number of members who wish to speak, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Emma Harper]
Motion agreed to.
Tapadh leibh. There, Mr Macdonald—I have used all three languages.
I congratulate my colleague Emma Harper on securing this debate marking the importance of both our national bard, Rabbie Burns, and one of our national languages, Scots.
Many towns lay claim to the bard, but there can be no doubt that it is the town of Irvine, in my constituency, that has the strongest claim of all. Indeed, without Irvine, there might not even have been a world-famous poet called Robert Burns for us to talk about today. It was in the then-bustling harbour of Irvine, where Burns arrived in 1781 as a young 22-year-old, that he became friends with a local sea captain, Richard Brown, who encouraged him to become a poet.
That was attested to in Burns’s own hand, when he later wrote to Brown, reminding him of a Sunday that they had spent in Eglinton woods, where Brown, upon hearing Burns recite some of his verses, had expressed his wonder that Burns could
“resist the temptation of sending verses of such merit to a magazine”.
It is was that moment, in Burns’s own words, that he decided to
“endeavour at the character of a Poet”.
Alloway may have made the man, but it was Irvine that made the poet.
It seems fitting that Irvine is home to what one national paper deemed to be “the A-list Burns Club”. I am particularly proud to draw Parliament’s attention to the Irvine Burns Club, which has an unbroken history of nearly 200 years. It was first established in 1826 and will this year celebrate its 191st anniversary. The first president of the club, Dr John Mackenzie, attended Robert Burns’s father in his last illness. The first vice-president was David Sillar, who was a friend of Burns from his early 20s.
A highlight of the club’s calendar is, of course, the annual Burns night celebration, which I am looking forward hugely to attending. However, as great a poet as Burns was, and as braw as Burns suppers are, it is important to remember that Scots should not only be for Burns night. We still have much to do to overcome the paradox that the Scots language that we celebrate and encourage on one day of the year remains all too often misunderstood, and even discouraged and disparaged, the rest of the time.
As someone with a bit of Gaelic, I am only too familiar with the hostility that can be faced from some quarters when it comes to Scotland’s minority languages. However, one thing that Gaelic is never accused of is being a dialect or, worse, a corruption of English. With Scots, on the other hand, despite great and on-going efforts to raise awareness of its status and history, those misperceptions are still all too common. Overcoming them remains perhaps the biggest issue for those of us who want to see the language respected and promoted.
As such, although I welcome today’s debate and look forward to joining my friends at Word Powers Books’s radical Burns nicht supper tonight, and the Irvine Burns Club later in the week, I hope that Parliament will take opportunities in the future to delve deeper into the issues around Scots, and to continue to build on the progress that has already been made in normalising, legitimising and promoting the language in all settings—written and spoken.18:02
I thank Emma Harper for the opportunity to talk about Burns. I have used the opportunity to extend the world of people who are familiar with Burns to one more person—my new American intern, Melia Dayley, who is sitting in the gallery and who has written the speech that I give tonight.
I stand with members today to celebrate the enduring legacy of Robert Burns and, of course, the Scots language. I believe that it is central that we understand what is meant by the word “legacy”. It implies something of great significance in the past that continues to affect our present. It is a history that is ever present and impactful. That is a perfect description of Scots and the bard.
The Scots language has had a turbulent history. It went through periods of discrimination, when it was not to be spoken in good company, to times when it was championed by the Scots people. We have championed the language, in large part, thanks to Robert Burns, whose memory we celebrate today. It is a language that has divided society during parts of its history, but that is partly why it makes such an impact today—it shows us the diversity of our history. It is now a jewel of our culture, whereas once it was something very different.
We remember the man who wrote great literary works in Scots and who helped secure the Scots language’s importance to the definition of Scotland. Burns was, without doubt, a literary genius—one need read very few of his works to see that. Of course, he was also a man with an entirely justifiable reputation for womanising, but we rarely talk about one particular woman in his life—his wife, Jean Armour. She was the silent, strong supporter of the poet. I suspect that being a poet’s wife under any circumstances, then or now, is not terribly easy. She was a loyal wife and not one for coming forward, but she was always there and was the woman Burns needed and loved. While he was arranging Scots into iconic poems, she was looking after the basics of his life. She was working to make life better not just for her but for her significant family—although I am not sure what role she played with the family members who were not hers. Her legacy is alive in Scotland, right alongside that of Burns, so we should think of her as we think of Burns.
We work diligently and proudly to celebrate Robert Burns’s life. I am not here to preach on the issue—I perhaps came to Burns quite late in my life—but people right across Scotland understand who Burns is and what he has contributed to Scottish life. People on farms, on ships and in cities all know of Burns and they are all part of the community that has inherited the legacy of Burns. The language and words of Burns live today, as they lived when he wrote them. They strengthen the ties that bind us together. We overcome and rise above difficulties by looking at some of the things that he wrote, and we find simple enjoyment in his words. When we hear “Holy Willie’s Prayer” or “Tam o’ Shanter”, the narrative simply engages us.
The work of Burns is part of what makes us Scots, but it is also part of what we contribute to the world community. As Burns said of Jean,
“But to see her was to love her”.
The legacy of Burns and Scots is that we recognise that his words are more than simply words—their legacy is us.18:07
I always find it intimidating to stand up and speak about Robert Burns, particularly when I have only four minutes, because my first real memory of a Burns supper is of one in Moffat, and it opened with a joke that any speech on Burns should last exactly as long as it takes a married man to make love to his wife. At the time, I had no idea what that meant, but—
I would sit down now.
I am being told to sit down, but I will continue, because the debate is really important, and I am grateful to Emma Harper for introducing it. I know that she is passionate about the subject and has a long-standing connection with the issue in the community.
I was in St Michael’s church in Dumfries today, at a memorial service to commemorate Burns’s life, and many people there were very excited about this debate taking place. That is because Burns is at the heart of Dumfries and of my Dumfriesshire constituency. I do not want to get too controversial for a members’ business debate, but I take slight issue with the claim from those in Ayrshire that Burns properly belongs to them because, although he might have been born there, we have still got him. He is very important to Dumfries.
It is impossible to go round my constituency without finding Burns heritage or meeting people who are there to explore his legacy and history, whether that is in Dumfries or further afield. He visited practically every pub that is still going, and generally had a rather good time, although that is with the notable exception of a pub in Ecclefechan, where he managed to get stuck of an evening. He described that village as a wicked and evil little place. That had absolutely nothing to do with the residents or the quality or quantity of the drink; it was purely because there was a lady singing in the establishment on the evening in question and Burns felt that listening to her was like hearing the sound of the sow meeting the butcher’s knife. He could not decide whether the answer was to get drunk or to hang himself. Luckily, he chose the drink.
One only has to go to my hometown of Moffat to see his connection with local drinking establishments, because it was at Moffat’s Black Bull Inn that he carved on the window:
“Ask why God made the gem so small,
And why so huge the granite?
Because God meant, mankind should set
That higher value on it.”
His enduring legacy and the power of his works cannot be escaped. I will read a section of his “Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet”:
“It’s no in titles nor in rank;
It’s no in wealth like Lon’on Bank,
To purchase peace and rest;
It’s no in makin muckle, mair:
It’s no in books; it’s no in Lear,
To make us truly blest:
If Happiness hae not her seat
And center in the breast,
We may be wise, or rich, or great,
But never can be blest:
Nae treasures, nor pleasures
Could make us happy lang;
The heart ay’s the part ay,
That makes us right or wrang.”
Burns and Scots are in our heart. He wrote that no Scot could fail to be moved by the tale of William Wallace, but—as we look at Burns’s legacy—there is no Scot who cannot be moved by the influence that Burns has had on our nation.18:11
I am proud that our Parliament recognises the richness of the various Scots tongues and nae jist in debates specifically aboot our mither tung. Even in this parliamentary session, if you look through our Official Report, you will find numerous Scots words peppering our members’ speeches. Not least by my freen Emma Harper, with whom I share a challenge to sneak the odd wee boorach, craitur or hallirackit into our speeches. Who knows, I might even get away with a bahookie or a besom one day, if it disnae scunner the Presiding Officer—or, should I say, the Heid Bummer. My thanks go to yon affa fine quine Emma Harper for this debate, not least because I can catch up with her in the amount of wordies on the record.
In schools last week, a the bairns would have been learning their Burns. It reminds me of ma ain school days, when it was the only time of year that we could spik Scots or Doric in the classroom wi ony legitimacy. It is changed days. Last week, I was in Meiklemill school in Ellon, where they have Scots and Doric a o’er the place and it is nae jist for Burns nicht. Ben the hale place, there are Doric words o the wa’s and a the weans are encouraged to tell stories in their ain tung.
We are celebrating the life o the Bard today. Burns’s faither was from the north-east, changing his name from Burness to Burns as he headed down to Ayrshire. The north-east has a very strong Scots and Doric language tradition and we all like to think that Burns was influenced by his faither’s history.
Talking of Burns is as good an excuse as any to shine a light on other champions o the mither tung. Some might not be so well known as our bard, like Jean and Lucy Stewart from Fetterangus, or Fishie, as it is known. Their renditions of traditional Scots songs and ballads helped to fuel a renaissance of interest in Scottish music that began in the 1960s. Lucy’s collected and recorded work was an influence to Bob Dylan. In 1962, he modelled his song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on “Lord Randall”, which Lucy’s work had introduced him to. The Stewart family tradition continues with Elizabeth Stewart, who is widely known as a traditional Doric folk singer and storyteller in her own right and who, I am proud to say, is a constituent of mine.
Then there is Stanley Robertson who, like the Stewart quines, was fae a travelling family. Stanley was a poet and storyteller. Before his death, I had the great privilege of working with him on a range of Doric materials for a literacy programme for Aiberdeen schools. The oral tradition of travelling fowk in the north-east was embodied by that man, whose mind was chock-full of old stories from generations of travelling fowk. I am glad to say that those stories have been collected in the Elphinstone kist in Aiberdeen university. The Elphinstone kist is a rich collection of the sangs, stories and rhymes of the north-east, which leads me to the keeper o the kist, the unofficial north-east bard, Sheena Blackhall. Bairns are learning Burns’s “Tae a Moose” right now, but I bet you that they can a recite Sheena’s poem “Hoolet” without giein it a second thocht.
Celebratin Burns every year reminds us of the richness of the mither tung, but wi fowk like Sheena Blackhall, Matthew Fitt—who I believe is in the public gallery, an who scrieves awa in The National in oor mither tung ivery wick—our makar Jackie Kay and Derrick McClure, who Lewis Macdonald mentioned, an who is the author of one of my favourite books, “Why Scots Matters”, an wi a’ the guid work o the weans an the teichars, Scots and Doric are alive and well. They are nae jist for 25 January but fir a’ the days o the year.18:15
My thanks to Emma Harper for giving me and everybody else the opportunity to talk in the debate.
It is fair to say that I am a wee bit of a Burns fan. I see Emma has the same book—I, too, have the complete collection, as a book and also in CD format. It is quite a number of CDs, but I would highly recommend it to anybody who wants to listen. It features a whole load of different singers from across Scotland. Some of you may be familiar with it.
Turning to the motion, it is fair to say that Burns still influences people here in Scotland and across the world. I was heartened today to note that schools across my constituency—as I am sure is the case for every member here—have had very active Twitter feeds today, with all the kids engaging in various Burns activities. I have a few examples. Townhead primary school had a poetry competition and the delighted winners were shown their prizes. At Kirkshaws primary school, pupils were tweeting about watching the highland games. They had dressed up, and it was good to see the pictures showing an engrossed audience. At St Stephen’s primary school, pupils tweeted that they were learning about the Scots dialect, and that they had taken the time to write their own poem. That was very fitting and in line with the debate. It is good that kids today, across my constituency and across Scotland, are getting to learn about our heritage and the Scots dialect.
When I was growing up we did Burns every year, probably like most people in school, but there are regional variations in the accents and words that we use. I did not realise that a lot of the words that I was using were Scots until I went to university and left the confines of Coatbridge and Lanarkshire. People would ask me, “Why do you speak so slang?” I did not realise that a lot of the words that were integrated into my speech at various points were actually Scots language. When I found that out as a teenager and into my 20s I was absolutely delighted.
On Burns’s work, I like the classics such as “A Man’s A Man” and “Ye banks, and braes” among many others, but I also like some of the lesser-known works: “Of a’ the airts” and the ballad that is the “Lament of Mary Queen of Scots”, which I think is a fantastic poem. Two of my favourites are “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation” and the absolutely brilliant “Caledonia”. “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation” is a very political message from Burns. Given what Burns was writing and some of the messages that he was getting across at that time, it is absolutely fascinating to think about how many years ago that was.
I had intended to go to the full dinner tonight at the Presiding Officer’s Burns event, but I also promised my wee boy that I would eat some haggis with him—he is just coming up for three. I hope that it is a good night for everybody who is going. I have now put in my apologies.
I will finish with the final paragraph from my favourite song, which I mentioned earlier, “Caledonia”.
“Thus bold, independent, unconquer’d, and free,
Her bright course of glory for ever shall run;
For brave Caledonia immortal must be,
I’ll prove it from Euclid as clear as the sun:
Rectangle-triangle the figure we’ll chuse,
The Upright is Chance, and old Time is the Base;
But brave Caledonia’s the Hypothenuse;
Then, Ergo, she’ll match them, and match them always.”
It is a real privilege to take part in the debate, and I thank Emma Harper for securing it. It is such a shame that we have been conditioned out of speakin Scots. When I am at home, I quickly revert to ma playground chat wi ma dad, and we talk about the weather an what we’re gaunae dae, and I quickly go to into it, particularly if I’ve had a wee rusty nail. It is a shame—we have to put in an effort not to use Scots when we are in the debating chamber.
From a personal perspective, 25 January has always been an important date for me and my family. There is every likelihood that my great-great-great-grandfather was Burns’s blacksmith, as he lived at Hollywood when Burns farmed at Ellisland. My family are all Burns enthusiasts, and my daughter, Vicky, and my son, Hugh, regularly sing, recite or play Burns’s works.
There is no point in my giving you a history of Robert Burns, because I am sure that you all know it as well as—if not better than—me. What is worthy of reflection, though, is the state of the world that Burns was born into and in which he grew up. Only 13 years had passed since the battle of Culloden, which was the last battle to be fought on British soil and one in which—let us not forget—Scots participated on both sides. When Burns was only 17, news came of the American declaration of independence and, by the time he was 30, we had the French revolution. All through his life there were conflicts, and whoever lived in those times lived with a certain amount of fear, suspicion, danger and challenge.
Of course, many of those uncertainties and challenges were also reflected in the thinking and writing of the time. All that turmoil can only have influenced the mind of young Robert as he sought answers to the questions that must have poured out from his fertile imagination. Many of those questions must have been political, and I am always fascinated by the fact that most shades of the political spectrum will claim that Robert Burns was one of their own.
Our Labour colleagues have left the chamber, but the socialist would look to “For a’ that, and a’ that”:
“For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
The nationalists could choose “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn”, which is known more commonly as “Scots, whae hae” and was written just 3 or 4 miles away from where I Iive at the moment, in Gatehouse of Fleet:
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victorie ,,,
Wha for Scotland’s king and law,
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw,
Free-man stand, or Free-man fa’,
Let him follow me.”
Unionists and, amazingly, even UKIPers claim him as their own from the “The Dumfries Volunteers”:
“O, let us not, like snarling tykes,
In wrangling be divided,
Till, slap! come in an unco loun,
And wi’ a rung decide it!
Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Must British wrongs be righted.”
He cleverly spanned all shades of politics and, as a novice politician, I can only admire the dexterity and ease with which he did so.
Given the tumult of his day, Burns could easily have written with bitterness, envy, greed or jealousy, yet what emerges from his work is a picture of a man of understanding, of honesty, of justice and of extraordinary emotion and compassion for his fellow man. As Oliver Mundell has said, Burns penned his “Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet” when he was only 25:
“It’s no in titles nor in rank;
It’s no in wealth like Lon’on Bank,
To purchase peace and rest;
It’s no in makin muckle, mair:
It’s no in books; it’s no in Lear,
To make us truly blest:
If Happiness hae not her seat
And centre in the breast,
We may be wise, or rich, or great,
But never can be blest:
Nae treasures, nor pleasures
Could make us happy lang;
The heart ay’s the part ay
That makes us right or wrang.”
Burns always had a healthy scepticism of the authorities, whether they took the shape of the local landlord, the local church, the presbytery or the Parliament. He made that quite clear in “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, in which he wrote:
“Lord hear my earnest cry and prayer
Against that Presbytry of Ayr!
Thy strong right hand, Lord, make it bare
Upon their heads!
Lord visit them, and dinna spare,
For their misdeeds!”
I am sure that that scepticism would remain alive and well today.
I am certain that Burns would have been enormously proud of a moment that will live with me and many other MSPs for ever. How he would have filled with pride at the opening of Holyrood in 1999, when Sheena Wellington sang his wonderful anthem, and more recently, in 2016, when Midge Ure sang it.
“Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree, and a’ that.
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
There can surely be no better vision for any politician, no matter his political creed or colour, than that.18:24
I, too, thank Emma Harper for securing the debate. For all that I love the poetry of Robert Burns, what pleases me most is that, down these two centuries or more since he died, our country has chosen his birthday to think on a poet and poetry. I do not mind whether it is his radical sentiments, observations on a fast-disappearing agrarian way of life, bonny verses or the peerless tale of “Tam o Shanter”, we cheer our most famous poet, recite and enjoy his verses and songs and do so in singular style. I do not suppose that it is unique, but it is perhaps unusual that a country should, for a day each year, take a collective breath and turn its thoughts to poetry in this way. It makes me just a little proud, because poetry matters.
Since our Parliament has reconvened, we have blessed ourselves with marvellous makars, cementing poetry in our consciousness and civic life. None of us who watched it or who had the privilege of being present when the Scottish Parliament reconvened will forget Sheena Wellington singing “A Man’s a Man for a’ that” and how a nation responded on that day. The occasion was also illuminated by Amy Linekar, a schoolgirl from Thurso, with her poem “How to Create a Great Country”, which contained a thistle’s-worth of spike.
Just this month, our latest makar, Jackie Kay, caused a bit of a stooshie with her poem about the love that parents feel for their newborn babies. I loved it. My daughter, Rachel, shares a birthday with Robert Burns, and I hope that members will indulge me as I take the opportunity to wish her a happy birthday:
“Let your life hae luck, health, charm,
Ye are my bonny blessed bairn”.
When Jackie Kay took her post, she said:
“As Robert Burns demonstrated, poetry holds up a unique mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul. It is the pure language that tells us who we are.”
Holding that mirror to a nation’s heart, mind and soul can be dangerous. Even a poet as sensational as Robert Burns—a rock star of his day—had to watch his step. Writers and songsmiths across the world endure persecution. We live in a world where some Governments or rulers can be so alarmed at thoughts written, spoken or sung that they will suppress them cruelly. In these dangerous and worrying times, we need our poets more than ever.
Poetry, whether in its highest expression or the rhymes of the playground, has the capacity to be fun, to make us laugh or cry, to bring the best of us to the fore. Poetry can do that. Are we a nation of poets? Perhaps that is not a bad aspiration. Although we may believe poetry to be in the mist and our hills, in the closes and wynds of our burghs and cities, embedded in our souls or our DNA, such a belief—such an aspiration—cannot be fulfilled by chance. It must be nurtured and protected—space and time, understanding and our love given to all our languages and means of expression.
In a chamber full of honest men and bonny lasses—and, hopefully, some bonny men and honest lasses, too—I toast not just Robert Burns’s memory but all the poets, past, present and future, of
“Our multiform, our infinite Scotland”.
I am starting to feel quite emotional.18:28
A want tae congratulate ma frien, Emma Harper, on securin this debate. Usually, we see muckle flytin here. The day, on the bard’s birthday, we’re all canty and agreed.
Rabbie Burns wid be fair astonished—an content—tae hear himsel praised in oor reconvened Scots Pairlament sortit agin, despite the action o that parcel o rogues he admonished lang syne.
A’m nae Scots scholar, but A ween A speak Scots. Mony Scots wi a guid Scots tongue in their mooth hav been telt they just haver in slang. Oor Pairlament kin challenge those attitudes.
In 2003, a cross-pairty group on the Scots leid was formed by Labour’s Cathy Peattie and the Scottish National Party’s Irene McGugan. The statement o principles fir that group is worth repeatin:
“1. Scots is a language
2. Action maun be taen tae pit an end tae aw prejudice an discrimination agin the Scots language.
3. The Scots language is integral an essential tae cultural an personal identity in Scotland.
4 A knowledge o Scots is vital tae a knowledge o Scotland.
5. Action maun be taen tae gie the Scots language whitiver means is needit tae mak siccar its transmission an continuity.
6. Scots shuid be an essential pairt o the educational curriculum in Scotland at aw levels.
7. Naebody shuid be penalised or pitten doun for speakin Scots.
8. Scots proper names an place names shuid be valued an safegairdit.”
Thon principles were scrieved mair than a decade syne. Huv they been achieved? I hae ma doots. There is mair wark tae be done.
I hope aw the MSPs who spoke sae well the day will consider supportin anither cross-pairty group on the Scots leid and play oor part in helpin it tae thrive aw year.
The statement o principles o that group quoted Iain Crichton Smith, anither poet who wrote in Gaelic, anither tongue:
“He who loses his language loses his world.”
Let that our lesson be.18:31
I thank Emma Harper for securing this wonderful debate. So many heroes of the Scots language have already been mentioned, particularly Billy Kay, whose book “The Mither Tongue” gave me permission to love my language. I am very grateful for that.
I also give grateful thanks to Matthew Fitt for the wonderful memories that I have of reading his Scots language books to my son, who is now 19 years old, and for being able to share them, especially with my English nieces. They have given me wonderful memories and wonderful experiences of our language.
One person who has not been mentioned—and who it would be very remiss of me not to mention, as she comes from Motherwell—is Liz Lochhead. She was a wonderful makar for Scotland and inspired so many of us. I want to quote a short extract from her poem “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”:
“it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood
birled a scarf aroon ma neck
pu’ed oan ma pixie an’ my pawkies
it wis that bitter
said noo ye’ll no starve
gie’d me a wee kiss and a kid-oan skelp oan the bum
and sent me aff across the playground
tae the place Ah’d learn to say
it was January
and a really dismal day
the first day I went to school
so my mother wrapped me up in my
best navy-blue top coat with the red tartan hood,
twirled a scarf around my neck,
pulled on my bobble-hat and mittens
it was so bitterly cold
said now you won’t freeze to death
gave me a little kiss and a pretend slap on the bottom ...
to the place I’d learn to forget to say
it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school”
That poem, to me, holds a lesson for every child in Scotland about the warmth, the feeling and the nature of a language that is their own and about how they should never be made to feel as if that language does not belong to them.
Today, though, is all about Burns and his many characters. Some of his indiscretions and his negative side have been mentioned, and I know that he is often considered as not being a friend to women. However, there are two of his poems that mean a lot to me. Both are songs—thankfully, I will not be singing them tonight—but they are unusual in being told from a woman’s point of view.
The first is an extract from “The rantin dog the Daddie o’t”, which is about a young woman who finds herself pregnant and unmarried. It highlights all the concerns that someone in the same situation today might have. Who will buy the baby’s clothes? Who will pay the midwife, as happened then? Who will clean the baby? It goes:
“O Wha my babie-clouts will buy,
O Wha will tent me when I cry;
Wha will kiss me where I lie,
The rantin dog the daddie o’t.
O Wha will own he did the faut,
O Wha will buy the groanin maut,
O Wha will tell me how to ca’t,
The rantin dog the daddie o’t.”
That shows a real understanding by Burns of the predicament of women.
Lewis Macdonald had to leave the chamber, but the poem that came to mind when I was listening to him was “The Highland Widow’s Lament”. Burns wrote it, and it meant much to him. It is about seeing a woman from the Highlands begging. She had been made destitute. It is about the end of the war at Culloden, when she was made homeless, and it includes the lines:
“Their waefu’ fate what need I tell
Right to the wrang did yield;
My Donald and his Country fell,
Upon Culloden field.
Oh I am come to the low Countrie,
Ochon, Ochon, Ochrie!
Nae woman in the warld wide,
Sae wretched now as me.”
Those are among my favourite bits of Burns. I thank Emma Harper once again for the wonderful opportunity to celebrate him.18:35
Mony thenks tae Emma Harper for bringin this debate tae the fluir o the Pairliament the nicht and tae the rowth o ithers—ower mony to name—that spak in the debate an aw.
It was a disappointment the nicht—nae offence intended—when Stewart Stevenson spak, because mony o us in this place are acquent wi his tales o his faimily an his faimily history. It was a sare disappointment till mony o us to find oot that he isnae come doon frae the great man himsel.
Let me stert bi readin ye ane o the first reviews Burns iver hed anent his wark, i The Scots Magazine o 1 December 1786. It tells us a fell lot aboot the things Burns an the Scots tung haes hed tae thole thir hinnermaist tway hunner year. Like Ms Harper, I come fae the bit o Scotland that says “tway” instead o “twa”. The reviewer scrives in his bit o The Scots Magazine:
“I know not if I shall be accused of enthusiasm and partiality when I introduce to the notice of my readers a poet of our own country ... The person to whom I allude is Robert Burns, an Ayrshire ploughman ... In mentioning the circumstances of his humble station, I mean not to ... urge the merits of his poetry when considered in relation to the lowness of his birth, and the little opportunity of improvement which his education could afford. These particulars, indeed, might excite our wonder at his productions; but his poetry, considered abstractly, and without the apologies arising from his situation, seems to me fully entitled to command our feelings and to obtain our applause.”
Whaur Burns cam frae socially is airt an pairt o wha he is, but it haes bin uised tae sneer at him, or tae gar folk jalouse at his poetrie maun jist be couthie, orra stuff. The reviewer wrings his hands a wee bittie mair and talks aboot
“the language in which most of his poems are written ... in England it cannot be read at all, without such a constant reference to a glossary as nearly to destroy that pleasure.
Some of his productions, however, especially those of the grave style, are almost English.”
Gin A can owerset thon for the record, he is sayin this—Burns winna mak onie siller oot o aw this, for the ae leiterary scene at maiters is in Lunnan. But he alloos at Burns can mair or less screive English forby, sae he canna be awthegither donnert. He screives:
“with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.”
An sae we hae the review o the Kilmarnock edeition—at aince praisin Burns an patroneisin him, and gien us for the record maybes the first-ever yis o the phrase “heaven-taught ploughman”.
Tho A represent the Gaelic-speakin bit o Scotland, A wes brocht up i the ither enn o the kintra awthegither. Baith ma granfaithers wes ploumen, sae Burns speaks tae me. But he speaks tae the hail warld an aw. Mr Macdonald mentioned aboot his faither’s wark to translate Burns frae Scots intae Gaelic. Juist the ither week, a bodie screivit tae me tae tell me aboot a new ettle tae owerset Burns intill Estonian. Awreddies, as ither members haes mentioned, Burns is being recitit an sung the world ower the nicht. As Mr Scott haes richtly said, pairt o the wey it is at we are celebratin him is at he gied the Scots tung an epic poem an the status at yon brocht wae it.
The Scottish Guivernment forders the recogneition o Scots in aw its forms. It is at the hert o oor communities an oor leiterature. A few year syne, A wes a memmer o the Guivernment’s Scots language meinisterial wurkin group. For the first time, i 2011, thare wes a question on Scots i the census at shawed at 1.5 meillion Scots hed some kennin o Scots. We brocht in Scots language co-ordinators i the scuils, a Scots leid policie an mony ither things forby. Creative Scotland an ithers hae been supportive anaw. Tho some memmers grat for rage aboot it at the time, as an edication meinister, A brocht in the requirement at the higher English exam speirs a compulsory question on Scottish leiterature.
A will gie the hinmaist word tae Burns himsel in the satirical wurds at he addressed tae Scotland’s representatives i the Hoose o Commons. O course, Burns didnae hae a vote, but he had his ain thochts. Amang ither things, he gies us his thochts on the question o language:
“Could he some commutation broach,
I’ll pledge my aith in guid braid Scotch,
He need na fear their foul reproach
Yon mixtie-maxtie, queer hotch-potch,
Auld Scotland has a raucle tongue;
She’s just a deivil wi’ a rung;
An’ if she promise auld or young
Tae tak their pairt,
Tho’ by the neck she should be strung,
She’ll no desert.
God bless your Honors, a’ your days,
Wi’ sowps o’ kail an’ brats o’ claise,
In spite o’ a’ the thievish kaes
That haunt St Jamie’s!
Your humble poet sings an’ prays
While Rab his name is.”