Today marks the 257th birthday of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796). Every year, in Scotland and around the world, admirers of Burns’ work sit down on or around the 25th of January to a celebratory meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, often accompanied by bagpipes, recitations of Burns’ poetry and a glass of whisky.
A forerunner of the Romantic movement, Robert Burns is is known for his use of the Scots dialect in his poetry. Some of his best-known works include “Auld Lang Syne,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” “Scots Wha Hae,” and “My Heart’s in the highlands.” In addition to his original compositions, Burns also recorded many traditional Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising them as well.
Although we will not be having a formal Burns Night celebration here in Cardiff University special collections, I have nevertheless taken the opportunity to rummage through the stacks in search of Burns’ poetry in honour of the occasion.
Our oldest piece of Burnsiana is a broadside ballad, published around 1797. It contains words and music to “Gude forgi’e me for liein’,” also published as “Last May a Braw Wooer.”
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the heyday of ballad printing in Wales. This single sheet is bound into a volume of musical scores and broadsides, one of approximately 700 such volumes collected by Theodore Edward Aylward (1844-1933). In addition to ballads like this one, the Aylward collection includes material on sacred works, songs and singing, dramatic music, orchestral music, solos and studies and music for organ and harmonium, mainly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Cardiff University’s other major collection of Welsh ballads, forming part of the Salisbury Library also contains at least four different 19th century Welsh-language editions of Burns’ “Highland Mary.”
Burns’ writing is characterised by directness and sincerity. In the preface to Burns’ first published volume of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, (1786), the poet presented himself as one who lacked “all the advantages of learned art” and who, being “Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule”, instead “sings the sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language.”
Interestingly though, some of Burns’ poetry was deemed too direct for sensitive 19th century audiences. The editor of one 1858 illustrated edition of Burns’ Poems and Songs felt that only a selection of poems could “with propriety be given in a volume intended for the Drawing-room.”
Although Burns was the son of a tenant farmer, his humble origins haven’t prevented him from being picked up by some very upscale publishers. The 1902 Essex House edition of “Tam o’ Shanter“ is printed on vellum and adorned with gold leaf. The beautifully printed colophon assigns the poem a place “among the great poems of the language.”
Each of these beautiful editions is a testament to Burns’ continuing popularity. I hope you will join me in raising a glass (safely away from any books, of course) to this well-loved lyricist!