As usual, Highland Mary is looking down from her hill of flowering gorse, holding her bronze skirts above the multitude of almond petal shadows in the dusk. Permanently staring across the dark spume—scattered waves of the Clyde Firth looking towards Ayr in the far, far distance—the birthplace of her lover, Robert Burns.
I live in Dunoon, a small town in the Cowal Peninsula on the west coast of Scotland which is also the birthplace of Mary Campbell. In fact, Mary was born on the very street I live on, Auchamore Road. Not far from my house, a bronze plaque tinged with a veneer of verdigris is attached to a drystone wall and reads, “Near this spot stood the cottage where Mary Campbell, Burns’s Highland Mary, was born in 1763.”
I feel a special connection to Mary. I think all who live in Dunoon do, and there is no escaping her prominent pose and faraway gaze from her place on Castle Hill. Like Lady Liberty, her outline is often the first landmark you see as you arrive at Dunoon by ferry. Mary, however, is only remembered today because of her connection to that best known of Scottish sons—Robert Burns, or Rabbie Burns as he’s affectionately referred to.
Poet and songwriter Robert Burns’ integral connection to understanding what it means to be Scottish, both in Scotland and to the diaspora of Scots and their descendants around the world, is unshakeable. And so, the great bard is celebrated every year on his birthday, 25th January—Burns Night.
From my childhood I remember attending formal Burns Suppers, which involved what seemed endlessly long recitations of Robert Burns’ poems by fierce-looking, often bearded men dressed in the féileadh-mór or the “big kilt.” Burns night has been celebrated in Scotland since 1802, five years after Burns’ death at the age of 37. By the time Robert Burns had died he had written over 550 poems and songs.
The essential ingredients of a Burns Supper are whisky, haggis and poetry reading. Burns Night today is celebrated nationally and internationally in a wide variety of formal and informal ways—from simply raising a glass of fine single malt to our national bard or popping down to the local chip shop for deep-fried haggis and chips, to the traditional Burns Night complete with national dress, the piping in of the haggis, speeches and readings.
I remember attending formal Burns Suppers, which involved fierce-looking, often bearded men dressed in the féileadh-mór or the “big kilt.”
In the days leading up to Burns Night the supermarkets shelves are stocked full of haggis—a traditional Scottish dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal, suet, onion and spices; definitely an acquired taste but much improved on with the addition of whisky sauce. Haggis is served with neeps and tatties, otherwise known as mashed swedes or turnips and potatoes.
I like to celebrate Burns Night at home with friends and family and the best part is the “Address to a Haggis.” Before the meal begins, Burns’ lively, humorous ode is recited followed by a toast to the haggis. My young son and daughter giggle at the ceremony to the odd looking food and passionate rendition of the poem in Scots dialect—“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, / Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!”
For me Burns Night is a chance to pass on to my children the power of the spoken word(poetry), the Scottish language, and to capture the spirit of Scotland and pass it down through the centuries. To participate in the sounds and singing of my ancestors—the loves, fears and Scottish humour so well expressed by Burns in his lyrics, and no less relevant to Scots today—all make Burns Night not just a celebration of the past but also very much a celebration of Scottish identity in the present.
Burns was the farmer’s son, the champion of Scots dialect, the drinker, womaniser, bard, love poet, writer for the common man; he led a colorful life and he remains something of a folk hero to many Scots today.
The first Burns Night was organized by friends of the late bard keen to celebrate his life and work after his untimely death. The idea of meeting to share and sing Burns’ poems quickly spread. Universal themes in Burns’ work of love, friendship, freedom and humanity led to the rising popularity and height of immortality that he continues to enjoy. The format of a Burns Supper being easy to replicate was soon adopted by Scots away from their homeland as a way of keeping in touch with their Scottish identity. The author of “Auld Lang Syne” surely could never have foreseen how far across the globe his songs would be sung.
And so, as year after year we celebrate our roguish son, recite his poems, sing his songs, we join Highland Mary in gazing simultaneously into the past at the Scotland we have been with our distinctive history and heritage; and we look into the future, at this crucial time of change, at the Scotland we are longing to become. Let us raise a dram.
Marion McCready lives in Argyll, Scotland. Her poems have been published widely including in Poetry (Chicago), Edinburgh Review and The Glasgow Herald. She won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2013 and won the Melita Hume Poetry Prize (2013). Her first full-length collection, Tree Language, was published by Eyewear Publishing (2014). Her second collection Madame Ecosse was published 2017 also by Eyewear Publishing.