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Language Issues in Studying Burns for Revised Higher: Bard tae Waur?

John Hodgart

"Burns is really much too difficult for our children. They prefer Shakespeare."
(a former P.T. English in Ayrshire, noo retired, an T.G.F.T.!)

Robert Burns
Article: "Burns in School"
In spite o the annual ootburst o Bardolatry ilka Januar, Burns’ work isnae as weel kent as it deserves to be and no as well taucht in oor schuils as it shid be. Altho he is noo an option in the Revised Higher English Exam, the study o the set 13 Burns’ texts is mair the exception rether than the rule for maist young Scots, even in the Burns hameland o Ayrshire an Dumfries. It wid seem that monie teachers feel a lot less enthusiastic aboot him bein on the syllabus than the poet felt when welcomin his "Bastard Wean". In fact for some Scottish teachers mibbe Burns himsel has become somethin o a love forgotten child, if no a bastard wean!

For oor students, studyin Burns’ work shid be lik enterin a treisure hoose o linguistic an imaginative delicht, but it seems that the feck o them arnae offert this experience at Higher level as maist Scottish teachers seem tae prefer the Bard of Avon or the dreich modern meditations o Philip Larkin. Somehow it seems tae be worth the effort tae teach Shakespeare tae oor Higher students, but no Burns. Nae doot the curriculum has tae be covert an time is ticht, wi poetry aften relegatit tae the stock exam-answer piece, such as "Dulce et Decorum Est" etc. Furthermair, their problems wi the set Burns set text selection, for some o them are gey leng, there seems an awful lot o them, and mibbie there’s an awful lot tae explain aboot 18th century Scotland? It can seen gey dauntin.

But shairly Shakspeare is even mair difficult, sae why this resistance or reluctance tae tak Burns work seriously? Is it jist the fact that monie teachers lack confidence in haunlin his language, or a maitter o educational snobbery an ignorance amang maist teachers that hiv been educatit in English or American literature, but no in the native languages an literature o Scotland? If that is whit their ain education has equippt them tae cope wi, can we really grummle when they often cannae see the pynt o takin Burns seriously at this level? Yet is his language really sae hard tae unnerstaun or owre auld farrant for oor ain young folk tae appreciate?

Possibly ane o the maist ironic aspects o the ABC o Scottish education (the annual Burns Competition) is the fact that for maist young Scots this has aye been the ane time o year when it was aw richt tae yaise the Scots tung in the classroom, because ti wis poetry an seen as the language o the past, but onie young Scot wha brocht real modern Scots intae the classroom, especially the urban varieties, wid suin ken how the "wee sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie" felt when it saw the ploughman,s "Murderin pattle!"

I think the ironies o this wid in fact hae been gey familiar to Burns, as it’s part o the same process o cultural condeetionin that he suffert fae himself: bein made tae feel that the native speech o Lowland Scotland is somehow "incorrect" or "inferior" tae Southern Standard English, rether than a series o closely relatit dialects or even as a kizzen language tae English, rether like Portugese an Spanish or Norwegian an Danish. Thus nearly aw the distinctive features o Scottish speech hae buin seen at best as quaint an couthie or at worst as the language o the sheuch, no fit for intelligent, educatit folk: a malign social an cultural cancer that is deeply rootit in oor education system, perpetuatin negative attitudes an ignorance aboot oor native language, an turnin Scotland into a linguistic minefield o snobbery an prejudice.

Nae wunner generations o Scottish weans hae buin made tae feel that they maun only speak "good" English an avoid nearly aw forms o Scots lik the plague, as if the "dinnae say ay" mentality wis implantit in their brains lik a genetic tumour. Nae wunner oor teachers see Burns as ower difficult an monie young Scots leuk on his language nearly as a foreign tung, an nae wunner the hail range o Scottish poetry is gey sair neglectit in oor schuils, never mind Burns.

Yet shairly it’s noo time tae see the inherent bi-lingualism o Scotland as a great cultural advantage, no as a handicap, valuin oor ability tae yaise some form o Scots as weel as Scottish Standard English. Furthermair I wid argue that until we stert teachin oor weans tae be confident, expressive an literate in baith (in fact whit 5–14 or Effective Learnin an Teachin baith imply) we will continue betrayin oor ain culture bi ignorin the very thing that made Burns a great poet: his expressive uiss o Scots that English cannae match, plus his linguistic brilliance in contrastin or combinin it wi English, or tae be mair precise, English as spoken bi a Scot, a skill he yaised tae great effect in his best work.

This neglect or ignorance o Burns an his language is really maist bamboozlin for a country that honours him as its "national bard". It is gey sad tae, for in spite o aw the bardolisin boak we sometimes hae tae thole, Burns is in fact a great poet: a brilliant satirist, a skeely letter writer in verse an prose, but abuin aw possibly ane o the greatest sang scrievers o aw time. Shairly we hae a duty as Scottish teachers tae try an bring the warmth, humour and virr o his words alive tae oor ain young folk, an tae let them discover that his work is still fu o life an relevant tae their world.

Nae doot we first need tae convince the teachers o aw this, but even if they are, how can we convince them that Burns is a realistic option as a set text etc at Higher? The first bit o advice is tae get haud o a daicent study guide, an while there are twa three on the market, ane advantage o the ASLS Scotnote is that it tries tae get roon the time problem bi coverin aw the skills an options for Revised Higher via the Burns poems, tho it can equally be yaised jist tae study ane or twa poems for the critical essay, as there are short notes an questions on each poem.

Afore actually readin the poems it’s important tae first mak the pupils better acquent wi Burns an his times an the ASLS guide tries tae dae this via a close readin exercise an a report on twa Burns articles bi David Daiches. Saicondly it’s essential that they hear a guid readin or tape o the poems (e.g. Scotsoun tapes or folk singers like Jean Redpath or Dougie MacLean etc) afore studyin them in onie depth, sae that their lugs gradually tune intae the soun o Burns language, afore gaun on tae read an study it for theirsels wi the help o a glossary, sae that bi the time they actually try tacklin the questions, they hae gradually owercome onie language problems, ane step at a time. Fae ma ain experience I prefer daein the poems first, owre a concentratit period o the first term, but leain the sangs tae twa or three sessions spread across the year, especially Januar, tae gie it a bit mair variety.

Tae help oor pupils relate Burns work tae Scottish culture o their ain day, an tae their ain linguistic development, we should try tae explain that, like maist writers, no everything he wrote wis great and this wisnae because he lacked skill or education. Like monie Scots he wis a product o a split culture, often torn atween his Scots identity an his "educated" English identity that taucht him the "proper" wey a gentleman an scholar shid speak an write (echoes o Chris in Sunset Song). In his desire tae be acceptit as a "man of letters" bi the gentry an posh Edinburgh critics o his age (the "literati") he often wrote in the rether flooery sentimental style that wis fashionable in English literature at the time, posing as the "man of feeling" for the benefit o "polite" society.

Indeed the Edinburgh literati advised him tae imitate the maist polished English poets o their age an tae avoid sae monie "Scotticisms" in his work as they saw their native tung as gey reuch an coorse, no fit for educated discourse. Ironically when Burns follaed their advice, the results are noo maistly unreadable, as is the work o ither Scottish poets o the time, no simply because it is aften written in gey posh English, but because it’s lang-windit, fu-breekit, gey fantoosh an fushionless. (No unlike some o the creative writin we aften see at H/S.Y.S. level?) As shuin as he sterts whit I wid caw his "all hailing" style, we ken no tae expect Burns at his maist leal-hertit. Furthermair, if he had aye follaed their advice, there’s nae wey we wid be celebratin him as oor national poet or as a symbol o oor identity.

Hooever the English influence wisnae aw negative, faur fae it, for at the same time he assimilatit monie positive features fae English literature (Pope an co.) that he was able to yaise creatively for his ain purposes, in fact mainly yaisin a mixture o plain English an Scots in his best work, wi ane complementin the ither rether than conflictin wi it, or sometimes yaisin a mair formal English for contrastin purposes, especially in his satires. Abuin aw, because o the conflictin cultural pressures he wrassled wi, he learnt tae play monie roles, wear monie masks as a writer, an developt muckle skill in exploitin an manipulatin different linguistic registers for different effects in his work.

Yet as Scots we shid aye be gratefu that Burns steyed true tae his ruits an trustit his ain instincts tae write aboot the world he kent best, in the language o his ain folk, drawin on the poetic pooer an smeddum o their tung, an especially their sangs. Fair kittled up bi the Scottish folk tradition he inheritit fae earlier Scottish makars an sangwriters, especially Ramsay, Fergusson an the great Anonymous, he wrote aboot the social an political realities o 18th century Scotland in a memorable wey an produced ane o the greatest bodies o folk sang in world literature, enablin him tae speak in a universal vyce tae the hail human race, as baith a great Scottish scriever an a great world writer at the same time. Thus we can mibbie begin tae relate Burns’ cultural divisions tae contemporary issues aboot language, culture an identity, that are still relevant tae Scotland the day.

In maist o these great poems, Burns unites the art an folk traditions of Scotland, but yaises a flexible mixture o Scots an English: earthy expressive Scots, as in Kate’s flytin, English as yaised by a Scot, includin a lot o Scots idioms, as weel as a mair elevatit English (e.g.the poet’s asides in Tam) tae create contrastin or distancin effects. These linguistic contrasts are in fact a key feature o his satirical technique, aften switchin fae a mair elevatit style back doon tae earthy or hamely Scots (e.g. To a Louse, Address to the Deil, Holy Willie) tae bring pride an pretension doon tae earth, or tae expose the truth. Indeed he often seems tae switch fae Scots tae English, or the ither wey roon, sae that the ane complements or adds tae the ither: e.g.we can see this in the skeely wey he switches fae hamely Scots tae abstract English in To a Mouse, but combines folk idioms an mair elevatit English in summin up his vision o life at the end.

Thus he exploits a hail double vocabulary an soun system, sometimes yaisin an English word for a rhyme, but mair aften Scots or a Scottish version o an English word (e.g. wuids an floods in Tam o Shanter) an tho at times it seems tae be optional, ye often hae tae ignore the spellin e.g."deep drowned in Doon", but drooned keeps the internal rhyme that is lost wi "drowned" or "that night a child might understand", whaur ye really need tae say it in Scots, for there is a world o difference in tone or mood atween ane an the ither.

Generally speakin his sangs seem tae yaise less Scots than his poetry, but in actual fact they often yaise mair Scots than it seems on the page, judgin bi the English spellin conventions that they are set doon in. While Scottish writers o the 17th–18th centuries were bein forced tae copy English spellin, if they wantit their work printit, we can often tell fae their rhymes etc that they said the word gey different fae how the spellt it. At the same time George Thomson, the editor o Select Scottish Airs wha thocht o himsel as a man o superior taste, wis aye tryin tae "improve" Burns’ songs, baith musically an verbally, as he considert some o Burns’ expressions ower reuch for polite lugs. Yet Burns’ replies tae him gie us a great insicht intae his art an feelins aboot language :

"I have not command of the language that I have in my native tongue – in fact I think that my ideas are more barren in English than in Scotish."

Altho Burns wis flexible aboot mixin Scots an English, often switching fae Scots tae English or vice versa, for the sake o the rhyme etc or sometimes jist yaisin "a sprinklin" o Scots tae mak it soon authentic, we oftenhae tae ignore spellin aw thegither. Indeed it fairly gars me grue tae hear words bein pronounct in English, whaur the rhyme scheme or ither soun patterns, e.g. vowel stress/repetition, show that they shid be said in Scots.

For example in Comin thro the Rye, if "body" is said in English it fairly chynges the meanin (a dead body?), as opposed tae the Scots "buddy"; or in Scots Wha Hae, whaur the rhyme scheme tells us that the last line has tae be "let us do or dee" (an no "die" as it is spellt); or in John Anderson "sleep thegither at the foot" is whit it says, but "foot" breks the vowel repetition o "ane anither ... thegither", sae "fit" fits better! Sometimes we can see fae the surroundin words that the English soun jist disnae fit, as in A Parcel o Rogues whaur "my auld grey head" really has tae be "heid", baith for the sake o the assonance, an the Scottish idiom "auld Heid".

Even whaur the pronunciation seems optional e.g. in Of a the Airts, "wild woods grow, and rivers row" is often rhymed as in the English row the boat, but the Scots word for the verb to roll is "rowe" (as in English row between people), sae it really has tae be "growe an rowe", fittin in wi "monie" in the next line, while if we say "woods" as in English, the internal rhyme o "wild wuids" is lost, as weel as the vowel repetition wi "rivers". At the same time "night" an "flight" in the followin line jist disnae match the alliteration o "day an nicht my fancy’s flicht", an this is generally true o maist "ght" words, lik "right" etc, that shid be pronounct "richt" etc, as in German.

Altho he sometimes jist yaises "a sprinklin o Scots", these few words often haud the key tae the mood an spirit o the sang, as we can see if we try tae pit some o the words intae English, for even jist ane or twa words can mak aw the difference: "One Fond Kiss" jist disnae soun richt, as it draps the lang vowel stress o "ae", while "You are not Mary Morison" chynges the tone an depth o feelin aw thegither. Nae wunner Hugh MacDiarmid said "Ye are na Mary Morison" were his favourite lines, for altho they are gey simple, in the context o the sang they speak volumes.

These differences are simply the differences atween ane language an anither, an the difficulties o translatin fae ane tae the ither, even when they are as closely relatit as Scots an English, for the life blood o the sang is often drained awa if they are pit intae English. The great English poet John Keats said that he sometimes needit six lines tae say whit Burns could say in ane, an a lot o this is due tae his brilliant uiss o the Scots tung: a concision an clarity via simple, but often subtle language, vivid concrete imagery an expressive folk idioms (key features in Scottish poetry). This verbal magic, combined wi musical genius, is whit gies his sangs their power, an their universal appeal. (see note on Auld Lang Syne in Scotnote: Robert Burns, p.25–26)

The great Medieval Scottish poet, Gavin Douglas, wrote that he wis happy tae yaise some Latin, French or English, "when scant wis his Scottis" an in some weys Burns carries on this tradition, yaisin a wide range o Scots, no only fae Ayrshire, but "fae aa the airts," plus some aulder Scots he learnt fae earlier writers, in effect a sort o "synthetic" Scots, in the sense o drawing thegither diverse elements.

In fact in his great poems an sangs, Burns yaises the hail range o language at his disposal: expressive Scots that can say things English cannae [ruitit in his ain Ayrshire tung, but extendit via the influence o his faither’s Nor East Doric, an fae his trevels an his readin, sometimes throwin in aulder Scots words learnt fae books or sangs]; his clear yaisage o English as spoken bi a Scot, an his ability tae combine it wi Scots, sae that his English contains Scots or sometimes vice versa, an the resultin mixture sometimes transforms baith wi a brilliant bi-lingual skill; or he can even fling in the odd Classical term or French word tae gie his language a scint o "bon ton" whaur he thocht fit.

Thus he yaised jist aboot as wide a spectrum o language as onie educatit Scot has ever yaised (apairt fae the Medieval Makars): naethin short o a linguistic triumph, considerin aw the cultural forces ranged agin him. Is this great linguistic achievement somethin we can afford tae neglect in oor schuils an is it really sae difficult tae unnerstaun?

Since Scots an English are really linguistic kizzens, wi aboot 90% compatability (or in ither words wi aboot 90% o the words we yaise common tae baith) a reuch estimate wid be that on average, (tho the amount varies a lot fae poem tae poem) aboot 90% o Burns poetry is written in "English" or Scottish forms o English words like "cannae"etc. Probably only aboot 10% are Scots idioms, an mibbie only aboot 5% o that needs a glossary, for the mair archaic or obscure words – in fact a lot less than Shakespeare. I suspect tae that the average student willnae hae tae leuk up a dictionar, whither Scots or English, onie mair for Burns than they will for onie ither great writer, an maist editions o Burns come wi a guid glossary. Naw the problem isnae really the language, but whit is (or isnae) inside some teachers’ heids!

Thus we hae a poet wha can still speak tae young Scots in a language that isnae really sae auld-farrant or difficult as it micht at first seem, an altho he deed nearly 200 year syne, he can still appeal tae youngsters the day. Yince they’ve got ower the 18th century backgruin, or difficult words, they’ll fin a writer wha cared deeply aboot monie o the things that young folk the day are fashed aboot: justice, freedom, human richts, luve in its widest (an sometimes wildest) sense, a concern for aw craiturs sharin oor wee planet, a maist warm-hertit luve o life an the joys o bein alive, haun in haun wi a deep compassion, tolerance, an hatred o everythin that is life denyin or demeanin, such as puirtith, grippieness, nerra-nebbitness, heepocrisy an fanaticism, qualities the world isnae likely tae rin oot o at the back en o this or onie ither century.

Altho there are still muckle problems tae be owercome in terms o teachers’ attitudes, there are at least hopeful signs on the horizon o a real chynge beginnin tae tak place, an it is noo Scottish Office policy tae support the study o Scottish language an culture at the 5-14 level, e.g. The Kist etc. Yet unless Scottish teachers learn tae value the language o aw Scottish weans as muckle as Burns did himsel, Scottish education will continue peyin lip service tae oor great national poet, an his "immortal memory" will become (if it hasnae awready) jist an archaic folk festival, insteid o a national treisure tae pass on tae the next generation. If we cuid manage tae bring that aboot, mibbie Robin wid be as prood o us, as we claim tae be o him. I can think o nae better wey tae mak his memory immortal amang his ain folk.

See also the ASLS Scotnote on Robert Burns.


Copyright © John Hodgart 1997


Last updated 19 August 2010.