Alistair talking on Burns






[0:00] – Penny
That was My Love is like a Red, Red Rose by sung by Kenneth McKellar. And we’re playing this today because we’ve got Alistair Mills in the studio with us to explain all about Burns Night, which is next Wednesday, the 25 January, and why we care about Robbie Burns, who died or was born in the 1750s and he was a poet, but he wrote that song. He wrote the words to that song, and many, many songs. And, Alistair, you live in Lamborn for many years, but you come from the same part of Scotland as Robbie Burns. And please, please tell us why we’re talking about him right now.

[0:45] – Alistair
Well, he was quite a remarkable man. He was born in poverty outside the town of Ayr, in a place called Alloway, and today there’s a museum and everything, of course, to his memory. He was extremely prolific, and he wrote a lot of poetry, some of which was written in standard English, but most of it was written in the Lowland Scots that he spoke at home. And when he was a young man, aged about 25, he was seriously considering going to live in Jamaica, in the West Indies. But he didn’t go because while he was waiting for a passage to go to the West Indies, someone who knew of his work suggested that they publish a book of it and the book was extremely successful and it brought him to a kind of national prominence in Scotland. And he then had invitations to go to Edinburgh, where he met the great and the good and the aristocracy and so on. It must be said that he wasn’t particularly impressed with the aristocracy in Scotland.

[1:57] – Penny
So, he was a working-class lad who got a good enough education to be able to become a poet.

[2:04] – Alistair
His father valued education and although by comparison to the amount of education we go in for today, he couldn’t have had that much education. Nevertheless, he was very prolific with words, and he didn’t only write on paper, he even wrote on windows in the places where he used to live. There’s still the glass in the windows which were scratched with poetry. He wrote on the windowpanes with a diamond ring, which someone had given him.

[2:36] – Penny
Wow. So, the owners of the houses, they’re not going to touch those windows, they’ve been kept?

[2:42] – Alistair
That’s correct. If you go to the house where he died, which is a museum, he died in Dumfries, the original windowpanes are still doing their job in the windows, but they’ve actually got scratchings by the Bard himself.

[2:58] – Penny
Wow, that’s cool. It must be a cold house, because I bet, they were single glazed.

[3:03] – Alistair
Single grazed. But people were fairly hardy in these days, before central heating. And Robert Burns died at the age of about 36 or 37, I think. And it’s not that clear why he died, because, of course, we don’t have good medical records. But I think during childhood there was something of a famine in Scotland and I think it did permanent damage to his body and he died. Although I don’t think it really helped that part of the treatment for whatever illness he had, involved bathing in the sea near Dumfries in the month of May and I think it was kind of chilly. And the day after having been for a swim such as that, he actually died. When he died, the population of Dumfries was about 6000 people and yet 10,000 people were at his funeral. And there was no mass communication in these days. There was no railway or anything. So that 10,000 people managed to get to his funeral was surprising.

[4:17] – Penny
Well, but that just goes to show how loved he was.

[4:22] – Alistair
He was extremely popular man and of course he was very well known at that time because of these books which he had written of Scot’s poetry.

[4:32] – Penny
Was he talking about his life and did people feel like he was representing them? I don’t know what his poetry is actually about.

[4:40] – Alistair
I think that’s right. I think he was something like Betjeman. Jon Betjeman wrote poetry about things that ordinary people can understand, like company cars and friendly bombs and Slough and things like that. And he was somewhat similar. He wrote about things that people could understand, everyday experience. He wasn’t an intellectual or anything; even although he was clearly very gifted.

[5:11] – Penny
Okay, yes, but he might have made some enemies in his time if he didn’t like the aristocracy. Did he take a pop at people?

[5:22] – Alistair
Quite so. In more than one of his poems. He didn’t like hypocrisy and he was also fairly keen on the French Revolution. He died not that long after. The French Revolution started in 1789 and he died seven years later. And he had quite a lot to say about the French Revolution and he was generally supportive of the idea of men are created equal.

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