It’s that time of year again, when Scots the world over celebrate the memory of our national bard, Robert Burns, on 25th January. Famous for his songs and poetry, Burns was also a hard-working farmer, then a reluctant exciseman (or 'gager') before his first collection ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ was published in 1786. Commonly known as The Kilmarnock Edition, the book brought him fame and saved him from making a proposed sea journey to work in the Indies.
Many of Burns’ words are still famous around the world, including Auld Lang Syne, Ae Fond Kiss, and My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose. I’ve always appreciated those poems that illustrate Burns’ humanity and empathy for his fellow man, or even for a small field mouse.
Verse two of 'To a Mouse' in particular is as relevant today as it was when penned.
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
His love of the lassies is also well documented, although he did marry Jean Armour in the end. Being of a romantic nature, I was always drawn more to his doomed love affair with Highland Mary (Mary Campbell), as her grave is in Greenock cemetery where my own grandparents lie buried. It’s no wonder my imagination took flight, and their story took root, when my mother used to point out that particular grave each time we passed by it.
So it was that my dual timeline novel, The Highland Lass, eventually came to fruition and publication some years ago. Set around Inverclyde, Dunoon and Ayrshire, the contemporary chapters see Eilidh Campbell seeking the answers to a family secret, while the alternate short chapters tell the (fictionalised) story of Robert Burns and Highland Mary in 1785-6.
For readers who prefer to know more about Burns’ life with his long-suffering and loyal wife, Jean Armour, you can check out Catherine Czerkawska’s well-researched novel, The Jewel.
My non-fiction collection, Scotland People and Places, also contains three Burns-related articles as well as lots of others about various people and places in Scotland.
Meanwhile, I’ll raise an imaginary dram to a man whose writing still has the power to entertain and move men and women more than two hundred and thirty years after his death.