Burns Night? Rabbie Burns wouldn’t have bothered. Too quaint, too kitsch, all those endless Immortal Memories, those cheesy Addresses to the Lassies; the dreary drone of the bagpipes (akin to a fire-in-a-pet-shop) and the clichéd caricature of what a Scot is.
If the great Robert Burns was alive today, he’d probably think it’s all a bit sh1t.
To really remember Rabbie, arrange an altogether more anarchic affair. By all means hail the haggis – boiled stomach stuffed with suet, salt and various bits of sheep with some root vegetables, epitomized eighteenth century epicurean Scotland.
And keep the kilt/no underpants combo too. While outlawed as rebellious clobber for much of Burns life, he would have applauded such a sartorial display of individual free will – not to mention the extra ease of access that it endowed.
A prolific philander with a legendary libido, Burns was monogamous in neither his love life nor in his choice of drink. He reached for ale, claret, port, rum and brandy yet it was whisky that whetted his creative appetite.
The malted muse steadied the trigger finger on his sharp-shooting wordy gun, its crosshairs pointed firmly at the temples of the hypocritical Scottish Church; the State, class inequality and pretty much anything or anyone that undermined the pride and the value of the common man.
Burns was an eighteenth century blue-collar bard. More bawdy than Shakespeare with more wit than the watered-down Wordsworth, he was the original modern poet, a libertarian lyricist who’s better compared to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or, indeed, the aptly named Bon Scott, the late, lead singer of AC/DC – who died in a Renault 5 following a quite epic drinking session.
Both Scott and Burns died in their 30s but Burns was a decent drinker yet, crucially, he wasn’t a drunk. As a teenager he “learned to look unconcernedly on a large tavern bill, and mix without fear in a drunken squabble” and throughout his life, he regularly “impressed into the service of Bacchus”
There exist very few accounts of Burns being overly-intoxicated in the taverns of Edinburgh. He was measured in his measures, contained in his cups and seldom unruly or rowdy, instead embracing all the advantageous aspects of intoxication – especially the imaginative freedom gave to his pen and, indeed, his penis.
Whisky percolated throughout Burns prose and having spent his early years ploughing and seeding the infertile soil on his father’s Ayreshire farm, he cherished the transubstantiation of fermented grain into the fiery water of life – as depicted in “John Barleycorn”, his earliest ode to Scotland’s national drink.
“John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!”
The joys of the grain, compared with those of the grape, are celebrated a few years later in his poem “Scotch Drink”, a 21-verse celebration of Scotch whisky and the simple life, which deftly blends bacchanalian poetry with a cursing condemnation of Calvinism, a rage against alcoholic imports, and an attack on the evils of Excise, lamenting in particular the loss of Ferintosh distillery and its tax-free status (Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!) All while weaving in some rather decent rhymes too.
Let other poets raise a fracas
‘Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus
An’ crabbit names an’ stories wrack us
An’ grate our lug
I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us
In glass or jug
O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink
In glorious faem
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink
To sing thy name!
In “The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer Freedom”, he took further umbrage with the government’s taxation on Scotch with the memorable maxim freedom an’ whisky gang thegither (go together).
This proved rather awkward when, some years later, he was employed as a tax-collecting excise man in and around Dumfries. While he collected money on everything from tea and tobacco to salt, soap, candles and coffee, Burns turned a blind eye to the widespread dealings of illicit alcohol among his associates and, aged just 37 and leaving at least twelve children behind, he proudly went to his grave having never demanded a single penny in duty from a whisky distiller.