A Man’s A Man for A’ That

OK, it’s been some months since my last post.  Why?  Well, I basically got tired of looking for topics (or angles on topics) to write about, that weren’t already being covered by at least one, far more well known and popular blogger than me.  There didn’t seem to be much point in rehashing the same old stuff that was being done by others.  The thing is though, I’ve kind of missed it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoyed doing it.  So, I’ve decided to get back into it.  I may not post as often as I used to, and I may cover other things than just Scottish politics.  I don’t really care so much if nobody reads it.  I’m doing it for myself anyway.  Now, that said, let’s get to today’s piece.

Today (Jan 25th) in Scotland we celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns.  I write this in honour of the immortal bard, on “Burns Nicht” (and in order to illustrate the attempted cultural appropriation, stupidity, and irony, of Theresa May’s unionist Burns Night supper, and her claims of Burns night being a “part of our enduring union”).

Burns is regarded as the national poet of Scotland and is celebrated worldwide (ever heard people singing “Auld Lang Syne” at new year?  That’s Burns.  He is the best known of the poets who have written in the Scots language, although much of his writing is (as in the case below) a mixture of English and Scots, to make it more accessible to an audience in the rest of the world.

He also wrote sometimes in Standard English, particularly for an audience in England, usually when writing bluntly about political or civil issues in the newly created United Kingdom. He often wrote about things that are still very much issues today, that other poets/writers ignored for fear of incurring the wrath of the Establishment, and in many ways, was centuries ahead of his time.

Despite the ludicrous claims of some unionists, Theresa May included, Burns was vehemently anti-union, and anti-British Establishment.  He wrote in 1790:

I have long said to my self, what are the advantages Scotland reaps from this so called Union, that can counterbalance the annihilation of her independence and her very name?
It is true that, at times, Burns seemed to express pro-union sentiments, and these are often quoted by those unionists trying to claim that he would have been one of them.  It has to be remembered though, that he did not live in our times.  In the 1700’s, the union was but a young fledgling.  It was by no means popular in Scotland.  By the time Burns was born, every Scottish MP in Westminster who had originally signed the treaty of union, had voted for it’s repeal, and there had been two armed rebellions in Scotland, in 1715 and 1745.

Add to that background the French revolution, and the fear among the British ruling class that such dangerous ideas of democracy might spread to Britain, and you have a dangerous time to be a radical.  The Government was paranoid, and it’s spies were watching.  Burns was threatened by the Westminster government with charges of sedition in 1794, for his writings against the union and Establishment. He started to temper his writing from then on, but continued to write letters and articles under assumed names.

The sedition threat was partly in response to his writing, the previous year, of “Scot’s, Wha Hae”. The song, which served as Scotland’s unofficial national anthem before being supplanted by the awful dirge we sing at Rugby matches now (ok, personal view), is ostensibly an address by Robert the Bruce before the battle of Bannockburn. In truth however, it was a covert statement of support for the radical Thomas Muir, who was himself on trial for sedition at the time, and was deported to Australia soon after, but later escaped.  Burns wrote the song on the day Muir’s trial commenced.

Burns’ apparently pro-union statements have to be interpreted in the context of that time, and the very real fear of being arrested for sedition or treason.

Burns was a pioneer of the romantic movement.  He wrote about equality before it was popular to do so.  He basically wrote about socialism before the word existed, and was an inspiration to later socialist thinkers.

In a 2009 STV poll, Burns was voted “The Greatest Scot” of all time, narrowly beating William Wallace.

The poem that follows might not seem particularly radical in today’s light, but in the late 1700’s it most certainly was.  In particular, the line about an honest man being above the might of a king would have been a dangerous sentiment to express.

Some Scots and obscure words to assist reading:

puir – poor
guinea stamp – the stamp on the coin
gowd – gold
hamely – homely
hodden grey – coarse, un-dyed wool worn by the poor
gie – give
sae – so
birkie – a lively/fine/grand fellow
ca’d – called
wha – who
cuif – idiot/simpleton/fool
abune – above
maunna fa’ – mustn’t fail
bear the gree – take the prize

A Man’s A Man For A’ That

By Robert Burns

Is there for honest poverty, That hangs his head and a’ that,
The coward slave we pass him by, We dare be puir for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea stamp; The man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What tho’ on hamely fare we dine, Wear hodden grey an’ a’ that,
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine, A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, Their tinsel, show, an’ a’ that,
The honest man tho’ e’er sae puir, Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord, Wha struts and stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word, He’s but a cuif, for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, His ribbon star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind, he looks and laughs at a’ that.

A king can mak’ a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that,
But an honest man’s abune his might, Gude faith he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, the pride o’ worth, Are higher ranks than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may, As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth, May bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that, It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That man to man the warld o’er, Shall brothers be for a’ that.

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