Robbie Burns Day –January 25

Robert Burns
Robert Burns – image from BBC Robert Burns

Oh, wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursel’s as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And e’en devotion!

To A Louse ( On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church)”  Robert Burns 1786.  
From the Ontario Reader: The High School Reader 1886 (1)

Everyone of Scottish descent in nineteenth-century Canada would have known some lines from Robert Burns. My Heart’s in the Highlands (1789) would have been a favourite for the Flemings, whose Scottish homeland was Perthshire in the Highlands.

My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

Burns’s Night

The Fleming family would surely have celebrated Robert Burns’s birthday on January 25. To this day members of the Scottish diaspora (and their associates) around the world gather for an evening of bagpipes, music, highland dance, recitation of Burns’s poems, and the traditional dinner of haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). A Scottish friend has provided this account of the event.

The haggis is piped in, borne aloft and accompanied by various officials and dignitaries and the Whisky Bearer. Then the Maister o’ Ceremonies intones 

“My lords, ladies and gentlemen! Pray silence for our Haggis Maister Scottie MacKiltface who will salute our guest-of-honour before disemboweling it with the dirk tucked neatly into his right-legged Highland hose.”

Picture of haggis on a serving plate being pierced by a dagger. Drams of whiskey are in four small glasses nearby.
Cutting the Haggis (2)

Address to a Haggis:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

Burns and the Flemings

Robert Burns, the beloved national bard of Scotland was born January 25, 1759, in Alloway Ayrshire and died 37 short years later in 1796. Today most recognize Burns only for Auld Lang Syne but in the 1800s and into the 1900s his poems and songs were in every home library and a distinct part of the Scottish heritage in Canada.

When Roy Fleming, his uncle James, cousin Minnie, and aunt Jennie travelled to Scotland in 1903 they spent four days in the Ayrshire in and around Alloway, Burns’ birthplace. They could recite the humourous, epic poem Tam O’Shanter and the pastoral, moving narrative The Cotter’s Saturday Night. Roy’s second cousin John Stuart Fleming used the first line of “The Cotters Saturday Night”—“My lov’d, my honour’d, much respected friend!” as a maxim for a yearbook in 1913 when he was at Queen’s University.

In 1910, C.A. Fleming placed the lovely Bonnie Doon on page 5 of his collection of Old Favorite Songs. C.A. printed songbooks and distributed them free as part of the promotion of his Northern Business College in Owen Sound. (3) Listen to this timeless classic sung with a Scottish sensitivity by Madelaine Cave.

Burns Poems and Songs

The musicality of Burns’s verses with their simple rhythm and strong rhyme would find an ear in the Flemings.  We see this quality in the first verse of “Sweet Afton” (1789).

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

The delicacy of the phrasing is parsed in this analysis of the poem.

The first line invokes the gentle movement of the river in nature: “Flow gently, Sweet Afton, among thy green braes’; and the second adds a reference to that other flow, the flow of the poet’s song: ‘Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song of praise’. Third comes the addition, the variation – a thought of a girl by the river side: ‘My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream.’ Then the poet, empowered by love and his control of words, can daringly aspire to control of the river , can boldly give it its orders: ‘Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.’ (4)

Waterston, Rapt in Plaid, p. 17

Generations of Ontario high school students read “Sweet Afton” and other Burns’s works from the Ontario Reader Book IV—a text consisting of excerpts from classic English literature. (5)

School children learned the patriotic song of “Scots Wha Hae” (1794) from the Fourth Ontario Reader in 1880, 1883, 1884, 1885, and 1925 — an address by Robert Bruce to his troops at Bannockburn in a battle (1315) against the English. The poem had a republican ring.

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led;
Welcome to your gory bed,
         Or to victory!

Burns, from his childhood of hardship and struggles as a tenant farmer, had deep care and sympathy for the poor and powerless.  His egalitarianism comes through in “A man’s a man for a’ that” (1794) as he rejected the view that a man’s worth was in wealth or status and put forward honesty and integrity as the important qualities (6). Ontario students at the close of WWI probably cheered. (7)

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


Despite the disappearance of Burns’s poems from Canadian schoolbooks after World War I, his poems continued to be popular and copied by others. Gerson and Wilson (8) questioned if this “gap” was due to “his controversial personal life or to his democratic radicalism,” or was he marginalized because he was Scottish rather than English? (8, p.128)  Independent of school curriculum, Burns’s festivities fostered Scottish bonds and kept Burns’s cultural and political influence alive into the 1900s. (8 pp.122–123)

However, Burns’s influence in Victorian and Edwardian Canada extended beyond the literary; his humanitarian ideals served as an impetus for benevolent work and social justice, while festitivies in his honor reinforced a sense of communal identity for middle-class Scottish immigrants and provided occasion for celebration of their ethnic origins. (8)

Gerson and Wilson, “Presence of Robert Burns …,” p. 129

A Virtual Celebration

Youtube brings to us a Robert Burns Night Virtual Celebration by the “Dark Isle Bagpipe” as she recites, sings, and pipes the four poems: Sweet Afton, The Banks of the Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, My Heart is in the Highlands.

References and Notes

1. Project Gutenberg has a digital copy of the Ontario Reader 1886.
2. Image for Cutting the Haggis — Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Old Favorite Songs (No. 3), Owen Sound: Northern Business College. Digitized at the Internet Library from the Thomas Fisher Canadiana Collection.
4. Waterston, Elizabeth. Rapt in Plaid: Canadian Literature and Scottish Tradition. United Kingdom: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Google Books preview
5. “Sweet Afton” is listed in the editions of the Ontario Reader for 1880, 1885, 1925, 1937 – and may have been in others I didn’t locate.
6. The website Poem Analysis has an excellent line-by-line analysis of the poem “For A’ That”. See Baldwin, Emma. “A Man’s A Man for A’ That by Robert Burns”. Poem Analysis Accessed 24 January 2022.
7 “For A’ That” was in editions for 1880, 1884 and 1885 of the Ontario Reader (though not the 1886) and was in 1919. It was dropped by 1925. Ontario texts used the title “For A’ That and A’ That”; many others use “A Man’s a Man.” Also known as “Is There For Honest Poverty.”
8. Gerson, Carole and Susan Wilson. “Chapter 7 – The Presence of Robert Burns in Victorian and Edwardian Canada” in Alker, Sharon et al. Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture. Routledge, 2016 — Google Books preview

Sources for Robert Burns’s poems and songs:
– BBC: Robert Burns
– Poetry Foundation: Robert Burns
– Alexandria Burns Club

One thought on “Robbie Burns Day –January 25

  1. This comment is from Ruth (Fleming) Larmour who knew the poem Tam O’Shanter well. She wrote —

    At one time I could recite, from memory, every word of Tam”O Shanter. Now I have to read it. When my father [Bruce Fleming] first introduced me to “The Poems of Robert Burns “I was enthralled with the story but at the same time terrified the witch would kill Maggie!!

    My father had a wonderful toast he used to recite whenever there was a gathering where alcoholic beverages were served ..It ended with a warning “when err to drink you are inclined or Cutty Sarks run in your mind….think ye may buy your joys o’er dear, remember Tam o Shanter’s mare”!!


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