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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 9


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

One of the great pleasures of editing Robert Burns Lives! is the opportunity to meet people throughout the global Scottish community who love Robert Burns. In this issue, you will hear from Peter Westwood, Castle Douglas, Scotland, the distinguished Editor of the Burns Chronicle and author of several books. Peter has taken time from finishing a new set of books on Burns to furnish this article for our readers. It is extremely rare that an author working on his or her next book will stop to provide an article for Robert Burns Lives!  In the next issue, David Smith, Hon. Secretary of the Burns Howf Club, will present our guest column. The Howf Club is located in the building that houses The Globe Inn that was frequented by Burns. David has been Hon. Secretary of the Club for 30 years! Gladly do we sit at the feet of these men to learn more about Robert Burns. I deeply appreciate the contributions they make to this column that now receives as many emails as the book reviews or the “Chats” with authors.

Robert Burns – Country Dancer
By Peter J. Westwood, Editor, Burns Chronicle 

Peter J. Westwood

Over the years many questions have been asked about the social life of Scotland’s National Bard, Robert Burns. It is a well-known fact that he was socially popular even as a teenager and country dancing was early on his list of social activities to the extent that he defied the wishes of his father by joining a local country dancing class.  In his autobiographical letter to Dr. Moore, he stated: “In my 17th year, to give my manners a brush, I went to a country dancing school.  My father had an unaccountable antipathy against these meetings; and my doing was, what to this hour I spent, in absolute defiance of his commands.”

            His brother Gilbert was later to say, “Robert excelled in dancing, and was for some time distractedly fond of it.  It was at a dance during April 1785 that Burns first met Jean Armour who was eventually to become his wife.

            Many stories have been repeated over the years about what the Poet may or may not have said or been responsible for. One story on the subject of dancing which originated from one of the Poet’s schoolmates, William Niven, goes as follows:

            A week before a local fair, Robert suggested to his friend William that they should organise a dance on the evening prior to the fair, and hold it in one of the public houses in the village and invite their girlfriends to come along.  William consented and it was agreed that some other young men should be asked to join in on this undertaking.

            The dance took place as planned, music being supplied by a hired band (probably a local fiddler) and a dozen couples took part. At the close of the dance they found that the cost of running the evening amounted to eighteen shillings and fourpence.  Unfortunately, hardly any of those attending had any money, except William, who possessed about two shillings and sixpence.  However the problem was eventually solved when William agreed to find the money to pay for the dance. He did this by selling stationery to the school which he acquired from his father’s warehouse in Maybole. He also sold pens and paper to his friends. It is not known whether or not these items were acquired officially!


Sketch by John Mackay

            Words associated with the many forms of dancing and singing crop up from time to time, not only in the many songs and poems of Robert Burns, but also in his correspondence, particularly in his letters to James Johnston (Scots Musical Museum) and to George Thomson (Select Scottish Airs).

            More than anyone else Burns was responsible for the survival of hundreds of Scottish tunes including those used for dancing, many of them still in vogue today. Verses from the Poet’s tale, “Tam o’Shanter” and his song “The Deil’s awa wi th’ Exciseman” provide excellent examples on the theme of dancing.

“Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae Cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.” 

“There’s threesome reels, there’s foursome reels,
There’s hornpipes and strathspeys, man,
But the ae best dance e’er cam to the land
Was the Deil’s awa wi th’ Exciseman”. 

            The Poet’s love of dancing was largely due to his fondness of the lasses and this can be seen in a number of his songs.  In his “Bonnie Jean” he remarks:

“He gaed wi Jeanie to the Tryste (Cattle-Fair)
He danc’d wi Jeanie on the down,
And, lang ere witless Jeanie wist,
Her heart was tint, her peace was stown!” 

            The subject of the song was not his wife Jean, but Jean McMurdo, daughter of the Chamberlain of Drumlanrig Castle.  In his “Fragment on Maria” he pays compliment to Maria Riddell, who could possibly have been a dancing partner:

“How gracefully Maria leads the dance!
She’s life itself; I never saw a foot
So nimble and so elegant.  It speaks
And the sweet whispering Poetry it makes
Shames the musician.” 

            During the Poet’s tour of the Highlands in 1787 he met Niel Gow, the famous fiddler, equally well known in Scots song and dance. The Poet’s song “Amang the Trees” was intended as a compliment to Niel:

“Amang the trees, where humming bees
At buds and flowers were hinging, O,
Auld Caledon drew out her drone,
And to her pipe was singing, O.
‘Twas pibroch, sang, strathspeys and reels
She dirl’d them aff fu clearly, O,
When there cam a yell o freign squeels,
That dang her tapsalteerie, O!” 

            My final quotation comes appropriately from “The Ploughman” which is a typical example of Burn’s reworking of a traditional song:

“I hae been east, I hae been west,
I hae been at Saint Johnston, (Perth)
The boniest sight that er’e I saw
Was th’ ploughman laddie dancin’.
Snaw-white stockins on his legs,
And siller buckles glancing;
A gude blue bonnet on his head,
And O but he was handsome!” 

            Let George Thomson have the final words:

            “Mr. Burns, whose enthusiasm for Caledonian Music and Song, was only equaled by his poetical talents, no sooner heard of the Editor’s plan, than he signified his warm approbation of it, and in the most liberal and cordial manner undertook to contribute every aid in his power for rendering the Collection as complete as possible. He has performed what he promised in a manner that transcends the sanguine expectations formed by the Editor, having enriched the Work with the most exquisite Songs, both Scottish and English, that exist in any language; they exhibit all the charms of the Poet’s genius in the utmost variety both of serious and humorous composition; and every intelligent reader will contemplate his luxuriant fancy, his ardent feeling, and manly sentiment, and the impressive energy and simplicity of his style, with equal wonder and delight. All his tender and impassioned Songs breathe the genuine, glowing, unaffected language of the heart; while the scenes, the manners, the innocence, and the pleasures of rural life, are portrayed with a pencil so true to nature, as to engage our warmest sympathies and admiration.”  (1/6/2004)


Return to February/March 2004 Index Page | See Robert Burns Lives!

 


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