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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter III - Lyric Poetry in Scotland


The first remarkable fact about Scottish lyrics is that they are more numerous than those of any other country either in ancient or in modern times.

Ballad poetry has sprung up like magic wherever Scotsmen have settled. Some eighteen or twenty large volumes have been collected of Scottish verse, patriotic or narrative or sentimental; and in the entire collection there is no twaddle.

A North countryman once averred that there were many kinds of whiskey; some sorts were better than others - but none was bad. So we may appraise these Northern ballads. They vary much - but there is not one without beauty or force. Then we must not forget their strange intensity and deep feeling. They often express an emotion in a decisive, finished, almost perfect form - and that in a single verse. While unequal and rugged, in parts even monotonous and prosy, they burst forth in places, by some mysterious power of emotion or imagination, into verses memorable and moving in the last degree.

Hate and love, tenderness and despair, find expression in phrases and figures that, without strain or effort, are in their way final. They seem like the last thing that can be said. They cannot be improved upon, and there is a kind of thrill even in the homeliest of these songs that reveals a masterful and fervid temperament.

Burns's poem - which has become a classic -"O my luve is like a red, red rose", derives its popularity from the national responsiveness to sentiment. Could anything be simpler than the following:

O my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June;
O my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only luve !
And fare-thee-weel a while !
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' 'twere ten thousand mile.

Burns, of course, wields a magic pen. But he is not alone. While few attain his incomparable brevity and pathos, there is a host of writers who know how to invest their ballads with wistful simplicity and a strange glamour.

On a different plane of emotion from the song of Burns just quoted, is the haunting tenderness of Motherwell's Jeanne Morrison, which carries with it an indescribable atmosphere. It brings us to the very heart of the Lowlands. And there are hundreds of poems like his.

I've wandered east, I've wandered west,
Through mony a weary way;
But never, never can forget
The luve o' life's young day !

O dear, dear Jeanie Morrison,
The thochts o' bygane years
Still fling their shadows ower my path,
And blind my een (een = eyes) wi' tears:

They blind my een wi' saut, saut tears,
And sair and sick I pine,
And memory idly summons up
The blithe blinks o' langsyne. (langsyne = long ago)

'Twas then we luv't ilk ither weel,
'Twas then we twa did part;
Sweet time - sad time; twa bairns at scule,
Twa bairns, and but ae heart !

'Twas then we sat on ae laigh bink, (ae laigh bink = one low)
To leir ilk ither leir; (leir ilk ither leir = teach one another to learn)
And tones and looks and smiles were shed,
Remembered evermair.

I wonder, Jeanie, aften yet,
When sitting on that bink,
Cheek touchin' cheek, loof locked in loof, (loof = hand)
What our wee heads could think,

When baith bent doun owre ae braid page, (owre ae braid page = over one broad page)
Wi'ae buik (wi'ae buik (pronouced buk) = with one book) on our knee,
Thy lips were on thy lesson, but
My lesson was in thee.

O, mind ye, luve, how aft we left
The deavin', (deaving = deafening) dinsome toun,
To wander by the green burn side,
And hear its waters croon? (croon = sing murmuringly)

The simmer leaves hung ower our heads,
The flowers burst round our feet,
And in the gloamin' o' the wood
The throssil whusslit sweet;

The throssil whusslit (throssil whusslit = blackbird whistled) in the wood,
The burn sang to the trees -
And we, with nature's heart in tune,
Concerted harmonies;

And on the knowe (the knowe abune the burn = the hill above the stream) abune the burn
For hours thegither sat,
In the silentness o' joy, till baith
Wi' very gladness grat.

Ay, ay, dear Jeanie Morrison,
Tears trinkled doun your cheek
Like dew-beads on a rose, yet nane
Had ony power to speak!

I marvel, Jeanie Morrison,
Gin (gin = if) I hae been to thee
As closely twined wi' earliest thochts
As ye hae been to me?

O, tell me gin their music fills
Thine ear as it does mine !
O, say gin e'er your heart grows grit (grit. The heart is said to be grit when one is ready to cry.)
Wi' dreamings o' langsyne?

O, dear, dear Jeanie Morrison,
Since we were sindered young
I've never seen your face, nor heard
The music o' your tongue;

But I could hug all wretchedness,
And happy could I dee,
Did I but ken your heart still dreamed
O' bygane days and me!

Nor is it gentle winsomeness alone that finds so full an echo in the great body of Scottish ballad verse. On a higher level still we have a whole class of poems touched with religious emotion and solemn like the cadences of Baroness Nairne's verse in "The Land o' the Leal."

A dying woman consoles her husband thus:

I'm wearin' awa', John,
Like snaw-wreaths in thaw, John,
I'm wearin' awa'
To the land o' the leal.

There's nae sorrow there, John,
There's neither cauld (cauld = cold) nor care, John,
The day is aye fair
In the land o' the leal.

Our bonnie bairn's there, John,
She was baith guid and fair, John,
And O! we grudged her sair
To the land o' the leal:

But sorrow's sel' (sorrow' sel' = sorrow itself) wears past, John,
And joy's a-comin' fast, John,
The joy that's aye to last
In the land o' the leal.

O! dry your glist'ning e'e, John,
My soul langs to be free, John,
And angels beckon me
To the land o' the leal.

O! haud ye leal (leal = loyal) and true, John,
Your day it's wearin' thro', John,
And I'll welcome you
To the land o' the leal:

Now fare ye weel, my ain John,
This warld's cares are vain, John,
We'll meet and we'll be fain (fain = fond, loving)
In the land o' the leal.

Surely a land that produces an abundance of such poems is by no means hard-hearted or unsympathetic. But the fire burns deep below the surface.


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