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Robert Burns Lives!
An article by Billy Kay

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

Joy is a word reserved for few speakers and writers, but Billy Kay stands tall in this select group. His life and his work could be summed up as a “song of joy”. To say he is one of Scotland’s great chroniclers of its language and culture is not an exaggeration. This eloquent performer and broadcaster continues to dazzle his audiences year after year. He is an accomplished writer and author as well as an extraordinaire wordsmith.

Born in Ayrshire, Billy possesses an MA degree with Honours in English Language and Literature. He speaks French, German and Portuguese, and I would wager that somewhere there is also a wee bit of Scots and Spanish. At BBC he created the acclaimed Odyssey series of documentaries recording the oral history of the Scottish working class. Billy has written two plays for radio and one for the stage, as well as recently producing an average of ten new features per year for Radio Scotland. He has interviewed nearly 2,000 people from different walks of life and, like Robert Burns, he always brings out man’s humanity. His list of accomplishments and awards would take up several pages, so I will conclude by saying that our readers are in for a special treat.

Now I offer a heads-up to all who can take advantage of it. Next week, February 24-25, 2009, Billy will speak at the Symposium, Robert Burns at 250: Poetry, Politics & Performance at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. My wife Susan and I will be in attendance and look forward to seeing and talking with Billy Kay. For more information on him and his work, please visit

What Burns Means to Me
By Billy Kay

Like Burns, I wes born in Kyle jist ower the Irvine Watter fae Cunninghame, ma mither had grown up in Mauchline as a wee lassie, an aw the faimily except me were guid singers, sae Burns wes a leivin tradeition amang us ….sae here’s a few o ma memories…..

As a wean growin up in 1950’s Ayrshire, hearin the Kay boays – ma faither an his brithers  sing hert rendin Burns sangs at family getthegithers – Burns wes pairt o the culture o hous an hame….but at the schuil I wes gey awaur o the irony o winnin a prize an a pat on the heid ae day a year for recitin his poetry an getting skelpit on the hauns wi the tawse  the ither three hunder an sixty fower days for daurin tae speak his language in the classroom! Despite the dunts, we spoke the language an in the midst o a blether, visitors like ma mother’s frien Mrs White wad suddenly say, Burns had a word for it, then breenge intae reciting fae memory a lang screed fae The Vision.

On New Year’s morning, bein waukened up tae gae tae the windae an see Gawston Burgh Bawn an hear thaim playin Burns sangs like A Man’s a Man for  aw that, as weel as the anthem A Guid New Year tae ane and a’. They taigled outside oor windae because ma faither an ma sister at ae time played wi the Bawn…that they managed tae get yokit first thing in the morning efter a nichts carousing on Hogmanay, blaw their instruments an in the case o Wee Tammie, bang his drum wes nuthin less than heroic….an when I think o thaim I aye mind the Scots saw “A stout hert for a stey brae”

In 1968 as a 16 year Russian student on a Scottish schools trip, in the Dom Droozhba, the house House of Friendship in Leningrad and my surprise at seeing a whole room devoted to Burns...I was impressed by his image on their postage stamps - the UK  hadn’t quite got round to issuing their own Burns stamps at that time....

In a fisherman’s hut beside a palm girt beach in Batu Ferengi on the island of Penang, Malaya on January 25, 1975 when my fellow Ayrshire traveller Bill Campbell and I waylaid an astonished Australian backpacker called Steve an inflicted an imporomptu Burns Supper upon him …the half bottle of malt we had kept for the occasion made Steve a willing victim as Bill sung Ae Fond Kiss, and I recited Tam.

I recited it again two months later with an old Scots gentleman in Oahu who had left Coupar Angus in a horse and cart to go work in the sugar industry on the Big Island of Hawaii where the sugar plantation area of Hamakua was known as the Scotch Coast.  I also learned to play Scots Wha Hae on the practice chanter, taught by the redoubtable Aggie Wallace, Grande  Dame  of Hawaii’s Scottish community.

The joy of working with singers like Rod Paterson and musicians like Derek Hoy and Norman Chalmers on performances of The Scottish World as the beauty and power of Burns songs soar up and recalling Mary Slessor’s African helper’s reaction to the emotion they generate….I don’t like these songs…they make my heart big and my eyes water.”

The pride an happiness o hearin ma dochter Catriona sing The Lea Rig at ma niece’s waddin in the hert o the Burns country….the  lowin emotion generated when my sister Mary sang  “Ae fond kiss an then we sever” at ma faither’s funeral…an the knowledge that the words carved on ma mither an  faither’s heidstane say mair than ocht, ony o us could write oorsels….”Till a’ the seas gang dry.” (FRS: 2.16.09)

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