What would Burns have made of modern life?

I began my last letter by remarking on how fast the Yule time comes and goes. Now Burns’ Day has been and gone, and before we know where we are the first two months of winter — December and January — are behind us.

Maybe, though, we should remember that the old folk used to say: “As the day lengthens, the cowld strengthens.”

But in these days of global warming, anything can happen, with the old sayings seemingly having less and less significance.

George Mackay Brown, when he was writing those marvellous short essays for The Orcadian (Under Brinkie’s Brae), often paid a tribute to Robbie Burns.

I’ve been looking over some of the comments he made. He says, for instance, that: “He will always, for me, be one of the great poets.”

Then again in another letter: “So, when the Kilmarnock Edition (of poems) was published, Scotland had suddenly a new hero, who reminded the Scots of their past glories, and put strength and joy back into their threatened language, and at the same time appealed to new stirrings in the human heart: the notion of the dignity of all men and women, even the poorest and the humblest.

The vision went deeper, until all of creation was involved: the mouse and the mountain daisy are made of the same dust as men.”

On Saturday, January 27, we celebrated Burns. Evelyn Gray, president of the North Ronaldsay Community Association, welcomed a company of upwards of 50 folk, islanders and friends from the Mainland, and the association’s seven invited guests, all of whom contributed to the Burns programme, and to the dance that followed.

Vivia Leslie was our main speaker. Her husband, Allan, gave the Address to the Haggis. Lesley McLeod played fiddle selections, and her husband, Alastair, proposed the Toast to the Lasses. Mark Wemyss was the piper.

Dave Linklater (accordion) and his mother, Elsie, (piano) played for the dance, as, of course, did Lesley and Mark.

Of no less importance was John Cutt, Gerbo, with Jenny Mainland and Ella Henderson, who are former islanders, coming from the Mainland, where they now live, and being asked to contribute to the programme at the 11th hour. But more of their participation in a minute.

To the skirl of the pipes, in marched Mark Wemyss in his Stromness Pipe Band uniform, playing A Man’s A Man for A’ That followed by the chief cook, Winnie Scott carrying the haggis.

Both received a civil dram. Allan Leslie gave a spirited and very competent Address to the Haggis and John Cutt recited the Selkirk Grace, before the traditional Burns supper.

Then, after the meal, in candle and oil lamp illumination, Vivia Leslie, rose to propose the Immortal Memory.

She took as her theme the love songs of Burns, tracing the life of the poet. She touched upon many aspects of his life: his humanity, how he brought Scotland’s history back to life, the collection of some 370 airs and tunes, his great ability to combine tunes and words.

Interspersed between those, and many other tributes, Vivia sang with much expression three of his songs: Whistle and I’ll come to you my Lad, The Braw Wooer, and, as she said, one of Burns’ greatest and most moving songs, John Anderson my Jo.

Also, through the eulogy, she led the communal singing, with accompaniment from Lesley and Dave, of four other favourites: Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes, The Banks o’ Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, and My Love is like a Red, Red Rose.

In Burns’ songs, Vivia believes, one can see and understand the man, and his songs are songs for the people, indeed, for all mankind. With glasses raised the toast to Robbie Burns was proposed.

Alastair McLeod followed with a thoughtful Toast to the Lasses, noting that Burns’ main and abiding interest was his love of women and poetry.

How would he relate to today’s women with their quite different lifestyles; their ability to be multi-functional and so on?

What, for instance, would Burns have made of all this and the new forms of communication — the world of the computer and the internet?

After much speculation, using verse which he had composed in the style of Burns and other references, Alastair concluded, that, since Burns was one of the world’s great communicators, he would probably have made use of the latest technology. Alastair finished with the toast to the lasses.

Jenny Mainland, in reply, thanked Alastair for his remarks.

She went on to reminisce about her young days in the 1940s and early 50s in North Ronaldsay when she, and many others of her age, used to go visiting together at Yule (the population then would have been around the 200 mark, rather than ‘well over 160’ as stated in my last letter).

The brewing of ale was a great time and an important time in the island; very special days to be remembered.

Jenny then turned her attention to another toast, which Howie Firth was to have given. Still on the theme of celebration and of looking back, she explained how her generation had been brought up to appreciate Burns and went on to recite John Barleycorn. Jenny then proposed the toast to North Ronaldsay.

John Cutt followed with a humorous poem, written in fairly broad Scots dialect, called The Broken Bowl (composed by Jessie Morton, born in Edinburgh around 1824).

Fifty years ago John had recited the poem at one of the many grand island concerts held in those days. John’s recitation, carried out in his inimitable style, was much enjoyed.

Next on our programme was Lesley McLeod playing a selection of fiddle music with which Burns would have been familiar.

She chose compositions by Neil Gow (1727-1807) and William Marshall (1748-1833).

As always, Lesley’s fiddle-playing was a pleasure to listen to. Especially beautiful was her interpretation of Neil Gow’s Lament for his second wife. This music, played in candle and lamp-light, always takes us pleasantly away back in time and memory.

To conclude the programme, it was time for Burns’ favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter.

Ella Henderson, standing in for Howie Firth, who was unable to come, came forward to recite the famous poem. Ella also, like Jenny, remembered her school days in the 40s, and how, when she and her brother and sister had the German and the ordinary measles she had been given the task, by her father, to learn Tam o’ Shanter and entertain her two ill siblings.

After all those years Ella was still able to recite much of the poem with expression and style.

Dancing soon got under way with Lesley McLeod, Dave Linklater and Elsie Linklater providing the toe-tapping music.

As the evening progressed Mark Wemyss played a scintillating series of tunes on his pipes that almost had folk up dancing.

Many dances were managed, with our own Heather Woodbridge (KGS pupil) playing along with Lesley for a spell, before tea was served with Westray shortbread and Christmas currant bun.

A raffle in aid of the community association’s fund was drawn bringing in over £130.

On went the dance until the second last dance when, playing the pipes once more, Mark put the two sets up for the eightsome reel through their paces.

After the last dance and the singing of Auld Lang Syne, Evelyn Gray was carried shoulder high round the hall, thus bringing a most enjoyable evening to a close.

This is Candlemas Day, February 2, and as it happens the night of a full moon. It has been a day of sunshine and showers so whether “half the winter is to come or mair” or whether half “is by in Yule” is anybody’s guess.

There are numerous other old proverbs. Here are three:

All the months of the year.
Curse a fair Februeer;

On Candlemas Day, you must have half your straw and half your hay;

In February, if thou hearest thunder,
Thou shalt see a summer wonder.

As Alastair speculated about Burns’ reaction to today’s communication systems and how he would relate to modern-day women. What, I wondered, would he think of some of the news headlines of today?

Thousands die in Africa and elsewhere from AIDS, starvation and war; Dire warning by scientists: Catastrophic climate changes; UK like Nazi Germany: Moslem leader; PM defiant over police honour probe; Curse of oil sees corruption in Nigeria; Chinese tortured Tibetan refugees; Palestinian truce but killing goes on; Iraq: a political catastrophe.

After over 200 years of progress, invention and thinking, since Burns’ death in 1796, it seems we are as far away as ever from the ideals and hopes of Robbie Burns.

Do you think that the world will ever achieve the ideals expressed in A Man’s A Man for A’ That, the last verse of which I shall quote to finish this letter?

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 and a’ that:
For a’ that, an a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that!