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Burns is not the only bard


Still widely assumed a one-off because of his class, Burns actually had numerous contemporaries from ordinary backgrounds

In a slightly peevish strain, Sir Walter Scott wrote in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808 that "the success of Burns had the effect of exciting general emulation among all of his class in Scotland that were able to tag a rhyme. Poets began to chirp like grasshoppers in a sunshine day. The steep rocks poured down poetical goatherds, and the bowels of the earth vomited forth rhyming colliers". The reception Burns received from the Edinburgh literati – even their compliments and critical praises – had stressed a generation beforehand that he was something of a lusus naturae, that for a ploughman to write such poetry he must be "heav'n-taught", a minor form of miracle. But the truth is rather different. Scott deigns to mention only one similar poet, James Hogg, the "Ettrick Shepherd", who was a friend, a source for ballads and a rival. But there were a great many poets who were not from the monied classes at the times of Burns and in the decades thereafter, and it might be worthwhile this Burns Night to reflect on them. The valorisation of Burns as a unique, unrepeatable phenomenon of a writer obscures even further their achievements.

The Scott Monument has 16 busts of other Scottish poets surrounding the marble statue of Scott, including both Hogg and Burns (odd to think there was a time when the self-evident "national bard" was Scott, not Burns). Also among them is Robert Tannahill. Tannahill was born 1774 in Paisley and apprenticed as a handloom weaver at the age of 12. He worked in Bolton before returning home, and started to have some success publishing poems and songs in The Scots Magazine (his most famous is probably "The Braes of Balquhidder", which inspired "The Wild Mountain Thyme" with its opening words "Let us go, lassie, go to the Braes of Balquhidder". His work was, however, rejected by Archibald Constable in 1810; Tannahill drowned himself the same year.

The Tap-Room
This warl's a tap-room owre and owre
     Whaur ilk ane tak's his caper
Some taste the sweet, some drink the sour
     As waiter Fate sees proper;
Let mankind live, ae social core,
     An drap a' selfish quar'ling,
And when the Landlord ca's his score,
     May ilk ane's clink be sterling.

All the poets tend to be given patronising soubriquets, so Janet Little (1759-1813), from Ecclefechan, like the sage Thomas Carlyle, was The Scotch Milkmaid. She was supported by a friend of Burns, Frances Dunlop, and James Boswell. Though much of her poetry was not only formal English but replete with names like Damon, Celia and Alonzo, she did occasionally use mild forms of dialect. This is from her "Epistle to Robert Burns":

Did Addison or Pope but hear,
Or Sam, that critic most severe,
A plough-boy sing, wi' throat sae clear,
They, in a rage,
Their works wad a' in pieces tear
An' curse your page.

If I should strain my rupy throat,
To raise thy praise wi' swelling note

My rude, unpolish'd strokes wad blot
Thy brilliant shine,
An' ev'ry passage I would quote
Seem less sublime.

The talk I'll drop; wi' heart sincere

To heav'n present a humble prayer,
That a' the blessings mortals share
May be, by turns,
Dispens'd with an indulgent care
To Robert Burns

Many of the poets, because of their class, sought emigration: thus the horse-breaker Will Ogilvie (1869-1963) is better known in Australia than here; Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), although trained as a clerk in Kelso, became a farmer in South Africa (and a leading abolitionist) and James McIntyre (1828-1906) found fame not in his native Forres but as the "Cheese Poet of Ingersoll, Ontario": not all the poets are equal to Burns but McIntyre could give McGonagall a run for his money:

Ode to the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds
We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze;
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed, soon you'll go
To the provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Some poets never attempted a national or international audience: James Ruickbie (1757-1828) seemed quite content to be well-known around Hawick. By turns a miller, a toll-keeper and the publican of the Harrow Inn in Hawick, he was nevertheless sought out by Thomas Campbell (the author of The Pleasures of Hope and the once-famous Gertrude of Wyoming) and Allan Cunningham, the stonemason poet and friend of Burns. His poems of the Death and Resurrection of Whisky are a treat, as is his "Address to the Critics":

O ye lang-nebbit pryin' race
Who kittle words an' letters trace
Up to their vera risin' place
An' not a point
But ye maun put it to disgrace
If out o' joint

Ye're unco wise as ye suppose
An' mang poor scribblers deal your blows
Slap dash ye rin through verse and prose
Wi' piercin' look
An' never spit nor blow your nose
But by the book

Let poor folk write to ane anither
The way they learn'd it frae their mither
Or some auld aunt's loquacious swither
O' wit and glee
Wha valu'd not your college spither
An' rigmarie

There have been valiant attempts to consider properly this heritage, notably Tom Leonard's Radical Renfrew and a book I can't praise enough, Walter Elliot's New Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 1805-2005, which analyses huge amount of poems published in local newspapers and chapbooks. It was Elliot who first introduced me to poets like Andrew Scott of Bowden (1757-1839), a farm-worker and church beadle who, as well as praising his local landscape, and tobacco, imagined a six-hour hot-air balloon flight service between Edinburgh and London, and Roger Quin (1850 -1918), a "gentleman of the road" or "milestone inspector" – in other words, a homeless poet – who now has a row of new houses named after him in Galashiels.

My final poet, however, didn't write much in the Scots language, but his work shows how even minor writers can have major afterlives: William Knox (1789–1825), who euphemistically "fell a victim to the undue gratification of his social propensities". There was a plaque to him in Lilliesleaf Kirk, where I worshipped as a child, and I knew the lines from his most famous poem, "Mortality", off by heart.

OH, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

It was only much later I learned that these were Abraham Lincoln's favourite lines of poetry, and that they were so highly regarded by one of the Tsars (the reference is obscure) that he had them engraved on a golden panel. Even more impressively, it was quoted as an epitaph for The Flash (Barry Allen) in DC Comics Crisis On Infinite Earths #8. Not quite as famous as "Auld Lang Syne", but not bad.

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