25 January 2017

S5M-03351 Celebrating Burns and the Scots Language

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): Happy Burns day, everyone. I am pleased to say that the next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-03351, in the name of Emma Harper, on celebrating Burns and the Scots language. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the annual celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, which is held on 25 January each year to mark the Bard’s birthday; considers that Burns was one of the greatest poets and that his work has influenced thinkers across the world; notes that Burns’ first published collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, also known as the “Kilmarnock Edition”, published in 1786, did much to popularise and champion the Scots language, and considers that this is one of his most important legacies; believes that the celebration of Burns Night is an opportunity to raise awareness of the cultural significance of Scots and its status as one of the indigenous languages of Scotland, and further believes in the importance of the writing down of the Scots language to ensure its continuation through written documentation, as well as oral tradition.

The member has provided the following translation in Scots:

That the Pairlament walcomes the annual celebration o Scotland’s national makar, Robert Burns, whilk is haudit oan January 25th ilka year tae mark the Bard’s birthday; conseeders that Burns waes ane o the greatest makars, an that his wark haes influenced thinkers the warld o’er; notes that Burns’ first setten furth collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, kent tae as the “Kilmarnock Edition”, setten furth in 1786, did muckle tae mak better kent an tae forder the Scots leid, an conseeders that this bides amang his maist important legacies; believes that the celebration o Burns Nicht is an opportunity tae heize fowk’s kennin o the cultural significance o Scots an its status as ane o the indigenous leids o Scotland, an believes forby in the importance o the scrievin doon o the Scots leid fur tae mak siccar its bidin throu scrievit documentation, as weel as oral tradeetion.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I thank Emma Harper for the opportunity to talk about Burns. I have used the opportunity to extend the world of people who are familiar with Burns to one more person—my new American intern, Melia Dayley, who is sitting in the gallery and who has written the speech that I give tonight.

I stand with members today to celebrate the enduring legacy of Robert Burns and, of course, the Scots language. I believe that it is central that we understand what is meant by the word “legacy”. It implies something of great significance in the past that continues to affect our present. It is a history that is ever present and impactful. That is a perfect description of Scots and the bard.

The Scots language has had a turbulent history. It went through periods of discrimination, when it was not to be spoken in good company, to times when it was championed by the Scots people. We have championed the language, in large part, thanks to Robert Burns, whose memory we celebrate today. It is a language that has divided society during parts of its history, but that is partly why it makes such an impact today—it shows us the diversity of our history. It is now a jewel of our culture, whereas once it was something very different.

We remember the man who wrote great literary works in Scots and who helped secure the Scots language’s importance to the definition of Scotland. Burns was, without doubt, a literary genius—one need read very few of his works to see that. Of course, he was also a man with an entirely justifiable reputation for womanising, but we rarely talk about one particular woman in his life—his wife, Jean Armour. She was the silent, strong supporter of the poet. I suspect that being a poet’s wife under any circumstances, then or now, is not terribly easy. She was a loyal wife and not one for coming forward, but she was always there and was the woman Burns needed and loved. While he was arranging Scots into iconic poems, she was looking after the basics of his life. She was working to make life better not just for her but for her significant family—although I am not sure what role she played with the family members who were not hers. Her legacy is alive in Scotland, right alongside that of Burns, so we should think of her as we think of Burns.

We work diligently and proudly to celebrate Robert Burns’s life. I am not here to preach on the issue—I perhaps came to Burns quite late in my life—but people right across Scotland understand who Burns is and what he has contributed to Scottish life. People on farms, on ships and in cities all know of Burns and they are all part of the community that has inherited the legacy of Burns. The language and words of Burns live today, as they lived when he wrote them. They strengthen the ties that bind us together. We overcome and rise above difficulties by looking at some of the things that he wrote, and we find simple enjoyment in his words. When we hear “Holy Willie’s Prayer” or “Tam o’ Shanter”, the narrative simply engages us.

The work of Burns is part of what makes us Scots, but it is also part of what we contribute to the world community. As Burns said of Jean,

“But to see her was to love her”.

The legacy of Burns and Scots is that we recognise that his words are more than simply words—their legacy is us.


Stewart Stevenson
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