In Search of Scotland’s National Poet

Hal Gordon

 

From PunditWire.Com:

 

On September 18, the people of Scotland will have the chance to vote on whether or not they want to remain part of the 307-year-old United Kingdom, or whether they want to reclaim their ancient status as a sovereign nation.

 

Anyone curious as to how the Scots could have held on to their sense of nationhood for more than three centuries in tandem with England could do worse than consult In Search of Scotland, by H.V. Morton.

 

A veteran of the First World War, who later witnessed the opening of King Tut’s tomb, Morton was a journalist who earned international popularity as a travel writer. Author Jan Morris called Morton “a master of his genre” and said that his books “are genuine classics.”

 

She was right. In Search of Scotland does not disappoint, even though more than 80 years have passed since its publication.

 

Consider how Morton sketches a Scottish highlander in a few deft strokes of his pen: “Every one who numbers a real Highlander among his friends knows that he inherits a number of qualities that mark him off from ordinary men. He is quick to take offense and he is a fighter. He is as punctilious in matters of honor as an Italian nobleman. Personal loyalty is a tradition with him. So is whisky. He loves to arrange, often on the flimsiest pretext, occasions for convivial celebration, a relic perhaps of old times when men, separated by mountain and flood, would meet together and pledge themselves in strong drink.”

 

And Morton’s chapter on Robert Burns is exquisite.

 

He poses a playful question: Why should a sober, respectable and hard-headed people like the Scots choose for their national poet a romantic rebel who thumbed his nose at all authority and was as free with liquor as he was with women?

 

Instead of Burns Night suppers, asks Morton, shouldn’t we expect the practical-minded Scots to have founded Macadam Societies, to honor the pioneer of improved roads? Or Mackintosh Societies, to honor the inventor of the waterproof? Or perhaps to hold annual Patterson Club dinners to commemorate the founder of the Bank of England?

 

 

But no, it is Burns, “the Pan of Scotland,” who holds the place of honor in the nation’s heart. Perhaps, Morton suggests, it is because Burns is a true bard – “a warm, living force … part of daily life.” England, he says, has “many fine poets, but no bards. We have poets of the first class, finer, as poets, than Burns. But not one of them has influenced our lives as Burns has influenced the lives of Scotsmen … There is no English poet whose songs have curled up like an old dog on the heathstone.”

 

Morton proves his point with a moving personal anecdote. He was visiting the Burns Museum in Alloway. He had for his guide an elderly caretaker who could quote Burns backwards. The caretaker was suddenly called from the room, and when he returned, Morton could see that the old man had been deeply affected by the message that he had received.

 

Without explanation, the man started to recite, with deep emotion, another poem by Burns, “To Mary in Heaven”:

 

Thou ling’ring star with less’ning ray

That lov’st to greet the early morn,

Again thou usher’st in the day

My Mary from my soul was torn.

O Mary! Dear departed shade!

Where is thy place of blissful rest?

See’st thou thy lover lowly laid?

Hear’st thou the groans that rend his breast?

 

When the caretaker finished, he was in tears. “You must forgive me,” he sighed. “I hae just had a message to say that my wife is dead…”

 

 

He paused, and then added: “There is something in Burns for every moment of a man’s life, good days and bad. I shall find his sympathy here. Burns would have known what I feel now.”

 

A few years ago, the Scottish television network, STV, ran a poll to determine who should be counted the Greatest Scot of all time. Burns won.

 

Some things never change. That’s why Burns is still quoted: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” That’s why books like In Search of Scotland may still be read with pleasure. And that’s why the Scots have been able to hold on to their language, their literature, their heritage and their national pride despite being part of the United Kingdom for over 300 years.  In the end, Scotland’s sense of itself may well determine the outcome of the vote on September 18.

 

Author Bio:

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Website: www.ringingwords.com.

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