An evening in Aultbea

Last evening I hosted one of our Wester-Ross Burns Club's occasional evenings. These are always focussed on the Scottish Bard via a certain 'theme', are always replete with more in the way of food and drink than our most ambitious members can possibly consume, always exhausting as the Highland dancing gets going, always emotional when the singing starts - always FUN! Last evening was no exception. From the new sunhouse you can view through panoramic windows two hundred and seventy degrees all around to the south, west and north. The weather was kind, as has generally been the case this Summer and its preceding Spring and, indeed, an exceptionally mild Winter. Of course the sun never really sets at this time of a Wester-Ross year, but as the skies relaxed above a millpond Loch Ewe the effects were truly astonishing, even for we who should by now be unsurprised.

Back to Burns ... our theme was 'Burns the farmer'. Our Chair read his prose contribution, by way of a chronologically compelling narrative of the great man's progress from farm to farm. Strangely enough, my own effort took the same chronological format, but this time in verse rather than prose. This is it ...

Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard, was born into a farming family and worked on four farms during his thirty seven years of life. This narrative follows his progress …

The Ayrshire Farmer

1. Mount Oliphant farm

Seventeen seventy four, imagine this …
November, rainswept shire of Ayr
a wintry field, and yonder see that
adolescent stumbling after father’s
plodding mare? Whilst iron plough
turns stony earth the youth turns  
words into his special story-verse
of harvesting here not long since,
and Nell Kilpatrick, special pearl
amongst the rigs o’ barley: the girl
who, on this poor, unyielding earth
had yielded what’s of real worth.
Yes, here upon this sullen field,
at fifteen he has found his shield
against th’unfairness of the world:
enriched, he makes himself a vow,
that what comes next comes now,
verse and music (before the plough)
and love, sweet lady love of course.
The youth walks on behind the horse,
for him, a glass half full belongs
to someone else. As rain pelts down,
he thinks of this field’s green gown:
despite dark skies young Robert Burns,
strong force of nature, never crass
begins, O, once I loved a bonnie lass

2. Lochlea Farm 1777-84

Tired of flogging horses (very dead)
Burnes and family move instead, to
look for better things at Lochlea farm
‘twixt Mauchline and Tarbolton
where Rab is soon to bring upon
himself stern censure of the kirk
and his father’s great displeasure,
by targeting things not just of work.
He treasures Scots and other poesy,
writes verse of his own symmetry
debates with drinking friends amidst
the ribald cheer of the hostelry, and
finds the joys of dancing, romancing
the fairer sex - too much, too often
some might say but living in this way
three hard farming years pass by
then a brief venture in Tarbolton
learning to dress and sell the flax,
(undressing not just flax, perhaps)
before our prodigal son comes home;
three years more until eighty four
when William Burnes’s day is done
- good, upright father nevermore:
Rabbie and his brother struggle on
‘though love for Lochlea has all gone.

3. Mossgiel farm - 1784-88

Out of the frying pan into the fire!
The brothers move to Mossgiel farm.
‘Though Rabbie does his level best
to fashion silk from that sow’s ear
the Belles of Mauchline give him
little rest - the trials of love outstrip
those of the plough, with the kirk
still unimpressed by his carousing,
and stormy waters become no calmer
especially over fair Jean Armour,
whose father clean fainted ‘awaw’
at the prospect of having a feckless,
potless Rabbie Burns for son-in-law,
the farmboy sire to the daughter
of his long suff’ring mother’s servant.
even when sweet Jean was with child 
number one (of nine) in eighty six
he had not done with his wild oats,
wild ways; they didn’t marry ‘til
eighty-eight, (better than never, late)
and ‘though he says he loves his girl
the most, that claim he also makes
to other lady loves in verse and song.
As life at Mossgiel rollocks along,
he versifies a wee timorous beastie
and a gun-shot hare and twa dogs
and even a louse on a lady’s hat
and, with less compassion, Holy
Willie at prayer - even Willie’s cat.
Wha hae! for Scotland, the nation -
or perhaps a Jamaican plantation?
But fame now is the Burns admission
with the great Kilmarnock edition  
and the capital gives wealth and balm,
so no fond farewell to Mossgiel farm.

4. Ellisland farm 1788 - 91

Burns returns to Dumphries-shire:
‘though unsurprised at being lionised.
it’s not the fulfilment of his desire, so
he’s back at the hoe and the plough,
enough for now of  flickering fame
- and dear Clarinda’s away oversea
with tears and doubtless some kissing,
with heavy heart her love he’s missing.
Ellisland farm gives him little rest
much as he tries to give it his best
it will not respond to the poet’s hand
so the farmer bids farewell to his land;
a man of the soil he can no longer be
when rhyme still fills his waking mind.
But in a racing canter he writes great
Tam O’Shanter, a tale of witches, dark,
of Meg and cutty sark, (short chemise,
a source of young men’s fantasies).
Appeasing the constitution’s distrust
of his talk of reform and revolution,
enlists in the Excise to quiet his peers
plus the Royal Dumphries Volunteers
and turns to the composition of songs
of love and Scottish folklore he hears
that often seek to right Man’s wrongs,
his words immortal for such a fine pen;
and Auld Lang Syne again and again.

How now our ploughboy of Ayrshire?
our champion of love and of nature?
of laughter and satire, truth and saltire?
‘Though Robert Burns wore many a hat,
the man was a man for all that, for all that.

Bryan Islip: June 2014

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