Among the many things I’ll take to my grave will be the first lines of some of the more famous Robert Burns poems. For this I can thank the Scottish state school system and its annual ritual of making kids learn Burns poetry and recite them for a panel of judges on or around Rabbie Burns day on the 25th January.
It sounds quite torturous, doesn’t it? But in actual fact I quite enjoyed doing things like that at primary school and it turned out I was quite good at it (not exactly a useful life skill though) winning certificates for renditions of To A Mouse and the rousing Scots Wha Hae if my memory serves me correctly.
I was slightly tickled to discover that some 30 years later Scottish schools are still encouraging this tradition. However I’ve noted with mixed feelings that the kids are no longer given Burns poems but alternative Scottish poems with more familiar themes and topics. These choices still encourage and teach Scottish language but are perhaps less impenetrable than some of Rabbie Burns’ work.
While I think it’s important to familiarise children with challenging material from history, perhaps by introducing Scottish poetry in more accessible forms, a more positive relationship with the genre and the language can develop. Toby has certainly enjoyed learning and speaking these poems, fully embracing this new Scottish vocabulary. He’s come second in his class at reciting them too and I’ve always been impressed with how hard he’s worked to memorise the material. This year he’s really striving to win.
I’ve never been a massive fan of Robert Burns’ poetry but I respect it’s place in Scottish heritage and culture and for that reason alone it deserves to be studied. But equally I’m not much of a fan of poetry full stop, and I do wonder if the fact that my first meeting with the form was Burns poems had something to do with that.
So if you always get stuck after the first two lines of Auld Lang Syne, and would rather celebrate Burns by skipping Adress to a Haggis and tucking straight in, here’s a list of some alternative Scottish poets to explore this Burns Day.
- Edwin Morgan
I really don’t like poetry all that much but I blame this on my own ignorance and feel it’s something I should try and open my mind to. I reckon Edwin Morgan is an excellent starting point. I was first introduced to his work briefly at secondary school, and any time I stumble upon a Morgan poem it always invites me to re-read. Morgan, who was Scotland’s first modern Makar, died at the age of 90. His work gives a voice to a range of characters you’ll find in contemporary Scotland but not typically spot in other poetry. I love One Cigarette.
- J K Annand
Edinburgh-born J K Annand is best known for his poetry for children and his poems creep regularly into the primary school curriculum as an alternative to the work of Robert Burns. The first poem Toby had to learn and recite at school was Annand’s Crocodile.
- Liz Lochhead
Liz Lochhead is one of Scotland’s best known contemporary poets, earning the Makar crown in 2011. I’m more familiar with her work as a playwright but she’s published an extensive range of poetry collections.
My Rival’s House is acutely observed and as much a short story as it is a poem.
- Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy was the first Scottish woman to be appointed Poet Laureate in 400 years when she was given the title in 2009. Her cultural contribution is quite remarkable. She’s published extensively, made countless literary festival appearances, and won multiple awards. Some may say her finest moment was the poem she penned – the first as Poet Laureate – as a response to the MP expenses scandal. Here it is.
- Norman MacCaig
Norman MacCaig was a firm fixture on the Edinburgh literary scene during the 1950s and 1960s, hanging out in Milnes Bar with a band of distinguished peers that included Hugh MacDiarmid. He was appointed the University of Edinburgh’s first writer in Residence in 1967 but dedicated his writing almost exclusively to poetry.
I generally prefer poems about people than places, so Aunt Julia is a fine introduction to MacCaig’s work and certainly leaves me wanting to know more about its eponymous character.