I am one of these lucky people that grew up bilingual: my mother of course was English, my father having met her in York when he was sent there in 1915 to practice cavalry charging on his white horse, as trooper in the Scots Greys. Apparently, my mother’s church. which was close to the barracks, held a social evening for the young Scots boys, and he asked her to dance and six years later, the war over, he went back over and she was waiting for him. History, of course, is quite different. He listened to her patiently, and then said ‘tell the truth: I flashed past you on the racecourse on my white horse and you said ‘I’m having one of them!’ Which was true, I never knew, but it was probably an amalgam of the true story.
So, I was quite used to the same dialect as Burns used and in which he wrote, and actually my own marriage almost faltered at the first step because of it, having brought my fiancée Moira to meet my parents, my father said to me on the Saturday morning ‘Rubert, seein you’ve got the motor, awa’ up to Woodside Ferm, Jim Craig has a bag o’ Arran pilot waiting for me, so I said ‘sure of course’, and having invited Moira to join me she climbed into the passenger seat and we set off. At this point you should know that our introduction and courtship had taken place in English, something which I temporarily forgot, so arriving at the farm, Jim Craig came out to greet me and said ‘are you here for your faither’s tatties Rubert?’ ‘Aye says I’, and then I added ‘By theres a wheen of kye in your wee park the day’, referring to the number of cows in the small field beside us. ‘Aye says he, there’ in by for bullin, I’ll awa and get your faither’s tatties’. At this point, My fiancée turned to me and said ’ if I’m going to have to put up with years of jibberish the wedding is off’.
I’m a firm believer (sadly for many) that you cannot really understand, cherish and enjoy the works of Robert Burns unless you are fluent in the dialect in which he spoke and wrote – although he was capable, when he wanted to, of speaking the King’s English. He obviously reveled in the dialect. One of the stories I like best was that he created Tam O’Shanter on the banks of a river, and as it flowed he became more and more excited, and laughed almost continuously as it built in his mind, and as someone who occasionally professionally recites Burns, there are some lovely phrases which create pictures which I believe never leave you once they have entered your mind – Who has never had a wife gathering her brows like the gathering storm and nursing her wrath to keep her warm.
Being the curator of a Museum of Country Life in Burns’ country, we do get numerous enquiries about the contents and vocabulary in a lot of Burns’ work. For instance, in To a Mouse, there is a line which says ‘I would be loath to run and chase ye wi’ murderous pattle‘: what they want to know is what did a pattle look like? Having done a great deal of research on their behalf, I have not yet got a definitive answer as to what it was, but my decision is, since we have such an implement in the Museum, that it is a long metal implement which widens at the tip and, in my opinion, was used to scrape the clay – which in this area of Scotland adheres persistently to the plough and which was often cleaned at the end of a few furrows.
One of the most persistent enquirers was the curator of a Musee de la vie agricole in Normandy who read somewhere that we had a whin crusher and could I send her some details as she was researching this very activity. The whin crusher is of course a very large piece of sandstone, not quite circular, with two cast iron rods protruding from either end, which in my opinion, and in the opinion of the donor, was dragged by a Clydesdale horse, up and down a stone-lined trough in which had been placed harvested branches of whin and gorse. This activity crushed the gorse and eventually it became available for winter feeding for cattle. I did indeed sent her a photography and a drawing which I believe she used at a conference.