Warning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now
I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.
I have tried to like Robert Burns – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.
Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.
No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.
All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words, a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!
I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.
The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?
According to tunearch.org, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.
Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:
Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].
Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’
Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’
Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.
Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.
But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.
Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.