Elahe Ziai, a proud “New Scot” writes about what Burns Night means to her. What would the National Bard of Scotland have thought about the UK government’s Nationality and Borders Bill?
Settling into Scotland as a newly arrived Iranian, I was delighted to find I shared a birthday with our national poet, Robert Burns. We were both born on January 25th! Burns was a powerful voice on behalf of the poor and the downtrodden, and I wonder what he would have thought of the governments proposed Nationality and Borders Bill.
The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those in need. Yet, its very own Home Secretary, the child of Gujarati Indian parents who fled to the UK from Uganda just before Idi Amin’s decision to deport all Asians, has now decided to propose a bill that makes the immigration system even more hostile. The bill is very cruel and will have dire consequences.
Who is Robert Burns? And what is a Burns supper?
Robert Burns (25th January 1759- 21st July 1796), the national Bard of Scotland, was a prolific poet and lyricist, who celebrated love, friendship, traditional culture, and religion in his amazing poetry. Burns passed away at the early age of 37, and a few years after his death some of his close friends started a ritual which later became known as a Burns supper, with a format that has remained unchanged ever since. It is simply an evening dinner with a celebration of his life, spirit, and poetry. While it can range from being an informal gathering of friends to a huge event, it normally begins with reciting his poem ‘Address to a Haggis’, after which the haggis is toasted with a glass of whisky. These suppers are normally held on or near the bard’s birthday on 25th January, and are big occasions for the poet’s admirers with a short prayer attributed to Burns known as the Selkirk Grace:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
I wonder if Robert Burns were alive today, would he be for or against the Nationality and Borders Bill?
The Scotland Burns lived in was a very different place. It was a country in transition, its politics in flux, going through a period of intense change. Although he wasn’t without his flaws, Robert Burns was a spokesperson for the poor and disenfranchised. His humble, agricultural background and his poverty enabled him to understand the inequalities of humanity, and to reflect in his work a hope for justice and a better world. The republican poet with passionate egalitarian views believed in the rights and political suffrage of the common people.
I am no expert, but it seems to me that Robert was truly a people’s poet. Even today his words resonate across the centuries with their call for friendship and compassion. His short poem O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast, speaks of his instinctive desire to offer protection and comfort to those in need: ‘I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee’:
Oh wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea;
My plaidie to the angry airt*,
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee:
Or did Misfortune’s bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield** should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a’.
My knowledge of Scottish dialect is not very good, but I can understand enough to realise that in this poem Burns explains how he would protect the subject of the poem. If they were helpless, out in the cold or in danger and trouble, he would shelter them and offer them protection.
Burns was always moved more by the plight of the poor and vulnerable than the priorities of politicians, and at that time, Scotland itself saw lots of people forced to emigrate, and some of his poems describe the pain of leaving a homeland (The Gloomy Night) as well and the joy of being reunited with old friends (such as in Auld Lang Syne). This is pretty much enough to understand what his position would be about the anti-refugee bill.
I am sure he would have been shocked to see such a shameful piece of legislation being proposed, which not only demonises people escaping persecution, but also denies the right to seek asylum in his land. It offers a two-tier asylum system, which treats people differently based on the way they enter the country. No doubt he would have been outraged to learn that UK has chosen cruelty over morality in its approach towards people in danger. In his own words:
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed having a drink with him to celebrate our birthdays. We might have disagreements about some aspects of life, but I would like to think we would have had pleasure in working together and encouraging people to stand with refugees and join the #TogetherWithRefugees campaign, while reciting his great poem A Man’s a Man for a’ That, with its theme of reuniting people. Let’s sing together with Rabbie:
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that.
* Airt: direction of the wind
** Bield: Shelter, refuge