A Robert Burns Halloween

Culture Travel Tuesday

Robert Burns Book
Robert Burns, Photograph by Jessie Voigts

Destination: Scotland

Poetry: by Robert Burns and a Scottish Story-Telling Festival

By Jessie Voigts

Hallowe’en has a long history, marking the end of the year of the ancient Celtic calendar. In these beliefs, this night was a special time, when witches of all sorts walked and played freely. Later, Christianity wrapped it in All Hallow’s Eve (or All Saints). Either way, Halloween is a celebration of harvest festivals and festivals honoring the dead. While many of us carve jack o’lanterns, bob for apples, and go trick or treating, you might consider including storytelling in your Halloween activities.

 

Jack O'Lanterns
Jack O’Lanterns, Photo by Jessie Voigts

Robert Burns, the Bard of Scotland, has written many poems and songs, including Address to a Haggis (which I love), Auld Lang Syne (which we sing every New Year’s Eve), A Red, Red Rose, Tam o’Shanter, and most relevant to this month, Halloween, composed in 1785. Burns had an early interest in folklore and folk tales, and this deeply influenced his writing. Written in English and Scots, Halloween is one of the longest poems Burns wrote – 252 lines. The poem encompasses both common folk practices and country life (winnowing the corn, cutting of the apple) and the supernatural (small practical spells such as burning the nuts, and the presence of witches and fairies). In this particular poem, he’s generally regarded as a cultural anthropologist, marking down cultural traditions at a certain time period in Scotland.

He was influenced by John Mayne’s poem on Halloween, Robert Fergusson’s Hallow-Fair, and popular Scottish folk beliefs that Halloween was a time when witches and mischief makers were out and about on their errands. In Halloween, he alternates voice between 20 narrative characters – and provides explanatory footnotes to help readers dig deeply into this poem of pleasure and community. Here are the first and last stanzas. The first explores the night of the fairies (Halloween), where they play on the rocky green hills of the ancient seat of the Earls of Cassilis; while the last remembers the fun of celebrating the holiday, if you know how to truly enjoy it, with whiskey (strunt), cooked oats with butter instead of milk (sow’ns), to party blithely til dawn.

Halloween Spirits
Halloween Spirits, Photograph by Jessie Voigts

Halloween

Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or owre the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly coursers prance;
Or for Colean the route is ta’en,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the cove, to stray and rove,
Among the rocks and streams
To sport that night.

Wi’ merry sangs, and friendly cracks,
I wat they didna weary;
And unco tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till butter’d so’ns, wi’ fragrant lunt,
Set a’ their gabs a-steerin’;
Syne, wi’ a social glass o’ strunt,
They parted aff careerin’
Fu’ blythe that night.

Translation of first and last stanzas:

Upon that night, when fairies light
On Cassilis Downans dance,
Or over the lays, in splendid blaze,
On sprightly horses prance;
Or for Colean the route is taken,
Beneath the moon’s pale beams;
There, up the cove, to stray and rove,
Among the rocks and streams
To sport that night.…

With merry songs, and friendly tales,
I know they didn’t weary;
And many tales, and funny jokes,
Their sports were cheap and cheery;
Till buttered scones, with fragrant steam,
Set all their mouths a’stirring;
Then, with a social glass of liquor,
They parted off careering
Full happy that night.

This month, celebrate Halloween Robert Burns style – in Scotland! As part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, visitors can take part in Eerie, Ghostly and Ghastly: Tales for Hallowe’en at Kirk Alloway. On October 26th, join revelers at the Burns Birthplace Museum and Cottage for classic tales of ghosts, witches, and fairy folk, with Rosie Mapplebeck, Kati Waitzman, and Italian guests Giovanna Conforto and Chiara Casarico. Discover other ghostly events throughout Scotland for Halloween, including castle ghost tours.

Can’t make it to Scotland? Perhaps, read a bit of Burns’ Halloween to get in the mood before you head out trick or treating (or answering the door to trick or treaters).

To read an English translation, go to Mythic Journeys.

To hear a video of it read, in Scots, look at this You Tube offering read by David Hart.

Photographs in this article are the property of Jessie Voigts. Please respect her copyright.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

3 thoughts on “A Robert Burns Halloween

  1. Great story, Jessie. Burns did love to collect folk tales and weave those ideas in to his writing. I had not thought of his poem about Halloween in a long time — you’ve made it a great introduction to the season.

    The Celtic traditions of the turning of the year seem quite close on Halloween…

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