Last night many folk in Henley – and from the wider community – will have missed what would have been the most sought after event of Henleyʼs social year! I speak, of-course, of the annual – and brilliant – Henley Burns Night! Sadly for Henley our wonderful Henley Chefs have had a very quiet year. I am absolutely sure though that this will have been the year of the Zoom Burns Night.
Born of Scottish parents I have thoroughly enjoyed the Henley revelries we have shared, started each year by our own resident Bagpiper (take a bow Rod Caird!) piping in and then ʻaddressingʼ the haggis. I am ashamed to admit, thought, that I do not really know a great deal about ʻRabbie Burnsʼ.
Robert Burnes was born on 25th January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, the eldest of seven children. He was born to impoverished farming parents, and as was the way, had intermittent schooling as he and his siblings had to be kept back to work on the farm. His father, William Burnes, was a ʻGod-fearing, kirk-goingʼ man, and so the family grew up familiar with both the Bible and Calvinist theology. Robert Burnes became Robert Burns in adulthood. He was used to living on the edge of poverty, yet retained his generous demeanor, giving generously to those in need. He was a man who despite his irregular education, from the age of 15, began his journey to becoming Scotlandʼs national poet. The Bard. But it was not until he was 27 that his genius was recognized. He was not just a poet but also a writer of love songs. Through all the fame that surrounded him, he never forgot his humble roots. Farming was in his blood, and for him was a life long love. His writing often dealt with the issues affecting the poorer classes, and he highlighted the need for social equality. Burns spoke out for love, liberty, justice and compassion.
Burns Night is celebrated on (or near) the birth date of the Bard and is regarded by many as the worldʼs greatest literary festival. It has been described by many as having ʻa liturgy of its ownʼ. The piping in of the Haggis, the ʻSelkirk Graceʼ and ʻAddress to the Haggisʼ followed by the meal. “The Immortal Memories” (a bit like a sermon reflecting on the life and influence of the Bard). Next come the toasts (helped by ʻwee glasses of the golden fluidʼ) ʻThe toast to the lassiesʼ (traditionally a celebration womanhood), followed by ʻthe response to the laddiesʼ, and the the singing of one of Burns best loved songs: Auld Lang Syne, Robert Burns, regarded as a literary genius, was also a bit of a bad lad. He had several children outside of his marriage, although remained devoted to his wife (with whom he had nine children!). There are a variety of opinions as to Burns real thoughts on religion. One of his poems however, shows a certain depth of understanding. “The Cotters Saturday Night” speaks of ʻThe Cotterʼ (a poor farmer given the use of a ʻCotʼ or cottage in return for labour rather than paying rent) and his family. The farmer sits by the fireside on the Saturday night knowing that the next day, Sunday, is a day of rest. The poet mentions the eldest daughter Jenny, whose boyfriend calls in and is invited to share their very humble family meal, after which they sit around the fireside to listen to their father read from the bible – both the Old and the Testaments. The ʻcotterʼ exhorts the children to ʻbe sure to fear the Lord alwaysʼ. The family sings psalms before they part for the evening, at which point the cotter and his wife kneel down to pray that the Lord would provide for them, “But chiefly, that in their hearts with Grace Devine preside”.
This has been likened to St Paulʼs letter to the Ephesians: “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Burns affirmed his belief in immortality in a poem written after his daughter, Elizabeth, died at the age of two:
My child, thou are gone to the home of thy rest, where suffering no longer can harm thee: Where the songs of the Good, where the hymns of the Blest through an endless existence shall charm thee!
And in July 1976, at just the age of 37, as his very premature end, through the long term effects of rheumatic fever, on drew near, The Bard wrote his final prayer:
When with intention I have errʼd, no other plea I have, But Thou art Good; and Goodness still delighteth to forgive”.
So if you celebrate tomorrow – think of the Bard. For those of you have bought a haggis – and maybe some swede and potatoes to make your neeps and tatties, may I wish you a grand Burns Night Feast. Hopefully you will also enjoy some Clootie dumpling – or perhaps Cranachan?
But Burns Night meal or not . . . in these times of trouble, for those who can only see darkness ahead, for those who share simple meals, for those who are drained, perhaps think about ʻthe Cotterʼ , , weary after a long, hard week working on the land, sitting peacefully with his family, yet welcoming a visitor to share an already very meagre meal, after which taking the time to read from scripture, to pray – asking not for anything extravagant – but for simple provision and for grace to reside in their hearts.
May your week ahead hold pleasure and, above all, hope ….. and let us all pray for all those for whom life is a daily struggle with poverty, homelessness, rejection or need – sadly often surrounded by those with plenty. Teach us to be generous Lord, and to put the needs of others before our own . . . and in so doing help shape a better and fairer world.
And let us remember with thanks all those who have gone before us, strengthened by their faith in Christ, now resting in your embrace. Amen.
With my love to you and your families. Cathy