Best Lines from the Letters of Rabbie Burns
So you’ve sung Auld Lang Syne more times than you can count and perhaps you can even recite a wee bit of the lesser-known poems of the bard but have you ever looked beyond the poems and songs? January 25th celebrates the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns (258 years young this year) and many people around Scotland and the world will be lifting a glass to remember his life and works. He has been immortalised in statues more times than any other non-religious figure, other than Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus. He was a prolific poet yet continued to work the land and as an exciseman to make a living as well as relying on his charm and talent to secure patronage. The only thing he wrote more of than poems? Letters.
In today’s digital world, the letter still persists after a fashion and some occasions will accept nothing less than handwritten words: a declaration of love, a cover letter for a job or a really banging postcard. Check out some of our favourite lines from letters Burns wrote, along with a handy guide to where their inclusion might help your own letter-writing from now on. Enjoy your haggis, neeps, cranachan, whisky and poems – and if you get invited to a slap-up Burns dinner then don’t forget to write a nice letter of gratitude to your hosts with the new-found skills here.
1. Best for… the person you really should have replied to a month ago
It happens, you get caught up in life and realise that your wee gran hasn’t had her weekly phonecall since last year and you’ve been putting off opening FB chats so you have an excuse for not replying to them, yet. Try this handy phrase to butter up the people who deserved a better response:
To Mr Peter Stuart – editor of ‘The Star’, London (1787)
You may think, and too justly, that I am a selfish, ungrateful fellow, having received so many repeated instances of kindness from you, and yet never putting pen to paper to say thank you; but if you knew what a devil of a life my conscience has led me on that account, your good heart would think yourself too much avenged.
In other words: if you think you’re upset about how long it’s taken for me to get back to you – then you should try having a word with my conscience who has been getting on at me about this incessantly. PS super super sorry, please forgive.
2. Best for… the person who you thought was THE ONE and then they palm you off with some rubbish about needing time to find themselves and ‘it’s not you, it’s me’
NOTE: this isn’t the angry response. This is the one to pull on their heartstrings and make them think ‘Oh man. This person is so deep and thoughtful. Maybe I should stick around’. ADDITIONAL NOTE: it didn’t work for Burns, so it may not work for you.
To Ellison Begboe/Alison Begbie – Farmer’s Daughter, East Ayreshire
My imagination has fondly flattered myself with a wish, I dare not say it ever reached a hope, that possibly I might one day call you mine. I had formed the most delightful images, and my fancy fondly brooded over them; but now I am wretched for the loss of what I really had no right to expect.
In other words: I’ve been planning our wedding since the day I first met you. I thought we were going to have 2.4 kids and a dog and a house in the country. What do you mean you’re nae bothered?!
3. Best for… your aunt who keeps giving you well-intentioned but nevertheless patronising advice and asking when you’re going to get married
Burns relied on the generosity of several patrons when it came to producing his books of poems and living between jobs. One such patron was Mrs Dunlop. Burns clearly did very much value her input but this response has the faintest whiff of him being a bit fed up about her questions on when he’s going to sort his life out, don’t you think?
To Mrs Dunlop (1787)
You kindly interest yourself in my future views and prospects; there I can give you no light. It is all:
Dark as was Chaos ere the infant sun
Was roll’d together, or had tried his beams
Athwart the gloom profound.
If only you’d had that one up your sleeve at christmas dinner. Guaranteed to turn the attention from your marital/job/life status to something else, anything, just not the profound gloom.
4. Best for… the cover letter for that job that you really really want
Cover letter: time to sell yourself and your unique skills and qualities. Don’t hold back.
The appellation of a Scottish bard is by far my highest pride; to continue to deserve it is my most exalted ambition. Scottish scenes and Scottish story are the themes I could wish to sing. I have no dearer aim than to have it in my power, unplagued with the routine of business, for which Heaven knows I am unfit enough, to make leisurely pilgrimages through Caledonia; to sit on the fields of her battles; to wander on the romantic banks of her rivers; and to muse by the stately towers or venerable ruins, once the honoured abodes of her heroes.
In other words: the fact that I have achieved _______ is by far my highest pride, but to do it with __insert new company here___ is my most exalted ambition. In this letter, Burns is once again writing to Mrs Dunlop to express how, if the everyday responsibilities of life weren’t calling, he would love to devote his life to poetry. It’s beautiful and not intended to be a persuasive letter, more of a lament. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t jazz up your CV no end.
5. Best for… the letter you send out to everyone with a picture of your dog because you love your dog so much and want everyone else to share in its glory
William Nicol – Classical Master, High School, Edinburgh (1787)
My auld, ga’d gleyde o’ a meere has huchyall’d up hill and down brae, in Scotland and England, as teugh and birnie as a very deil wi’ me. It’s true, she’s as poor’s a sang-maker and as hard’s a kirk, and tipper-taipers when she taks the gate, first like a lady’s gentlewoman in a minuwae, or a hen on a het girdle; but she’s a yauld, poutherie Girran for a’ that, and has a stomack like Willie Stalker’s meere that wad hae disgeested tumbler-wheels, for she’ll whip me aff her five stimparts o’ the best aits at a down-sittin and ne’er fash her thumb.
Burns auld meere (old mare) is his favourite horse, called Jenny Geddes. Jenny is named after a wee old lady that reputably threw a stool at a minister for trying to read from the bible during the reformation – a time of religious turmoil where the rules were changing faster than most people’s beliefs ever could. She’s (horse Jenny) tougher than the devil and takes gates at a bit of an uncertain bounce like a hen on a hot griddle. Oh, and she can eat the most ridiculous things and not throw up as a result. We all know someone with a pet like that, don’t we?
6. Best for… writing to someone who you are currently strictly platonic with but you’d really rather it be more than that
In this situation, you want to appear fun-loving but mysterious, right? This is what Burns went for:
To Clarinda (Agnes Craig) (1787)
You cannot imagine, Clarinda (I like the idea of Arcadian names in a commerce of this kind), how much store I have set by the hopes of your future friendship. I do not know if you have a just idea of my character, but I wish you to see me as I am. I am, as most people of my trade are, a strange Will-o’-Wisp being: the victim, too frequently, of much imprudence and many follies. My great constituent elements are pride and passion.
Unbeatable combo. 1. Flatter 2. Indicate that you expect there to be a future 3. Tell them who you really are 4. come across mysterious 5. but ALSO as a bit of a bad boy with many follies who could do with being saved.
7. Best for… remembering how great Jean Armour was
Behind every great man is a great woman. Jean Armour had nine of Burns’ children (he had at least another four) but spent a lot of time apart from him due to her father’s disapproval. Burns came and went for many years (which, to be fair, had a lot to do with the fact that Armour’s father kept trying to get him arrested whenever he went near her) and nearly went to Jamaica for good with Highland Mary. He came back one more time after her death to find Jean destitute and out on the streets. He found her a home and they remained together until his death, with Jean giving birth to their last child on the day of Robert’s funeral. These words might not be the happiest, but they are certainly meaningful tribute to a woman who also, of course, inspired much of his poetry, too.
To Mr David Bryce, Shoemaker, Glasgow (1786)
You have heard all the particulars of that affair, and a black affair it is. What she thinks of her conduct now I don’t know; one thing I do know—she [Jean] has made me completely miserable. Never man loved, or rather adored a woman more than I did her; and, to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, though I won’t tell her so if I were to see her, which I don’t want to do. My poor dear unfortunate Jean! how happy have I been in thy arms! It is not the losing her that makes me so unhappy, but for her sake I feel most severely: I foresee she is in the road to, I am afraid, eternal ruin.
Love ain’t all roses. And she might have left the thorns with him but let’s just take a moment to appreciate that Jean was once on the road to eternal ruin before outliving her husband for 38 years and living to see his name and fame continue to grow. What a gal.
All quotes of the works of Burns were taken from Project Gutenberg – arranged by YJ. Logie Robertson, M.A.