Friday, 25 January 2013

Burns Night

Posted by Dr Seona Anderson

Robert Burns
© Hantsheroes/
Creative Commons BY-SA
Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, is celebrated in gatherings across the world on January 25th. His poetry, music and womanising are well known but his love and knowledge of wild plants is perhaps less so.

Burns only wrote one poem dedicated to a wild plant: ‘To a mountain daisy’ (1786) in which he compares the daisy uprooted by the plough to a girl betrayed by men. But floral themes run through much of his work. One of his more famous lines from Tam O Shanter concerns the poppy and the transience of beauty and pleasure:

but pleasures are like poppies spread.
You seize the flower its bloom is shed.

Then there is the song ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’ - still popular in many countries. Whilst we may be more accustomed to the horticultural variety, the red rose of Burns has a wild relative, the Rosa gallica. This romantic bloom hails from southern Europe and south-west Asia but may have been introduced into Britain as long ago as the Roman period. It was certainly recorded growing in gardens in the 1500s. The rose, of course, is the symbol of love and purity in many cultures across the world.

Ragwort nags
Burns also records many Scottish plant customs in his poems such as the witches that were supposed to ride ragweed (or ragwort) nags across the skies and the custom of putting nuts in the fire to choose a sweetheart - those that sit side by side are destined for a good union:

And monie lads’ and lasses’ fate,
Are there that night decided:
Some kindle couthies side by saide,
An’ burn the gather trimly,
Some start awa wi’ saucy pride’.

He also wrote a list of his favourite plants in a letter and they include daisies, harebells, foxgloves, wild briar rose, budding birch, and the hawthorn.

Burns also recognised the value of a plant rich landscape for enriching art and the lives of the people who live or visit the countryside. In a letter to the Duke of Atholl in 1787, Burns pleads humbly for the beautiful waterfalls of Bruar to be accompanied by trees:

Let lofty firs and ashes cool,
my lovely banks o’erspread,
and view, deep-bending in the pool,
their shadows’ wat’ry bed.

Let fragrant birsk,
in woodbines drest,
my craggy cliffs adorn.’

It is impossible to imagine the work of Robert Burns without the wild plants and trees of Scotland and we are asking anyone with an interest in poetry, wild plants or sewing to contribute a Burns inspired square to our Patchwork Meadow Project. Click here for  how to take part
  • To find out more about the wild plants in Burns please download our factsheet.

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