I’ve had an ear worm all week … and it’s a Burns song, of all things!
I am completely blaming Colin Macleod, Kathleen Macinnes and Alex Macdonald because I heard it last Friday at An Lanntair’s ‘Alternative Burns Night’.
It was Green Grow the Rashes and, somewhat sheepishly, I’m not sure I had even heard it before.
I love a bit of Burns. Eddi Reader’s Ae Fond Kiss is one of my favourite songs — it finishes me off every time — and her whole album of Burns songs is always in my car and listened to often.
So when I saw that An Lanntair were putting on an evening of Burns music, I was intrigued. They were putting together Colin Macleod and Kathleen Macinnes, who both have beautiful voices but usually belong to different genres (indie and Gaelic, to generalise broadly), so it was bound to be interesting.
It was great. The whole idea was to do something different to a traditional Burns Supper, which can be exceptionally formal and very prescribed.
Don’t get me wrong, they are fabulous events and the fact they are held the world over around his birthday on 25 January is something to celebrate — but for me, Burns doesn’t really belong in such formality (and I can testify to how formal they are, having attended the Lord Provost’s Burns Supper in Glasgow in the past). The son of tenant farmers, I think he is much more earthy than that.
There will be some who find it a bit strange that Burns and Scots were being celebrated in the Gaelic heartland of Lewis in the first place. But why wouldn’t we?
Yes, Ayrshire is Burns country — he was born in Alloway in 1759 — but he is Scotland’s national poet and belongs to us all.
The poems themselves, though not easily accessible, are important. To A Mouse and A Man’s a Man for A’ That, with their eternal themes of injustice and brotherhood, are on the Higher curriculum and high literature.
But for me, it’s the songs that are important and the story of the man himself. I remember thumbing through my mum’s copy of The Wind that Shakes the Barley when I was younger. This book, by James Barke, was subtitled “a story of the life and loves of Burns” — and I would be looking for the saucy bits.
Being the story of Burns, with his many lovers and children, there were plenty of them. This formed my picture of Rabbie — a man whose passions for poetry and nature were matched by his love of women and drink. Dangerous to know, definitely, and one for whom the phrase ‘a roll in the hay’ was very suited.
You can keep your “great chieftains o’ the puddin-race”. The words in Ae Fond Kiss, inspired by his love affair with Nancy McLehose, are where you see his real spirit.
“Had we never loved sae kindly / Had we never loved sae blindly / Nor never met — nor never parted / We would never have been sae broken-hearted.”
God bless them for “throwing their hearts at one another and leaving Robert so bereft he wrote this”, said Eddi Reader.
So when Colin and Kathleen opened with this — after a film poem by Roseanne Watts, featuring words in Gaelic, English, Orcadian and the Shetland dialect — they had me right away.
Kathleen began, with some verses of Ae Fond Kiss in Gaelic.
The translations aren’t new. The book of Ceud Oran Le Raibeart Burns by Robert Macdonald was written more than 100 years ago.
I thought Colin did a really good job of the Scots parts, too. The tentative, dreamlike quality of voice was suited to the character and he noticeably gained confidence from his stage partnership with Kathleen as the night went on.
“It’s such a treat for me to hear Colin sing,” Kathleen said later, telling the audience about the first time she encountered him. “I went home and said, ‘I just heard someone sing a Bruce Springsteen song on the radio better than Bruce Springsteen’.” (That would have been Dancing in the Dark, by the way, and it is amazing.)
Then they sang Green Grow the Rashes together — and there was my ear worm! It was great.
A later duet was Scots Wha Hae — which I always knew more as a pipe tune but here it was in lyrical form, the words still rousing today, given the movement for independence. “Wha, for Scotland’s king and law / Freedom’s sword will strongly draw…”
I also really enjoyed Colin’s solo of Wild Mountain Thyme – not a Burns song itself, as he said, but heavily influenced by the Braes of Balqhuidder.
Other notable moments including a solo piece by Colin, a Burns poem for which he has written an original tune, and Rattlin Roarin Willie by Kathleen — all those Rs being a challenge for her Uist accent!
They finished with Auld Lang Syne, as they had to, and again it was in Gaelic and Scots.
Similarly to An Lanntair’s Hogmanay, the show had been funded by EventScotland and formed part of the Scottish Government’s Winter Festival.
To set the scene, there were large-scale backdrops of Burns — I particularly like the Andy Warhol one and the other pop art designs — and a layout of candle-lit tables.
Canapés were brought round — I can testify to the haggis balls being particularly good — and there were Burns themed cocktails at the bar. The spirt of Burns was very much present.
Colin later admitted he had been “quite daunted” by it. “I’ve never really done anything like this before. I just do my own songs but I really enjoyed it. It was totally different.”
He acknowledged how the project had made him “pay more attention” to Burns and is now more attuned to hearing his influence.
“With lots of Scottish bands, even contemporary bands, you can hear it,” he said, adding that he now wants to record some of the songs.
Kathleen said that, while Burns is synonymous with Scots, there were “lots of connections” to Gaelic, including the melodies he took from Gaelic music — and singing the songs in Gaelic “just gives people another way of enjoying his work because people can relate to their own language”.
She added: “It’s songs that people can relate to anyway. I quite like that he was a bit of a ladies man. He was a great character. Nancy put in her diary, ‘this was the last time I saw Robert’ and she would commemorate that every year.”
Talking about the concept for the show, Alex said the traditional Burns events were “very formal and a little alien to people” but that “the influence he’s had on songwriting and what you hear now is massive.”
She added: “Auld Lang Syne is the most recognised song on the planet — and it’s a Scottish song that’s 350 years old. It’s not Ed Sheeran, it’s Robert Burns. Go figure.
“So I thought it was time that we started an event that appealed to a wider audience and the way to do that is to put a contemporary twist to it.”
Sponsored content: This blog post has been supported by An Lanntair. All views and opinions are entirely my own.