Tag Archives: Caledonia

For a’ That

I had oatmeal for breakfast this morning. In fact, I was very careful to have oatmeal for breakfast this morning. (I have my oatmeal with a bit of butter, and salt, and pepper, and a tiny bit of chopped rosemary from my herb bed — not with all the sweet stuff that modern Americans like to pile onto honest oatmeal. YMMV.)

Now, I’m an old woman, and I’ve lived all of my life in modern America, and I have all of the “ailments” that are specific to that life, including, sadly, high cholesterol. And my doctor has prescribed for me steel-cut oatmeal at least three times a week, which, esp. in winter weather, is no great hardship. But I was careful to have oatmeal this morning not because of my cholesterol or because of the impending cold weather with snow. No, I was careful to have oatmeal for breakfast this morning because I imagine that it saves me from any need to eat haggis tonight.

I’ve no doubt that I am here tonight, snug in my little cottage, alive in a snowstorm on the magical MidAtlantic, because my survivor foremothers, poor and protien-starved as most of them were, ate haggis, that great chieftan o’ the puddin’ race, with a good will, and all honor to them, but that doesn’t mean that I have to eat haggis, today.

Tonight, the anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns, is known as Burns Night among the diaspored daughters and sons of Caledonia and among all who, as do I, love Burns’ poetry. Robert Burns wrote poetry with a deep sense of place, and so I love him on two levels. (Poetry and sense of place, I mean. You knew that, right?) Born 254 years ago in Scotland, Burns was a Mason, a Romantic poet, and an inspiration to both liberals and socialists. Burns wrote in a Scottish dialect about the lives of women and men in Scotland. He was a poor farmer, but a good poet, and I’ve always been most fond of his farming poem, To a Mouse:

Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An’ fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave ‘S a sma’ request:
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ wast,
An’ weary Winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.

That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Take the trouble to read his Scottish dialect; you’ll get 90% of it v. easily, and it adds to the sense of place which makes his poems mean so much.

I love Burns’ poem to a mouse; however, tonight, on Burn’s Night, the poet is most remembered for his (sexist) poem, A Man’s a Man, for a’ That:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hangs his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, call’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Since we’re coming onto Imbolc, the Pagan holiday most associated with poetry, perhaps my readers will indulge my notice that Robert Burns was also a poet of the then-fading Pagan practices in Scotland. For example, we often hear his poem about John Barleycorn when we reach the end of Summer:

There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
They took a plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead.

But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all.

The sultry suns of Summer came,
And he grew thick and strong;
His head weel arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one should him wrong.

The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he began to fail.
His colour sicken’d more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.

They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then tied him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie.
They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell’d him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn’d him o’er and o’er.

They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him further woe;
And still, as signs of life appear’d,
They toss’d him to and fro.
They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.

And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.

Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland

Sweet Mother, how easy is it to go back to a time when the cheap meat of a late-slaughtered lamb and some oats were enough to keep you alive at Imbolc, when no one cared about how “low” the meat may be, but it was meat — high calorie meat with blood, and iron, and protein? Like my friend Byron Ballard, well-fed here in the early 21st Century, I’m longing for parsley, greens grown upon the soil of my own Virginia Bit of Earth, and sweet milk. But my foremothers were happy to have haggis and I am grateful to them for staying alive and bearing, and bearing, and bloody, iron-draining, bearing.

No wonder the poor Scots made a ritual of it, with poems, and bagpipes, and a ritual cut with a ritual knife. May you find what keeps you alive in this deep winter. May you turn toward it with poetry, and pipes, and panoply. May you find a poet of Your Place and may you dare be poor, for a’ that.

We Can All Use a Bit of Caledonia

Blessed Burns Night

Today is the 253rd birthday of Scottish poet-farmer Robert Burns. Celebrated in Scotland (and all the spots of the Scottish diaspora) with songs, poetry, and haggis, Burns Night is near and dear to my Pagan, partly Pictish heart. (There’s something about this time of year that makes us long for poetry. Imbolc, when we honor Brigid, Goddess of poetry, is coming and, once again, there will be an online poetry slam in Her honor.)

I left lunch at a little restaurant on Dupont Circle today and dropped the folder of cases I’d been reading. A young man in a kilt and mad leg tattoos picked them up for me. I smiled and said, “Thank you; happy Burns Night,” and he broke into the song. (Do I love Washington, D.C.? Yes, yes I do.)

Here are the lyrics to Burns’ best-known poem. It’s become an anthem for Scottish independence.

Is there, for honest poverty,
That hangs his head, and a’ that?
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Our toils obscure, and a’ that;
The rank is but the guinea-stamp,
The man’s the gold for a’ that!

II
What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, and a’ that;
Gi’e fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man for a’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, and a’ that;
The honest man, though e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that!

III
Ye see yon birkie, called a lord,
Wha struts, and stares, and a’ that;
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that;
For a’ that, and a’ that,
His ribbon, star, and a’ that,
The man of independent mind
He looks and laughs at a’ that!

IV
A prince can mak’ a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and a’ that,
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Good faith he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their dignities, and a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, and pride o’ worth,
Are higher ranks than a’ that.

V
Then let us pray that come it may—
As come it will for a’ that—
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree, and a’ that;
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that!

And it’s no mistake that Scottish patriots picked today to launch their latest bid for Scottish independence.

I’ve been thinking lately about how much we Pagans love our symbolic THINGS. You know, the Ring of Mordor, the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus, the Grail, the Sorcerers’ Stone, the Book of Shadows that you made yourself in the early days of your love affair with The Craft, the cauldron that you found at an odd little shop somewhere. In Scotland, they love The Stone of Scone (is that poetically perfect, or what?), also known as the Stone of Destiny. And, in case you’re ever inclined to doubt the importance of symbols that speak to Younger Self, there’s a great movie about an historical event from 1950. It tells the story of Scottish nationalists who stole the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey in England (whence it had been taken by, as Wikipedia recounts:

[i]n 1296 . . . Edward I [of England] as spoils of war . . . to Westminster Abbey, where it was fitted into a wooden chair, known as King Edward’s Chair, on which most subsequent English sovereigns have been crowned. Doubtless by this [King Edward] intended to symbolize his claim to be “Lord Paramount” of Scotland with right to oversee its King)

You can watch it on Netflix and it’s a lovely movie.

Wikipedia says that:

On Christmas Day 1950, a group of four Scottish students (Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson, and Alan Stuart) took the Stone from Westminster Abbey for return to Scotland. In the process of removing it from the Abbey the stone broke into two pieces. After hiding the greater part of the stone with travellers in Kent for a few days, they risked the road blocks on the border and returned to Scotland with this piece, which they had hidden in the back of a borrowed car, along with a new accomplice John Josselyn. The smaller piece was similarly brought north a little while later. This journey involved a break in Leeds, where a group of sympathetic students and graduates took the fragment to Ilkley Moor for an overnight stay, accompanied by renditions of “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”. The Stone was then passed to a senior Glasgow politician who arranged for it to be professionally repaired by Glasgow stonemason Robert Gray.

A major search for the stone had been ordered by the British Government, but this proved unsuccessful. Perhaps assuming that the Church would not return it to England, the stone’s custodians left it on the altar of Arbroath Abbey, on 11 April 1951, in the safekeeping of the Church of Scotland. Once the London police were informed of its whereabouts, the Stone was returned to Westminster. Afterwards, rumours circulated that copies had been made of the Stone, and that the returned Stone was not in fact the original.

Today, the Stone of Scone resides once again in Scotland, at least until Prince Charles (presumably) requires it for his coronation.

Again from Wiki:

In 1996, in a symbolic response to growing dissatisfaction among Scots at the prevailing constitutional settlement, the British Conservative Government decided that the Stone should be kept in Scotland when not in use at coronations. On 3 July 1996 it was announced in the House of Commons that the Stone would be returned to Scotland, and on 15 November 1996, after a handover ceremony at the border between representatives of the Home Office and of the Scottish Office, it was transported to Edinburgh Castle, arriving on 30 November 1996, where it remains along with the crown jewels of Scotland in the Crown Room. The handover was done on St. Andrew’s Day (patron Saint of Scotland); the Queen sent as her representative Prince Andrew. Provision has been made to transport the stone to Westminster Abbey when it is required there for future coronation ceremonies.

Scots being Scots, there’s a song about the return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland:

Here are the lyrics:

The Stone that my grandmother
And grandfather used to talk about
Has returned as it left
My brave Stone
And I don’t care whether it’s in Kerrera,
Callendar, or Calvay
As long as it’s in
Steep, rugged Scotland

Chorus (after each verse):
‘S i u ro bha ho ro hilli um bo ha ‘S i u ro bha ho ro hilli um bo ha
Hilli um bo ruaig thu i hilli um bo ha Hilli um bo ruaig thu i hilli um bo ha
‘S i u ro bha ho ro hilli um bo ha ‘S i u ro bha ho ro hilli um bo ha

To be put in a place of refuge
Which will conceal it safely
So that they can’t, they won’t manage to
Remove a single fragment of it
The Stone that was lost to us
Prised from their grasp
And certainly, if it has returned
That’s a very good thing

Let us swear by our hand
Each and every one of us
That we will allow nothing to endanger
The man who unloosed it
And dared to rescue it
From an unpleasant place
If they lay hands on him
We’ll need to be strong
And strike a blow for him
Using steel

The Minister was so sorrowful
When he woke that morning
His eyes bleary
As he turned out
Walking the floor
Sighing and praying
And looking at the nook
Where he’d found the Stone missing

There was much pacing
And running ’round the floor
And all he could say was
“Where did the Stone go?”
And, “By the Holy Mother
What will I do tomorrow
I know the Queen
Will be beside herself”

Said he, looking deathly pale
“I’d never have believed
It could have been raised from the floor
By someone no bigger than a wasp
Something is to happen to me
And Heaven help me
The man who unloosed it
Must be as strong as a horse

(Sèist 2x) (Chorus 2x)

I’ve often thought that the first Pagan President of the United States (soon may she govern) should take the Oath of Office with her hands over Earth gathered from every state in the Union, feathers from the bald eagle, lava from Hawaii, and water gathered from the Atlantic and the Pacific. I’d believe that oath long after one sworn on an old book of Middle Eastern lore. We have no Stone of Scone, here, but we have symbols that speak to Younger Self. For me, one of the most important is the statue of Columbia atop the U.S. Capitol.

What’s your Grail? Your Emerald Tablet? Your Stone of Scone? What symbols speak directly to your limbic system? What makes your Younger Self stand up and salute? What gives you goosebumps? What symbol (the flag? the Constitution? your grandmother’s old soup pot?) would you steal back from the colonizers? What’s stopping you?

May You Dwell in Your Own Caledonia

It would take, I think, the same hurricane-force winds to tear me from my own bit of Earth that it takes to uproot the mighty oak trees around here. And, yet, there’s really not a day that goes by that some part of me doesn’t long for the West Virginia mountains, and another part that doesn’t long for the highlands of Caledonia.

Where does your spirit reside?

Wherever it is, I hope that, tonight, you are with those you love. Because that is what truly brings our spirits and our bodies home.