Showing posts with label Alloway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alloway. Show all posts

There Was a Lad and all that

Happy birthday to Robert Burns who was born on this day, here in Ayrshire in 1759. I knew little about him when we moved up here in the early sixties, but I quickly became a fan. Over the years, I've written a radio play and then a stage play about him. But my biggest project was The Jewel, a novel about the poet's wife, Jean Armour, and a companion anthology called For Jean, Poems, Songs and Letters by Robert Burns for his wife. He called her The Jewel of them all, and so she was. But although the novel is a third person story (he said, she said)  it is nevertheless very much told from Jean's point of view, So of course, I too began to see the poet from his wife's point of view. 

And was equally charmed by him. 

Whenever I've done book events or talks about the novel, somebody in the audience - usually a woman - has asked me what I thought about him, and I've always had to confess that I reckon in Jean's shoes, I'd have fallen for him too. Hook, line and sinker. 

One of his most attractive qualities must have been his sense of humour. He made people laugh. He made women laugh. He genuinely seemed to like women, young, old and every age in between  - which for a man of his time was a fairly rare quality. If he had to fall in love to write a love poem - as he himself admitted - he also had many genuine friendships with women throughout his too short life. He had his faults, but my goodness he must have been attractive. 

Anyway - hope you've got your haggis and neeps and tatties for tonight. (I love Burns, but haggis, not so much!) - and perhaps a wee dram as well. 

Here's my very favourite version of Rab's song about himself, from the late, wonderful and much missed Andy M Stewart: Rantin Rovin Robin. 

There was a lad was born in Kyle,

But whatna day o' whatna style,

I doubt it's hardly worth the while

To be sae nice wi' Robin.

Chorus  - Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', rantin', rovin',

Robin was a rovin' boy,

Rantin', rovin', Robin!

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane

Was five-and-twenty days begun

'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win'

Blew hansel in on Robin.

Robin was etc

The gossip keekit in his loof,

Quo' scho, "Wha lives will see the proof,

This waly boy will be nae coof:

I think we'll ca' him Robin."

Robin was etc

"He'll hae misfortunes great an' sma',

But aye a heart aboon them a',

He'll be a credit till us a'-

We'll a' be proud o' Robin."

Robin was, etc

"But sure as three times three mak nine,

I see by ilka score and line,

This chap will dearly like our kin,

So leeze me on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

"Guid faith," quo', scho, "I doubt you gar

The bonie lasses lie aspar;

But twenty fauts ye may hae waur

So blessins on thee! Robin."

Robin was, etc

Poor, Dear, Unfortunate Jean

Jean Armour in old age, with her grand-daughter. 

I posted this recently on the Authors Electric blog (some very good stuff on there at the moment about the hideous new EU VAT rules - you can find it at this link) but thought it might be worth reblogging it here on my own blog - especially given how close we are to Burns Night

For the past nine months or so, I’ve been deep into research for a new novel – a fictional account of the life of Robert Burns’s longsuffering wife, Jean Armour. Or, ‘poor, dear, unfortunate Jean’ as the poet (often called ‘the Bard’ up here) described her in one of his more whiny and self absorbed letters. And for the past couple of months, I’ve also been writing the novel itself. Or trying to.

He had offered her marriage, she had agreed, then repented under pressure from her parents, especially her dad who is reported to have fainted clean away when he heard the news of the common law marriage. He thought Rob wasn’t good enough for his much loved daughter, and he may well have had a point. Very much miffed, the poet decided to cut his losses and leave Scotland. Only the success of his first publication prevented him from heading to the Indies where he would probably have fallen victim to some foreign fever. But even when he was being celebrated in Edinburgh, even when he was seeing other women and writing love poems to and about them, his references to Jean in his correspondence suggest that he couldn’t quite dislodge her from his affections, however hard he tried. And believe me, he tried.

I’ve had a soft spot for Jean for more years than I care to recall. I’ve written two plays about Rob Mossgiel as Burns sometimes called himself – Mossgiel being the name of the family farm, or the one they were currently renting, anyway. Both times, the plays turned out to be as much about Jean as they were about her husband. Interestingly, even nowadays in Ayrshire, farmers are often named after their farms. There used to be a Jim Grimmet who lived outside this village. Sometimes it’s just the farm name as applied to the man – Auchenairney, for instance.

The Bleach Green in Mauchline which figures in the tale of Jean and Robert.
Also said to be the site of the Elbow Tavern.
The old man is Sandy Marshall, born while Jean was still alive.

I already knew quite a bit about Jean, but I needed to know more. There is a vast amount of information about Robert out there but considerably less about his wife. This, I’ve decided, is because with a handful of welcome exceptions, most of the commentators past and present, academic and popular, have believed the fiction that in marrying Jean, a reasonably prosperous, property-owning stonemason’s daughter, he was somehow marrying beneath him. Thank goodness for Robert Crawford who in his excellent biography of the poet, The Bard, was not shy of expressing his opinion that Jean was too good for her husband. Besides, if Jean’s dad thought that the marriage was a non-starter, how much less welcome would the Bard have been as the strapped-for-cash, albeit not actually penniless, partner of some country gentleman’s daughter in a Scotland where the class divisions were much more strongly marked than they are now. And the divisions still do exist.

Mossgiel looking very much as it would have done in Burns's time
Jean may not have been a great reader although she was well able to read and write. Books were scarce, unless – like her husband – you went out of your way to beg, borrow or buy them. She certainly read his poems. She was a strong, healthy, good natured and intelligent young woman who was willing to learn what she needed to know to support her husband and her children. There is a kindliness about her, a sturdy and beautiful sense of morality that shines through all her actions. And a deeply attractive physicality. The more I know about her, the more I love her. 

She even went to Mossgiel to learn all about dairying from Rob’s mother and sisters, when her husband took a lease on a small farm called Ellisland, down in Dumfries and Galloway. 

Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. They moved here from Mauchline.
Little of her correspondence survives. There were a few letters written by other people on her behalf but these were mostly on matters of business or legality, when she was older. It’s clear that she was literate but unsure of herself when it came to the complexities of these matters. We have a clutch of letters from her sons when they were grown up or in their teens, living elsewhere, especially from a son who was studying in London and wrote her the kind of loving, begging letter with which all mothers will be familiar: ‘It’s great down here, but I need some clothes and a bit of cash.’ Well, perhaps not in those very words, but that kind of thing.

We don’t know what she wrote to her husband when they were apart because he didn’t think to keep any of it. We have a handful of letters and poems from him to her, touchingly domestic, extraordinarily loving. In fact it seems very odd to me that strings of academics have been blind to just how much he loved and relied on her. 

Jean's teapot.

‘My Dear Love, I received your kind letter with a pleasure which no letter but one from you could have given me – I dreamed of you the whole night last; but alas! I fear it will be three weeks yet ere I can hope for the happiness of seeing you. My harvest is going on. I have some to cut down still but I put in two stacks today, so I am as tired as a dog.’ 

He goes on to talk endearingly about sweet milk cheese, table linen and her new gowns. Real life. We know that when he did manage to come back to Mossgiel, she would walk out to meet him along the road. As you would. They were in their twenties, in love and in lust. 

Robert Burns: the handsome husband.
But although it’s easy to get a sense of her, it’s harder to find out the facts. There are objects, of course, and references to objects, and that’s what fascinates me most of all : a pretty teapot, a flower picture, a plate, a pair of spectacles, a beautiful gold and coral brooch, a fine china bowl with birds and roses, a corner cupboard, a kettle, a cookery book and a bonnet box. I love her stuff. There’s so much of the woman in there. But as I read all these books, past and present, in which she figures only as a bit player, a walk-on part, I realise that so many of these commentators and researchers despise the domesticity instead of asking themselves what this love of pretty things and nice clothes might tell us about Jean and her husband, who clearly liked them too and aspired to a certain level of comfort.

Jean's flower picture

Oh, and she could sing like a bird. She knew all the old songs and she sang them well. And since her husband was a song collector, the song collector of Scotland par excellence – that too has to count for something, doesn’t it? Burns Night, by the way, is on 25th January. Robert was born on that date in 1759 in a cottage in Alloway not far from the town of Ayr, and almost immediately, the chimney blew down in one of the winter storms that were commonplace in the West of Scotland and still are. There's one blowing up even as I write this in a house built only fifty years after the year of the poet's birth. Jean was younger than her husband, born on February 25th in 1765. 

Meanwhile, I wrestle with the elephant in the room, a large poet-sized elephant, an elephant that has assumed the status of myth, all things to all men. This is a novel about Jean. It will of necessity also be a novel about her famous husband. But the task of making it genuinely about Jean and not about ‘Rob through Jean’s eyes’ like everything else ever written, including my own plays on the subject – that’s the really tricky bit!

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The New Mattress and the Selkirk Grace

For anyone who has been wondering what happened next, the new mattress is wonderful, thanks! It's a Sealy Posturepedic Diamond Latex and no, they aren't paying me to advertise. I don't do that on this blog. But when something is this good, I may as well be honest about it. 

I love it.

It is about a million times more comfortable than the Memory Foam Monstrosity: firm but not too firm, soft on top, springy where it needs to be springy, deep and deeply comfortable. Actually, I didn't sleep too soundly last night, only because I kept half waking up and thinking 'Wow, isn't this mattress blissful?' and then falling asleep again.

My husband, who was excessively attached to the Memory Foam Monstrosity thinks that it is 'alright' which is high praise. We'll see. The day the MFM is carted away by the council is the day I'll know he means it.

In other news, the weather is wintry beyond belief and we had a power cut this afternoon. We were due to attend a meeting at the Burns Museum in Alloway, so took ourselves off there for an excellent lunch first.  Does this count as 'research' for my Jean Armour novel? Maybe. Disappointed to see that the museum shop is selling Burns Supper invitation cards containing the Selkirk Grace with ... aargh ... the wrong words. Not just a variation on the Scots which would be OK, but an intrusive 'not' that makes a  nonsense of the second line and - to some extent - the whole wee poem: 'Some wad not eat that want it.' Did they think Rab got it wrong, maybe and took it upon themselves to edit him?

Just in case this bugs you as much as it bugs me, here are the right ones:

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Ellisland: the long road to a new novel.

Ellisland Farm
Last week, we headed south to Ellisland, near Dumfries, the farm where Robert Burns and Jean Armour spent some three years of their early married life and where he composed - among other memorable poems - Tam O' Shanter. 

The last time I visited this place, I was very young. Even then, I was so 'into' Burns, a fascination that has never really left me, that I was always persuading my mum and dad to drive about the countryside, visiting places with connections to the poet. It helped that we lived within walking distance of Burns Cottage in Alloway and I would wend my way there on fine spring and summer Saturdays, always hoping to see a ghost or two. Rab remained obdurately unwilling to manifest himself, even for such a fan as me. 

Later, much later, I wrote a couple of plays about Burns: one for BBC R4 about the writing of Tam o' Shanter, notable mainly for a stunning performance of the poem from Liam Brennan as Burns, with Gerda Stevenson as Jean and an early appearance by Billy Boyd (of later hobbit fame) who was an absolute joy to work with and made everyone laugh. 

Later, I wrote a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, about the last few weeks of the poet's life down on the Solway coast. But in both of these plays, Jean Armour, the poet's long-suffering wife, figured largely, her voice more or less demanding to be heard. (Much as William's voice would not be denied in The Physic Garden!) 

Ever since then, I've wanted to write a novel about Jean. Not a piece of non-fiction, although like all my historical fiction it'll be well researched. But I've had this longing to crawl inside Jean's head and try to write her story. You've only to read a few accounts of the poet's life to see how easy it seems to have been for academics to dismiss Jean as 'not quite worthy of the bard.' Creative Scotland, it seems, agrees with me, because they have just awarded me a very welcome sum of money to research the novel and here I am, at the start of a longish road to a new book. 

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean

Anyway, I loved Ellisland. And I loved it not least because it hasn't been overly interpreted. It remains one of those atmospheric places where nobody has got their hands on the displays, nobody has introduced sound and light effects with a hundred buttons for kids to press, and nobody has tried to tell you what you ought to think and feel. 

I don't know how long the Trust in charge of Ellisland will resist the temptation to revamp it, so I'm very glad I saw it as it is. It was a very fine day, there were house martins flying and calling about the old buildings and the walk along the Nith, where Rab is said to have composed Tam, was a green, shady pathway, fringed with wild flowers, dappled with sunshine. The curator, who lives in the cottage, was knowledgeable and helpful, and the exhibits - oh the exhibits were to treasure: Burns's sword, Jean Armour's much mended 'mutch' and the poet's wooden box, hewn from a single log, with his initials on the top. 

This is how these small museums used to be and sometimes I find myself wondering what it is about them that I enjoy so much and what it is about the new museums that - splendid and well thought out as they are - so irritates me sometimes. I can only conclude that where there is too much explanation and interpretation, there is no room at all for imagination. You are always being told what to feel and what to think. 

One of the tricks to writing historical fiction is to do just enough research. But then, you give yourself permission to make things up. And only then do you find out what you don't know, what you actually need to know. So you go back and find some answers. But if you do too much research to begin with, if you dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's there's a good chance that you won't want to make anything up at all. 

Ellisland is open to the public and it's magic. If you're a Burns enthusiast, go and see it while it's still in it's wonderfully welcoming state. If you're not a Burns enthusiast, you may well have changed your mind by the time you come away! 

There Was A Lad - Happy Birthday to Rab.

This post is reposted from my last Authors Electric post. I thought it might be worth another outing on my Wordarts blog. After all, you can't have too much of a good thing, and Rab was a very very good thing!

On 25th January 1759, our national poet (or one of them - we're not short of poets up here) was born.
Or as Rab himself would have it: 

There was a lad was born in Kyle, 
But whatna day o' whatna style, 
I doubt it's hardly worth the while 
To be sae nice wi' Robin. 

Our monarch's hindmost year but ane 
Was five-and-twenty days begun, 
'Twas then a blast o' Janwar' win' 
Blew hansel in on Robin.

Kyle is a part of Ayrshire (the others are Carrick, where I live, and which has lots of Burns associations too) and Cunningham, a bit like the Ridings of my native Yorkshire. The blast of January wind blew down the chimney of the cottage that Burn's father had built for himself and his family in Alloway, near Ayr. You can listen to the whole poem if you like, here, recited engagingly by Alan Cumming for the BBC. 

So this post is a wee pre Happy Birthday shout out to possibly my favourite poet of all time: Robert Burns. 

Here's one we did earlier!
We'll be having a smallish, private Burns Supper in this village about a week later. We'll eat traditional food: cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, steak pie, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, trifle, oatcakes and cheese. This is not, I have to confess, my favourite meal of the year. I can pretty much take or leave everything except the trifle, the oatcakes and cheese. But the company is always good. There will be plenty of wine, some whisky, excellent conversation, poetry, a few short and entertaining speeches, lots of toasts and some songs.

I have, occasionally, been invited to speak at other, more formal Burns Suppers - on one memorable occasion I had to give the 'Immortal Memory' which is the big speech of the evening. I had a tooth abscess and was on those antibiotics where they warn you not to touch a single drop of alcohol because it will have disastrous effects. (This is true, by the way. The effects are, I'm told, instantly emetic!) So I had to do it completely sober and toast Rab in mineral water.  The poet would have sympathised, both with the toothache and the abstinence.

Not quite how I first saw the cottage.

I've loved his poetry, but most particularly his songs, ever since we first moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve. I used to walk to Burns' Cottage in Alloway - still very atmospheric back then - and spend an hour or two daydreaming. The poems so precisely and heart-rendingly reflect the countryside around here. The poet himself seemed such a mass of contradictions - and the more I researched his life and work, the more intriguing those contradictions became.

My play about Robert Burns on Kindle.
I wrote a full length radio play for BBC R4 all about the writing of Tam O' Shanter, and then a stage play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, called Burns on the Solway.  As the playwright, I found the whole production more illuminating than I had believed possible - when a production goes well, and this one did, it somehow intensifies and enhances the idea you first had. And now, I seem to be writing a novel, about which I can't say any more than that it has been simmering inside me for a very long time. Perhaps since I was twelve and daydreaming in the old cottage. But even while I was writing The Physic Garden, William Lang, in that book, insisted on talking to me about Burns - who would have been a much more recent memory for my narrator. (Burns died in July 1796)

Donald Pirie and Claire Waugh, a compelling Robert and Jean.
First, William says 'I often think Mr Burns and myself might have had a great deal in common if we had had the good fortune to meet and talk about our respective experiences. Burns wrote convincingly and lovingly about the flowers of his native heath. I cannot even now read the lines, oft hae I rov'd by bonny Doon, to see the rose and woodbine twine; and ilka bird sang o' its luve, and fondly sae did I o' mine, without it bringing a lump to my throat, which is a very daft notion after all this time.'

And later, he quotes again: 'The tocher’s the jewel, as the poet Burns wrote. And so many men are but knotless threids who will slide away from lassies at time of need.'

Poets, male and female, don't always practise what they preach, and Burns was very far from being the saint depicted in so many fulsome Burns' Supper speeches. He was, in fact, capable of appalling behaviour, even by the different standards of his day. But any eighteenth century man who can write a song like The Tocher's the Jewel, has got to be applauded. Here's the original - followed by a loose translation for anyone who needs it.

O meikle thinks my Luve o' my beauty,
And meikle thinks my Luve o' my kin;
But little thinks my Luve, I ken brawlie,
My tocher's the jewel has charms for him.
It's a' for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's a' for the hinny he'll cherish the bee;
My laddie's sae meikle in love wi' the siller,
He canna hae luve to spare for me.

Your proffer o' luve's an airle-penny,
My tocher's the bargain ye wad buy;
But an ye be crafty, I am cunnin,
Sae ye wi' anither your fortune maun try.
Ye're like to the timmer o' yon rotten wood,
Ye're like to the bark o' yon rotten tree,
Ye'll slip frae me like a knotless threid,
And ye'll crack your credit wi' mae nor me.

Oh much thinks my love of my beauty,
And much thinks my love of my kin
But little thinks my love, I know fine,
My dowry's the jewel has charms for him.
It's all for the apple he'll nourish the tree;
It's all for the honey he'll cherish the bee
My laddie's so much in love with the silver (money)
He has no love to spare for me.

Your offer of love is an arles penny (this was money paid to seal a deal, usually between servant and master!)
My dowry's the bargain you would buy
But if you're crafty, I'll be cunning,
So you with another your fortune may try.
You're like to the timber of yon rotten wood,
You're like to the bark of yon rotten tree,
You'll slip from me like a knotless thread
And you'll  spend all your credit with more than me.

Not the best translation in the world, mostly because some of these words and phrases are virtually untranslatable - and still current, here in Ayrshire. Only a little while ago, I heard somebody describing a man sadly but accurately as a knotless threid. But it's this poem, among many other wonderful poems and songs, with its powerful and angry evocation of the voice of the young woman, that pays for all. For me, anyway.

I'll finish with another image from the play, courtesy of Leslie Black who took a series of stunning production photos.

Happy Birthday, Rab, when it comes.

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns

Ever since we moved to Ayrshire, when I was twelve, I have been a fan of our local poet, Robert Burns. When I was in my teens, we lived within easy walking distance of Burns' Cottage at Alloway, and I used to take myself off there on a Saturday morning. It was a nice atmospheric place then - hardly interpreted at all - and you could easily imagine yourself back in time. Or I could, anyway. I would lurk there for hours, conjuring ghosts which - sad to say - never appeared. But later, when I found that I wanted to write about Burns and his wife and his milieu, perhaps all that early daydreaming helped me.

The image above is - of course - the romantic portrait painted by Alexander Nasmyth. But this week, STV and David Heyman unveiled a more believable reconstruction of what the poet may have looked like. You can watch it  here - well worth a look. Scientists in Dundee had taken the existing cast of the poet's skull and - using up to date and fascinating methods - built up a more believable image. Well, I think it's more believable anyway. The picture has met with a mixed response. In fact the response has been rather like the response to a portrait, with people claiming to like it, not like it, or generally disputing whether it is in fact 'like him.' But nobody has seen him. Not in the flesh. Not even me, loitering in Burns Cottage, hoping for ghosts, all those years ago. Idealized 'poetic' portraits, like the one above - nice as it is - can't have told the whole story.

There's a silhouette which seems to have a rather heavier jaw than the neat little chin in the Naismith portrait. There's an old photo postcard of Jean Armour Burns Brown, the great grand-daughter of the poet, (above) who was said to resemble him. I have a copy of this in my own collection, and the eyes are very striking indeed. Contemporary descriptions often refer to his eyes as a noteworthy feature but these descriptions also stress that he was a countryman, the very image of a country farmer, albeit one who was singularly attractive to women. But we all know - don't we? - men who are deeply attractive but far from conventionally handsome. Often it's a question of energy, the ability to make you laugh, the ability to focus on you to the exclusion of all else, a talent for flirtation in a non threatening way.

And then comes the most recent image. At the point where it was unveiled, you can tell that - for some of those seeing it for the first time - the image was unexpected. It is one of those delightful 'sharp intake of breath' moments. And  even these reconstructions using sophisticated technology, are not the last word. But we've no reason to think that this might not be the closest we can come to seeing the real, true face of the poet. I'd love to know if Heyman interviewed the wonderful Ayrshire farmer and Burns devotee before or after the unveiling of the image, because the resemblance was pretty striking. Watch the programme and judge for yourself.

Looking at this image, people have remarked that the eyes are too close set (I don't know how much the structure of the skull would dictate this - but one assumes it would!) that the chin is too heavy (but then there's the silhouette to consider) and that it looks like a waxwork. To me, it also looks pretty much exactly like one of any number of the Ayrshire farmers who are my neighbours, here in this village some ten miles down the road from Alloway. There is an Ayrshire 'type' if it's permissible to say this: strong, stocky, very, very dark, thoughtful, energetic, intelligent, handsome rather than fine featured. You can spot them everywhere in Carrick. Although we know that Burns's father came from Kincardineshire, his mother, Agnes Broun, was a local woman. I've often wondered if Agnes conformed to that type as well - because if Rab loved his Jean (and I'm pretty sure he did!) she too was very dark, handsome rather than pretty, a fairly typical Ayrshire lass.

I've maintained a constant low key obsession with Burns and the women in his life for years. You can tell, can't you? Some time ago, I wrote a radio play about the writing of Tam O' Shanter - it was produced with the brilliant Liam Brennan as Burns and the equally wonderful Gerda Stevenson as Jean. For once, we got the right accent for Rab - Liam comes from Kilmarnock. You might be able to download it free, here although this seems to be a pirated version. But nobody else is doing anything with it, so if you want to listen, you might as well give it a try. Later this year, I will probably publish the script as an eBook to Kindle. I have about 100 plus hours of radio drama sitting about in script form, and some of the original plays, like this one, are worth publishing.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Robert and Jean
Meanwhile, I also wrote a short stage play called Burns on the Solway, for Glasgow's Oran Mor, A Play, A Pie and a Pint. It was directed by Michael Emans with Donald Pirie as an astonishingly believable - and ultimately heartbreaking - Burns, Clare Waugh as an equally heartbreaking and beautifully played Jean and Celine Donoghue providing music to die for: one of the most rewarding productions I have ever worked on. I loved what they did with it. You can download and read it on Kindle here in the UK and here in the USA. But meanwhile, you might like to read a review of it on today's Indie eBook Review, by my fellow playwright, Cally Phillips.

Robert Burns has become something of a constant in this family. My artist husband Alan Lees made a life size carving of Tam O' Shanter and his grey mare Meg. And then, when arthritis put paid to the carving, he painted a whole series of images of Tam, including this one above. (I particularly like the eyes under the bridge.) My new historical novel, The Physic Garden, due for publication in February, isn't about Burns, but it is set in Glasgow only a few years after his death, and the poet certainly gets a mention  I'm gearing up to tackling a much longer piece of fiction about the poet. But perhaps not this year!

Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about me, you could do worse than have a look at the interview I did recently for Tara Moore's lovely blog. It was a great pleasure to answer such an interesting set of questions.