Robert Burns

Today is the 256th birthday of Robert Burns, the now almost entirely incomprehensible 18th Century Scots poet celebrated by the much diluted Scottish diaspora ’round the world as an opportunity for sly subversion.

I realize it verges on sacrilege to admit that in the early 21st Century it’s almost impossible to understand what the hell Burns is talking about, but that’s what makes the subversion sly.

If Stephen Harper and his ilk could actually comprehend what Burns’s poems were saying, they’d round up the Caledonian Society, make them trade their kilts and sporrans for orange jump suits and send in robotic sniffers to render the haggis harmless.

Instead, they’ve likely been standing about like fools in unaccustomed kilts with the wind whipping uncomfortably around their nether parts, or leastways their tartan budgie-smugglers, whilst sipping from $6,000 bottles of Japanese Scotch.*

It’s bad enough having people quote Burns about that mousie to mock the PM’s closely closeted personal security measures — wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie – or to comment on the ability of Alberta politicians generally to plan for an entirely predictable change in the price of oil — the best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men gang aft agley an’lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promis’d joy.

But how about this from the self-described “Son of Sedition”?

Ye see yon birkie ca’d ‘a lord,’
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that?
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that

That could describe almost any of the boys in short pants from the Prime Minister’s Office. I’ll leave it to readers to look up what a “coof” is.

Burns may be Scotland’s favourite son in 2015, but in the 18th Century when he lived and breathed, he was a rhymin’ Rabbie rouser appealing for insurrection on the lines of the French Revolution and inciting direct violence against the class of people, tiny then and now, that Harper tirelessly serves.

And if you think nowadays reading or writing poetry can’t get you in trouble — leastways, if anyone can understand what the poem’s trying to say — consider the sad case of Samina Malik, the first person convicted under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act of 2000.

Malik’s crime: “Possessing a document or a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.” To wit, her own poetry, not unlike that of Robert Burns in some regards, in addition, in fairness, a few hand-to-hand combat manuals and the like.

As an aside about the topic of hand-to-hand combat manuals, with Harper’s coming “anti-terror” legislation, subscribers to Black Belt Magazine may wish to prepare by seeking legal counsel. They could be next!

Getting back to Malik, her conviction was overturned on appeal. Just the same, as The Scotsman, a newspaper in Edinburgh, Scotland, observed: “The parallels between Burns and Malik are obvious: radicalized politics; associating with others of a like mind; connections with foreign terrorist groups and a call to insurrection.” As Burns wrote:

‘Lay the proud usurpers low,
Tyrants fall in every foe,
Liberty’s in every blow! –
Let us do or dee

I pity the man who has’na heard the pipes of Bonnie Scotland!

* Someone’s certain to write and complain that “Scotch” can only be used to describe whisky from Scotland. This is like saying “champagne” only comes from one part of France and can’t be used colloquially to describe any old bubbly from the Okanagan, Bulgaria or the southern reaches of the former Soviet Union. Having your exclusive name used generically by ordinary folks is one of the prices of success. Get used to it!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, NOTE TO READERS: I will be on the road for a few days. This doesn’t necessarily make it harder to file blog posts, but it certainly makes it harder to write them. So commentary on may be sporadic (which is nothing to do with sporrans), or even absent, for a few days.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...