PART OF THE Spotlight on the South-West ISSUE

‘In the best work of the world’s most representative poet, every word can sound like an effusion of pure spirit.’

Scotland’s most famous poet belongs to the South-West, born and raised in Ayrshire, and seeing his last days in Dumfries, so we couldn’t shine a spotlight on the area without paying tribute to Robert Burns. Another writer from Ayrshire, Andrew O’ Hagan, has edited a brilliant, personal selection of his poetry, a perfect taster of the great poet’s works.


A Night Out With Burns
Edited by Andrew O’ Hagan
Published by Canongate


In the best work of the world’s most representative poet, every word can sound like an effusion of pure spirit. And who could mistake Burns’s genius when they encounter his beautiful lyric ‘Green Grow the Rashes’? He once introduced it by saying the song was written in ‘the genuine language of my heart’. A hymn to spontaneous affection over worldly desires, there is nothing else like it. I once knew a retired Ayrshire sailor, Mr Savage. I remember him singing this song one morning as he made his way along the seafront in the town of Saltcoats. The Firth of Clyde appeared to calm itself at the sound of the old man’s voice, as he sang this lilting memorial to a great and simple sentiment.


Green Grow the Rashes


Green grow the rashes, O;
Green grow the rashes, O;
The sweetest hours that e’er I spend,
Are spent amang the lasses, O.

There’s nought but care on ev’ry han’,
In ev’ry hour that passes, O:
What signifies the life o’ man,
An’ ’twere na for the lasses, O.
Green grow, &c.

The warly race may riches chase,
An’ riches still may fly them, O;
An’ tho’ at last they catch them fast,
Their hearts can ne’er enjoy them, O.
Green grow, &c.

But gie me a canny hour at e’en,
My arms about my Dearie, O;
An’ warly cares, an’ warly men,
May a’ gae tapsalteerie, O!
Green grow, &c.

For you sae douse, ye sneer at this,
Ye’re nought but senseless asses, O:
The wisest Man the warl’ saw,
He dearly lov’d the lasses, O.
Green grow, &c.

Auld Nature swears, the lovely Dears
Her noblest work she classes, O:
Her prentice han’ she try’d on man,
An’ then she made the lasses, O.
Green grow, &c.


One can practically see the yellow light at the window of the dance-hall and feel the pulse of romantic hope, a new and lively element in the blood. And here she is, Mary Morison – as ‘the dance gaed through the lighted ha’’ – and we are caught immediately in the drama of her specialness. There is a grave in Mauchline churchyard to ‘the poet’s bonnie Mary Morison, who died on 29 June 1791, aged 20’. Mary is a
ghost among the drinking glasses, yet forever alive in the flow of these images.


Mary Morison

O Mary, at thy window be,
It is the wish’d, the trysted hour;
Those smiles and glances let me see,
That make the miser’s treasure poor:
How blythely wad I bide the stoure,
A weary slave frae sun to sun;
Could I the rich reward secure,
The lovely Mary Morison!

Yestreen when to the trembling string
The dance gaed through the lighted ha’,
To thee my fancy took its wing,
I sat, but neither heard, nor saw:
Though this was fair, and that was braw,
And yon the toast of a’ the town,
I sigh’d, and said amang them a’,
‘Ye are na Mary Morison.’

O Mary, canst thou wreck his peace,
Wha for thy sake wad gladly die!
Or canst thou break that heart of his,
Whase only faute is loving thee!
If love for love thou wilt na gie,
At least be pity to me shown;
A thought ungentle canna be
The thought o’ Mary Morison.


I wrote part of my first novel, Our Fathers, in the west of Ireland, alone in a house by the sea in County Cork. After dark, a regular beam of light from the Fastnet lighthouse would fall over the bed and I woke there one night with a weathered thought. It was to do with the Irish who had left for Scotland years before. I went back to my desk and wrote some lines about the main character’s father, Tam. He ‘once wrote a letter to a cousin in Ireland, saying that he only stuck to the farm because of Robert Burns. “My habits are bad in the field,” he wrote, “but never mind, there’s something to see in the battle for stuff over here, with the thought of the poet’s hand there beside you.”‘ Tam then goes
to the Ayrshire madhouse at Glengall and sings ‘The Belles of Mauchline’ to his sick wife, and he kisses her.


The Belles of Mauchline

In Mauchline there dwells six proper young Belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a’,
Their carriage and dress a stranger would guess,
In Lon’on or Paris they’d gotten it a’:
Miss Miller is fine, Miss Murkland’s divine,
Miss Smith she has wit and Miss Betty is braw;
There’s beauty and fortune to get wi’ Miss Morton,
But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.—


A Night Out With Burns edited by Andrew O’ Hagan is published by Canongate, priced £9.99

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