My Love’s Like a Red Red Rose
Robert Burns
1794

One of the most famous poems of the great Robbie Burns was not, in fact, really written by him. “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” is actually a song, collected by Burns in the last decade of his life as he sought to gather, print and preserve old Scots folk songs. Burns himself collected some 300 tunes (the most famous being the New Year’s standard “Auld Lang Syne”) on behalf of the Scots Musical Museum and, too, a book project under the editorship of George Thomspon, who would publish five volumes of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice. So why do we associate “Red Red Rose” with Burns rather than Thompson, or even folksong generally? Cause Thompson didn’t care for Burns’ find. Robbie Burns noted that this “simple old Scots song which I had picked up in the country” seemed to him beautiful and important, simple and wild, while to Thompson’s mind it represented nothing but “the ludicrous and the absurd”. And so Burns passed the words on to his friend Pietro Urbani to set to music and publish in his smaller collection, Scots Songs – directly attributing the find to the “celebrated Scots poet”, who had heard, transribed, and re-worked the traditional piece into the version we now know.

Scotland’s favourite son, a founder of Romanticism, inspiration to nationalists and socialists, and – more than anyone else, ever – symbol of Scots tradition and Scots pride, Robbie Burns remains an iconic figure, his birthday (January 25th) celebrated around with world with haggis, poetry, song and more than a little drinking. He joined together radical politics and discussion of class, gender, sexuality with a celebration of popular culture and popular pastime; drawing on a strong foundation in classical literature and religious thought, he merged this tradition with local custom, Scots language and regional dialects to create a literature that was at once particular and universal, that captured a specifically Scots tradition while connecting to and with debates, discussions, and experiences having a wide geographic, cultural and historical reach.

Throw on a kilt and pour yourself a pint or six; invite your friends and get your hands dirty together mixing up a haggis or whatever approximation you can stand to eat; read some Robbie Burns and sing some songs. It will be one of the greatest nights of your life. If it isn’t? You are clearly not drinking enough.

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