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Friday, 24 January 2014


It is Burns Night tomorrow, the annual celebration of Scotland’s national bard.  Scots around the world will be enjoying a haggis supper where guests will be reading and reciting some of the immortal words of Robert Burns of Ayre.

‘Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe or thairm;
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.’

 That is the opening verse to the address to the haggis. It may seem hard to understand, yet if you read it I am sure you will get the gist.  It is a celebration of the haggis, a sort of super-sausage.

The dialect actually comes naturally to me, as a Scot, and I have been reciting every Burns night for decades. Indeed, many moons ago when I was at school in Scotland I came third in the school Burns’ recitation contest.  I won’t tell you how many people were in the contest!

The poet’s lumps and bumps
Robert Burns was originally buried in St Michael's Churchyard, Dumfries, in a simple grave, but his body was removed in 1817 and placed in a mausoleum built by public subscription. When his wife Jean died in 1834 the mausoleum was opened so that she could be laid beside him. Bizarrely, a plaster cast of his skull was then made to see whether phrenology could show where the genius of Robert Burns was located in his brain.

Phrenology was the name given to a school of thought devised by a certain Dr Gall in 1800. Essentially, it attempted to associate faculties of the mind with anatomical areas of the brain. It was at that time thought that the contours of the brain were mirrored by the contours and bumps on the skull. Interestingly, the phrenologist who did the examination, George Combe, one of the foremost practitioners commented that he had a remarkable degree of ‘philoprogenitiveness.’ This was a Victorian way of saying that he had a high sex drive. 

In this conclusion George Combe seems to have been correct, for Burns was known to have had a remarkably  active love life. Of course, phrenology is now known to be utter nonsense, yet if you are interested in the bizarre, if you go to the Robert Burns centre in Dumfries you will still see this curious exhibit.

But poetry is good for the brain
Poetry does actually stimulate the brain. That is the conclusion of scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University who have used brain imaging techniques to watch what happens to the brain when someone listens to or reads poetry.
They used Shakespeare, Wordsworth and TS Eliot. They looked at the brain images of volunteers while they read these poets. They then repeated the study, but this time substituting a ‘translation’ of the poetry. They found that the brain lights up in the right hemisphere when they read the real poetry, in an area associated with what is called ‘autobiographical memory.’ This curiously means that it helps the reader to reflect and reappraise their own experiences in the light of what they have read. In other words, reading difficult poetry actually seems to help you solve personal problems.

 Poetry stimulates the brain by making you pay extra attention as unusual words or patterns are read or listened to. Shakespeare in particular, really stretches the mind and stimulates the brain, because he used a linguistic form called ‘functional shift.’ This means throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, which catch the brain off guard. And all of that is good for you.

Enjoy your Burns Night.

1 comment:

  1. Poetry definitely stretches my poor brain. I've read Much Ado About Nothing (as original of a version as you can get) and watched the DVD (Emma Thompson version) tonight. My brain is ready for a margarita douche.

    Let us know how your recitation went. I hope you have fun, and Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!