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Scotland Celebrates Robert Burns

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This past Wednesday was Robert Burns day in Scotland. The annual birthday celebrations in honor of the great 18th Century poet featured the traditional bagpipe music and boozy dinners, and, this year, the release of a Burns Night iPod app to help make the most of your celebrations. The parties were going smoothly until a four-foot tall papier-mâché haggis caused a security incident at a Scottish railway station. But what's a good party without a security incident?

Whether you're familiar with Burns or not, you know his poetry. He penned the words to "Auld Lang Syne" that you fumble through after the ball lands on New Year's Day. And two of the most celebrated American novels, Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, take their names from Burns' poems.

But while Burns has made his mark here, his influence in his home country of Scotland is massive. Burns is Scotland's national poet. He was, and is, revered for choosing to write his poems in the Scottish dialect, rather than in English. And his efforts to celebrate and memorialize Scottish culture were invaluable for their contribution to the Scottish identity.

Burns also, less fortunately, immortalized a Scottish dish called haggis -- the liver, lungs and heart of a sheep spiced and stuffed in a sheep's stomach -- in his poem "Address to Haggis":

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 o' a grace

As lang's my arm.

Speaking of poetry, Scots also voted, this year, on their favorite Burns poem. His great narrative poem, "Tam o'Shanter," came in first -- the tale of a man who has a vision of the devil while drunkenly riding home on his horse. It's a moralistic, tongue-in-cheek tale about the evils of drinking. Tam's wife, you see, had warned him that his carousing might cost him:

She prophesied that late or soon,

Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,

Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,

By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.

But just when it looks like the devil might take Tam, he escapes, at the cost of just his horse's tail. You can read the entire poem here.

A poignant poem about humanity, "A Man's a Man for A' That'," came in second:

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

And there is perhaps no better way of understanding Burns' value to Scotland than to listen to a Scot singing one of his poems. You can watch a great version of "A Man's a Man" sung by a Lionell McClellend of Moffat, here. It's enough to make a man wish he were Scottish (and A' That).