Robert Burns, the celebrated poet of Scotland, should be remembered for his deep yet simple poems like “A Man’s a man for a’ that” , “Auld Lang Syne”, or “Scots Wha Hae” and others which speak of mankind and his pursuit of life and liberty. Since Burns was born after the Union of the Crowns of 1707, his native land was under the watchful eye of England and he never knew the freedom his fathers experienced in centuries gone bye. His desire for freedom bled out into his poetry. His honest poems described life as it was in Lowland Scotland and often in his own native tongue of Scots. Within the myriad of Burns’ poems there lies one poem which is quite dear to me.
Being raised most of my life a Presbyterian, I have come to really appreciate my small but glorious heritage of Lowland Scotland and the faith that once resounded clearly from its high green moors. Burns’ poem “A Cotter’s Saturday Night” often reminds me of my own upbringing and a fictional book I read about the Covenanters. One word of warning to readers, Burns’ uses Scots in this poem which makes the poem a little difficult to read. If you find the poem online, they will provide a translation for some of the more difficult words. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful poem.
He begins this poem with a recount of the cotter or farmer’s day. It’s cold November and the farmer has had a long day in the fields. For much of history, Scotland remained the poorest nation in Europe and that reality is present in this poem. As he nears his humble home, the younger children and his wife come out to meet him. I found this very familiar since the book I read about Scottish Covenanters (The Crown and Covenant series by Douglas Bond) had a similar scene and everytime my father comes home, my family comes out to greet him. Amidst the sons coming in and bringing the herds and flocks home, we meet Jenny, the eldest daughter and “eldest hope”. In most of the Scottish stories I’ve read, there is always this type of character. Before supper the children mingle tell the happenings of the day with their father listening on. To all their stories the parents add this adage:
Their master’s and their mistress’ command,
The younkers a’ are warned to obey;
And mind their labours wi’ an eydent hand,
And ne’er, tho’ out o’ sight, to jauk or play;
“And O! be sure to fear the Lord alway,
And mind your duty, duly, morn and night;
Lest in temptation’s path ye gang astray,
Implore His counsel and assisting might:
They never sought in vain that sought the Lord aright.”
As they fellowship in the home, a new character comes, a young lad from a neighboring farm who escorted Jenny home. Burns uses various descriptors to augment Jenny’s actions when the suitor calls and Burns assures the man is of good intent. But here we see the true virtue of the children, they all have respect and are well behaved.
The lad stays for supper and Burns launches into a description of noble Scottish fare. While this food may not seem appetizing to Americans, this was all these people had and they were glad to get it. Such are the times of 18th and 19th century Scotland. After supper comes the climax of the evening, the family settles down to worship the Lord. Although Burns has verbally persecuted the piety of his Presbyterian brothers, he does not do so now. Once again there are correlations between this poem and those other books I read. The scenes look so familiar. The family sings the Psalms a cappella to the old Scottish hymn tunes, tunes which today I love to sing. Burns then goes on to praise Scotia’s history and how her simple ways make men honor her. He then calls to the Lord to bless his countrymen and never leave it. For as he says,
“The patriot’s God peculiarly thou art,
His friend, inspirer, guardian, and reward!)
O never, never Scotia’s realm desert;
But still the patriot, and the patriot-bard
In bright succession raise, her ornament and guard!
Such thoughts of liberty were present in our Founding Fathers and it was their desire that we might be as this humble cotter’s family. This poem, since it bears “Saturday Night” in its title, must challenge us to consider what our Saturday nights are like. From growing up in a family not too different from this Scottish family, my father used the times of reading God’s Word and singing psalms and hymns to ready ourselves for worship the following morning. Such activities slow us down and sober our minds and hearts to worship at His Throne. It is quite amazing how poems can be used to challenge us as well as display the glory of God in his creation and gifts.