Kirsty Gunn: What makes me want to sing Scots Wha Hae

After five years the patter of tiny black Labrador paws will finally be heard in the Gunn household. Picture: Getty
After five years the patter of tiny black Labrador paws will finally be heard in the Gunn household. Picture: Getty
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Burns Night makes Kirsty Gunn wonder what other country in the world has an annual feast in memory of a poet.

Well, it’s official. We’re past the “Better not say anything until we’re absolutely certain” stage.” We’ve had the blood tests, had the chat. Now we can break out the Champagne and tell our in-laws. June, our little black Labrador, is pregnant!

Who would have known it might be possible? In the five years since we picked her up from the redoubtable Billy Steele at Leadhills, with his kennel full of gorgeous gundogs, when she was no more than a tiny little glove of a thing, June has seen off every chap we’ve put her way. They’ve come a-courting, those handsome retrievers, and there was a moment back in 2015 when we thought there might be a young blade who’d caught June’s eye. But after a brief formal meeting it was a “no” there, too. It seemed like we caught fast in a sort of Labrador equivalent of a Tennessee Williams play: an young anxious girl at home with a little in the way of marriage prospects and no gentlemen caller to be persuaded to hang about and stay the course, as it were. No ma’am.

But then … well, Rum came for a visit. Now, Rum is one of Mike Rolland’s dogs, who I’ve written about in these pages before, and Mike himself a great friend of Billy and a great breeder and trainer of his own dogs – as well as being my husband’s cousin. He and his wife Liz were coming up to see us in Sutherland and as Mike had said in advance, “I might bring a few dogs with me.” An exciting line to hear at any time, but more so, perhaps, when we had a young single girl hanging around on her own with us who was attractive enough but had never gone out on a date. It was a bit like Mike bringing the first 15 from the Scotland Under-18s to stay, a whole car-ful of sturdy gentleman callers. “Bring as many dogs as you want” David said expansively. “We’d love to see you all.”

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It’s great, isn’t it, the way the way the canine and human aspect of things can merge so nicely? “We’d love to see you all” meant Mike and his family, of course, as many as wanted to come – they’re a talented and clever and interesting lot

and we love being with them all – but David was also talking about that kennel-full of hounds that sits next their house in Largo. And people who love dogs … they’ll get that combining of interests I’m talking about here. The people who don’t … well, I guess they’ve stopped reading this column by now. Anyway, to cut to the chase, as it were, following a bit of running around here and there, first to Sutherland and then down to the Borders and then a pick-up from Dalwhinnie, June is now expecting puppies. Not by the lovely Rum - it turned out he was far too focused on being well behaved for Mike than to have time for any of that sort of head-turning nonsense – but by a terrific lad Mike introduced her to who was well experienced in such matters and has sired squads of gorgeous puppies across the Kingdom. Interested readers: watch this space.

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And talking of that – the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place in it and all the rest of it – I’m keeping a lookout on this flag-flying business. OK, so the papers have apologised to Nicola Sturgeon. Because, OK, she wasn’t the one who actually said, Up with the Saltire, Down with the Union Jack. It was her predecessor, apparently, we’ve now found out, who, having had various conversations with the Queen, was the one who decided that the flag of the Union was to have only

limited airtime. Still. The fact is, I’ve now done some flag-flying research and have found it rather alarming to have discovered the amount of Saltire waving going on that has been decreed as part of official government policy. Updated flag info – for 2018 – has it that there is now only one day of the year when the Union Jack will fly in Scotland. All other occasions – apart from an armed services day when the Ensign Flag will fly alongside the Saltire – have been deemed Saltire Days. Crikey. That’s a lot of Scots, Wha hae. We think Robert Burns is great – and Burns Night is great – but the kind of nationalism that’s been rounded up in the increased flying of Saltires is hardly what the Burns himself had in mind when he wrote that poem. As we learn from Chris Whatley’s terrific historical and highly cinematic Immortal Memory: Burns and The Scottish People, the poet has been rounded up by politicians, and his work and profile put to work by them for their economic and social ends, for as long as his poems have been in circulation. And one poem, Scots Wha hae, or any others that may seem to be fluttering the flag of patriotism do not by any means indicate the full range of Burns’ complex and ambivalent relationship to ideas of nationhood and individuation. The poems that we love, after all, are in English as well as in Scots. We’d do well to remember that when it comes to running flags up flagpoles.

And now that Burns Night is over for another year, we might consider, too, it occurs to me, how it’s the things we do, not the flags we fly, that define who we are. What other country in the world, I wonder, has an annual feast in memory of

a poet? That this is a fact, this custom of ours, not a trumped up bit of jingoism or a directive from the Scottish Government? The reality of a festivity bringing together hearty food and poetry – with music, even better, if there’s a good piper handy – at a time in the year when otherwise things could be so bleak? That does make me want sing Scots, Wha hae! The way Burns Night swerves into view and scuppers any of those pious plans to give up this or that for the New Year and plies us instead with claret and whisky and a night of singing and poetry with friends. That’s something to celebrate, indeed. And to be reminded, as we do so, that last week saw Burns suppers being served all over the UK – not just in those places where only the Saltire was allowed to fly.