Today marks the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, with many having a traditional meal with a haggis but not me. Many of us that grew up in Scotland will remember learning his works at school, I still stumble to understand and read them now. However, Burns was part of my childhood in a different way, as my beloved great uncle Lauderdale and I would always walk along the banks of the River Nith to the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries.
Although there was a play area outside I seldom played on it, instead we’d watch the majestic swans gliding on the river, the deer that lived on a near by hill but nobody could explain to me why they were trapped in a wire cage not free to roam and the changing colours of the leaves, like the world we live in, which was often a theme of our discussions. This was in stark contrast to the exhibitions at the centre, which would never seem change; we’d laugh when the statue inside of Burns had a paint job between visits, as the centre seemed lost in a time I did not know and my great uncle had seen and now gone.
Lauderdale helped me to see as it really is, the only time that matters is now, and life’s only constant is change, although some things may seem constant with no apparent change. Yes as an adult I would love to spend another hour in his company, and feel safe with my hand in his as he’d smoke his pipe and wear his deerstalker hat, which always made his long white beard smell. Even now if I smell it in the air, I swear at times it’s him keeping me company or checking I am okay. So Mr Burns, Happy Birthday, and once more I’ll walk along the Nith with my great uncle Lauderdale.
Perhaps because I never knew my grandparents, who died before I was born, the previous generation to my parents enchanted me in childhood. Their wisdom gained through living in times I could only imagine and how different the world that changed around me daily through my young eyes but to them must have felt like a different world to them. A place filled with hard times and bloody wars they had survived to be met with the concrete jungles of corporate buildings of fifty shades of grey and a sound like drones of bees in a hive, which were growing across the land instead of old forests of greens, reds, oranges and yellows filled with unique sounds, smells, words and tastes.
My guide to the world then was my Great Uncle Lauderdale. His role was to awaken me to use all my senses, look for every colour and shade, take in the changes at home and away. When we were together, be it in his little room away from the noise of my great aunt playing a game his father had made with a home-made die or walking along the River Nith proudly with a man who looked like a slim Santa Claus and Sherlock Holmes in one, perhaps the beard, hat and pipe gave him even greater wisdom beyond his years. He was a gentle man, I never once heard him angry at anyone. He gave me powerful gifts and insights, which he encouraged me to use in oral and written form.
I was not related by blood to my great uncle but the memories I share of him for nineteen years play back in my mind as happy times. A person that I will forever be grateful that touched my young life and showed me the world as I continue to see it. Earlier this month marked 110 years since his birth, so wanted to write a little thank you note and feel his presence once again, remember the times of happiness in a childhood that had many tears. In the autumn leaves as I walk I can smell his pipe and we’ll go one day again to walk along the river. I may have felt his passing as he died those years ago but his gifts to me will never die and it is these gifts I share with you now in my writing.
One of the greatest influences to my writing was and is my great uncle Lauderdale. He wrote in a version of Scots that few people speak and alas destroyed all bar one poem before he died in late 1997. That poem was to my great aunt Sarah for her birthday, this is the poem he wrote her.