Among the Rigs

July 31, 1786: Robert Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published on this day in 1786. Burns was twenty-seven, and still farming at Ayrshire; in his Preface to this first collection, he expresses a fear that “the learned and the polite” will view him as “an impertinent blockhead” who can “jingle a few doggerel Scotch rhymes together.” The 612-copy “Kilmarnock edition” was sold out in a month, and the revised “Edinburgh edition,” published the following spring, was just as popular. By this time, Burns was being championed by the Edinburgh society whose scorn he feared. His dedication to the second edition reflects the more confident tone of “a Scottish Bard” called from the wilderness: “The poetic genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard Elijah did Elisha—at the plough, and threw her inspiring mantle over me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures of my native soil, in my native tongue; I tuned my wild, artless notes as she inspired.” Burns enjoyed — and was ruined by, some say — a decade of fame, dying ten days before the tenth anniversary of the Kilmarnock Poems.

Tomorrow is Lammas Day, an ancient British harvest celebration, still observed in some places. Traditionally, the festivities are centered upon the first cutting of wheat; in “The Rigs O’ Barley,” a Robert Burns song about Lammas Eve, the focus is more on the sewing of wild oats:

It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa’ to Annie;
The time flew by, wi’ tentless heed;
Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.

Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs,
An’ corn rigs are bonie;
I’ll ne’er forget that happy night,
Among the rigs wi’ Annie.