Sangstories
Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional
and newer songs 
sung by Sangschule 
of Linlithgow

A Man's A Man

by Robert Burns (1759 – 96)

Is there, for honest poverty that hangs his head an a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that
For a’ that, an a’ that
Our toils obscure an a’ that
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an a’ that
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man’s a Man for a’ that
For a’ that, an a’ that
Their tinsel show an a’ that
The honest man, though e’er sae poor
Is king o men for a’ that

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord
Wha struts, an stares, an a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that, an a’ that
His ribband, star, an a’ that
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an laughs at a’ that

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an a’ that
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna 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

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an a’ that
For a’ that, an a’ that
It’s comin yet for a’ that
That man to man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that


Words:
Aboon
: above
Birkie: conceited fellow
Coof: fool
Gowd: gold
Gree: prize
Guinea : old coin worth 21 shillings
Hodden grey: homespun woollen cloth, undyed.
Mauna: mustn’t
Mauna fa’ that: mustn’t try that, mustn’t aspire to that
Ribband, star: sash and jewel - marks of honour from the monarch

Burns described  “A Man’s A Man” to George Thompson as ‘no Song; but will be allowed, I think, to be two or three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme’. (Letter 651 in The Complete Letters of Robert Burns  edited by J A Mackay) However the song was important enough to Burns for him to make several versions of it.

It was dangerous for Burns to have written a song in praise of republicanism during the French Revolution and while Britain was at war with France. The government was keen to quell any “Revolutionary” ideas in Britain and their spies could have had him arrested for sedition – especially when Burns held a government post as an exciseman. It’s not surprising that he published it anonymously  - in The Glasgow Magazine, August 1795. 

It must have caused him anxiety during his final illness that it was copied and printed under his own name in the pro-government London Oracle in June 1796. Burns died in July. The Canongate Burns editors suggest that his employers did not take action against Burns as they might have been expected to do because they knew he was ill.

At the formal opening of the reconvened Scottish parliament in 1999 – disbanded since the act of Union in 1707 - Sheena Wellington sang “A Man’s A Man” and encouraged all the MSPs to rise and sing the last verse together. MSP Winnie Ewing said this was “ a sensational moment of unity and plain Scottish speaking which typified the best things of our country.” 

Ewan McVicar in The Eskimo RepublicScots Political Song In Action 1951 – 1999 says “Here is irony. Robert Burns probably died worrying that the publication of this new plain speaking political song founded on an older folk song could lose him his job, or even have him transported to New South Wales. 200 years later, the singing of it personified a moment in his nation’s rebirth.”

The older folk song mentioned by McVicar is found in Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads with the comment “Our national poet – Burns – appears to have used this old bothy song as a model for his ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That.” Here is the first verse:

Be gude to me as lang’s I’m here/ I’ll maybe win awa yet/ He’s bonnie coming o’er the hills / That will tak me frae ye a’ yet / For a’ that and a’ that / And thrice as muckle’s a’ that  / He’s bonnie coming o’er the hills / That will tak me frae ye a’ yet

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