Chieftain, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening.
When I was asked to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory at our Burns Supper, I was flattered and honoured. But what could I say, a lad from Dundee, a bureaucrat, a stuffed shirt, about one of the most expressive poets in the English language. So I want to talk about Burns means to me, illustrated with some lines from the man himself - so much more meaningful than anything I could write or say.
We have other poets, other writer heroes, yet we do not afford them the veneration given to Robert Burns. The English have Shakespeare; the Irish have Joyce; the Americans have Longfellow; the Germans have Goethe. All are internationally known and respected but none of have an evening in their honour. There are no Shakespeare suppers nor Joyce Junkets.
When our Burns Supper in Nadi is finishing others will still be under way across Australia and New Zealand. And others will be sitting down in Singapore. This chain of friendship follows the setting sun westward, through Asia, the Middle East to Europe and Scotland, then over the Atlantic and across the Americas. Around the world and around the clock. On 25th of January each year there is not an hour in the day or night when a Burns Supper is not taking place somewhere on this earth.
Such is the demand that many have to be held on adjacent nights, because the hotels and church halls cannot cope. I had an Edinburgh professor once who was a world famous speechifier and most eloquent on the subject of Burns. He claimed to be the guest speaker at Burns nights for a whole fortnight every January. But then he was Irish and prone to exaggeration.
A lot has been said about Burns, but I rather like this trenchant comment by another Scottish writer - the late, great Hugh McDairmid. He said:
“Mair nonsense has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than ony’s, barrin liberty and Christ”
This seems to me to be a good way of describing what has been done to Burns’ reputation over the last 200 years. He is often described as a sort of 18th century rock star, always heroically drunk and chasing the ladies, but managing to turn out amazing riffs of poetry, perform in public, and then dying young due to all the excess.
The truth rarely gets in the way of a legend. But a Mr Findlater who was Burn’s superior officer in the Excise wrote only a few years after his death: “succeeding commentators, have, by the aid of their own fancies, amplified, exaggerated, and filled up the outlines he has sketched”. Findlater dispelled a number of the myths surrounding Burns, particularly the one about him being a prodigious drinker.
Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25th, 1759 and died in Dumfries on the 21st July 1796. We celebrate his birth, we don’t mark his death, because Burn’s work is all about life and living, it celebrates the common Man. But in that short 37 years, he left a huge impact on the world.
His family were farmers, making a living on 70 acres, but when he was 6, his father, William Burness and some neighbours established a village school and hired a teacher, a Mr. Murdoch, for their families. Robert and his brother Gilbert attended the school, but the teacher left in 1768, leaving the boy’s father to continue their education. But there is evidence from his later writing that Burns read widely, and had a knowledge of Latin. He was a very literate farm boy, although he had to work like a Trojan to help his father on the farm, something which weakened his health and shortened his life.
In 1780, at age 21, Robert and his brother Gilbert with other young lads of Tarbolton founded the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club, setting an example followed by many Burns Club round the world. It was founded as a: “diversion to relieve the wearied man worn down by the necessary labours of life”.
Robert was elected its first President and the first meeting drew up the rules for membership, one of which required that:
‘Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex. No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the Club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall upon any pretence whatever be admitted.’
Not a bad motto for any club.
His father died in 1784, and with his brother Gilbert, the poet rented a farm, but this venture like many others was unsuccessful.
In 1785, his first child, a girl, was born to his mother’s serving girl, Betty Paton. That same year, he met Jean Armour.
He had an intimate affair with Jean Armour, for which he was censured by the Kirk and had to spend some time on the “cutty stool” in front of the church congregation, named as a “fornicator”.
As a result of his farming misfortunes, and attempts by his Jean’s father to overthrow his common-law marriage with Jean, he decided to emigrate, taking a job as an overseer on a Jamaica plantation. But in order to raise money for the passage he published a volume of the poems which he had been composing for some years - the famous Kilmarnock edition of 1786.
And his volume of poetry was unexpectedly successful, so that, instead of sailing for the West Indies, he went to Edinburgh, and during that winter he was the chief literary celebrity of the season, lionised by the nobility. Another enlarged edition of his poems was published in 1787, and the money helped him to aid his brother’s farm, and to take and stock for himself the farm of Ellisland.
His fame as poet had reconciled the Armours to the connection, and having now regularly married Jean, he brought her to Ellisland and once more tried farming. It lasted for three years.
He published several more poetry editions and put words to many Scots tunes in the “Scots Musical Museum” and in George Thomson’s “Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs.” Many of these tunes would be lost were it not for his efforts.
In spite of the fact that he was always broke, he refused to accept any payment for this work, preferring to regard it as a patriotic service. And it was, for which we are still grateful. His productions still enrich the lives of Scots and lovers of poetry everywhere.
He gave up on Ellisland farm and in 1792, he was appointed as an Excise man in Dumfries, which helped his money problems. But by then he was thoroughly discouraged; he saw his work as mere drudgery; and his tendency to take his relaxation in debauchery weakened his constitution.
Burns tried another venture, joining the army - becoming a private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers for the last one and a half years of his life. He seemed very practical about it, saying in one short verse:
“O why the deuce should I repine,
And be an ill foreboder?
I’m twenty-three, and five feet nine,
I’ll go and be a sodger !”
But by doing so Burns entered a the Scottish military tradition, only a few decades after the Jacobite Rebellions. It was a busy time of regiment building due to the invasion threat from France. We can see in his work that Burns was initially seduced by the strains of liberty coming out of the French Revolution - but then switched sides and composed a series of much more patriotic verses - much more suitable for a pillar of the community like an Exciseman.
From January to March, 1796, there was famine in Dumfries and by July he was in his last illness.
On 21 July, all but destitute and in debt, Burns died. He was buried with full Military Honours on the 25th of July, his son Maxwell was born of Jean Armour the same day.
During his life, Rabbie was a humourist, a satirist, storyteller, a lover, socialist, nationalist and a philosopher. He could be romantic, charming, funny, sarcastic and had a devastating wit.
His life and work was and is a series of contradictions, a personal response to turmoil and change in Scotland. The agrarian and industrial revolution were changing the country, the population was increasing, leaving land for the cities and emigrating. Scotland was becoming part of Britain after the Jacobite Rebellions - and the French Revolution was shaking the politics of Europe.
Given all this stress, it is perhaps not surprising that Burns was full of contradictions.
At times he was a LOVER and at others a LECHER.
At times he was a ROMANTIC and at others a REALIST.
He was a NATIONALIST but also an INTERNATIONALIST.
He was at times a RADICAL and at others a REACTIONARY.
Were Burns alive today, the media would have a great time, taking him to task over these contradictions. But I like to think he’d cope, turning up on the BBC to debate with Jeremy Paxman or other journalists. And if he penned political verse, his barbs today would be just as likely to be aimed at Mr Salmond as Mr Cameron.
Through all of his work Burns disarms us with his honesty and self-knowledge. He expressed it beautifully in his “First Epistle to John Lapraik”
“I winna blaw about mysel
As ill I like my fauts to tell;
But friends, an folk that wish me well,
They sometimes roose me;
Tho I maun own, as monie still
As far abuse me.
There’s ae wee faut they whyles lay to me,
I like the lasses - Gude forgie me!
For monies a plack they wheedle frae me
At dance or fair; …. “
When I think of Burns, I think of the man’s ability to paint beautiful pictures with words, with a rich expressive use of language, colloquial and classical. He could show great wisdom for such a young man - much more than your average rock star.
And although Burns often wrote in Lalland Scots, a dialect of Modern English - which is sometimes difficult for non Scots to follow - he was a poet of the English language, writing at the start of a period in which English has taken over the whole world. That is another reason for his enduring success over two centuries.
His dislike of hypocrisy is well known and beautifully penned in a variety of poems and letter. None better than in “Holy Willie’s Prayer”
“O lord thou kens what zeal I bear
when drinkers drink and swearers swear
an singin here and dancin there
wi great and sma
but I am keepit, by Thy fear….. “
His sometimes LECHEROUS nature shows up in many of his letters, and in sources like The Merry Muses. But in my view it is outweighed by his ROMANTIC side. This is so evident in many of his letters, his reworking of old songs and in his own songs and poems. One poem which sums it all up is “O Were I on Parnassus Hill” which he wrote to Jean, not long after they were married. He wrote it – as he put it “As a compliment to Mrs. Burns”
“Then come sweet muse inspire my lay!
For a’ the lee lang Simmer’s day
I couldna sing, I couldna say,
How much, how dear I love thee.
I see thee dancing o’er the green,
Thy waist sae gimp thy limbs sae clean,
Thy tempting lips, thy roguish een-
By Heav’n and Earth I love thee!”
But his Romanticism shades into Realism in the poem “To a Mouse”
“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
has ruined Nature’s social union,
and justifies that ill opinion
that makes thee startle
thine own earth-bound companion
and fellow mortal”
“Thy wee bit housie, too in ruin!
Its silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething now to big a new ane,
O foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s win’s ensuin,
Baith snell an keen!”
He finishes with profound reflection:
“Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me!
The present only touches thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An forward, tho I canna see,
I guess and fear!”
This could have stemmed from any of the things that continually went wrong in Burns short life - some commentators see it as a comment about industrialization or change - but whatever he meant it is profound and speaks to us today.
The Internationalist Burns produced a world renowned statement, a harbinger of 19th century Socialism, in A Man’s A Man For 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 for a’ that
For a’ that and a’ that
It’s comin’ yet for a’ that
That man to man the world o’er
shall brithers be for a’ that.
But Burns also penned the most Nationalist of views, sometimes a proud nationalism and at other times rather bitter. He saw the 1707 Union of Parliaments as the moneyed classes selling out to the English. He mourned the loss of Scottish identity “farewell even to our Scottish name, sae famed in ancient story”
and he looked bitterly into the past
“What force or guile could not subdue,
Thro’ many warlike ages,
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor wages.
The English steel we could disdain,
Secure in valour’s station.
But English gold has been our bane,
Such a parcel of rogues in the nation”
And only Shakespeare’s Henry V can compares with the emotion conveyed in an speech to troops before battle that Burns conjured up in “Scots wha hae”, a song about the battle of Bannockburn.
“Wha will be a traitor knave
wha can fill a coward’s grave
wha sae base as be a slave
let him turn and flee
Wha for Scotland’s king and law
Freedom’s sword will strongly draw.
Freeman stand, of freeman fa’
let him follow me.”
As a storyteller poet, Burns has few peers. Is there a better short ghost story than Tam o Shanter? He painted word pictures. Listen to these words describing a cozy seat in a warm bar with good friends on a stormy night, from “A Cottar’s Saturday Night”:
“Ae market night, Tam got planted unco right fast by an ingle bleezin finely
wi reaming swats that drank divinely
at his elbow, Soutar Johnnie
His ancient, trusty drouthy crony
Tam lo’ed him like a very brother’
they had been fou for weeks the gither..”
This has been a brief and personal view of Burns, only touching the many facets of his tragically short life; as a wonderful collector and improver of old Scots songs, Raconteur and Wit, Farmer, Exciseman, Soldier.
Burns is one of the reasons why I am proud to be a Scot - with all the mass of contradictions that goes into that complex identity. We normally keep it all hidden, beneath sober, dour exteriors, pretending to be respectable bank managers or ship’s engineers. But we all like to think we have a bit the poet’s soul inside us, a hidden romantic side. And Burns helps us express that and let it out from time to time, like tonight.
Every New Year, the world starts off the year by rejoicing in the words rescued and reworked by Burns. There is no better memorial to the man than the words of Auld Lang Syne.
“We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne.”
Chieftain, thank you again for inviting Yasmin and I to join you on this special night.
I am very proud to give you this toast, the proudest toast for any Scot to propose.
It is a toast which we should drink with joy and with pride, with reverence and irreverence in equal measure.
I ask you all…Scot or not….to fill your glasses and raise them high as I give you, the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.