"Mair nonsense has been uttered in the
name of Robert Burns than ony's, barrin
liberty and Christ"
This is a direct quote from Hugh
McDiarmid and although it may be offensive to some it seems to me to be
a pretty good way of describing what has been done to Burns's reputation
over the last 200 years or so, starting with Dr. Currie in 1800 and continued
by so many ever since. Only a few weeks ago it was announced that
Burns had been voted the Scot of the Millennium by the establishment figures
of 'Who's Who'. The Headlines in the Newspapers included such gems
as "He may have been a legendary ladies man and notorious drinker but
he is still the man of the Millennium."
J. Findlater who was Burn's superior officer
in the Excise wrote in 1818 "It is
much regretted that Dr. Currie's life of Burns has become a text book
succeeding commentators, who have, by the aid of their own fancies, amplified,
exaggerated, and filled up the outlines he has sketched, and, in
truth, left it in such a state as to provoke an exercise of that description."
Findlater then goes on to dispel a number of the myths surrounding Burns,
particularly the one about him being such a prodigious drinker. Having
read the considered opinion of Burns' immediate boss, I am sure that you
will agree that there is a great deal of merit in McDiarmid's statement.
I believe that the biggest mistake in considering the life of Robert Burns
is to do so in the context of today. However, no matter what the context,
his work stands up to the closest scrutiny and is acknowledged as that
of a genius.
But his life and work can still be seen as a series of contradictions,
some of which
are easy to understand, others less so, because times were so different
then. There was a farming revolution going on, the population was
increasing at a tremendous rate, inflation was rocketing, the formal education
system was for but a few and there was the situation with regards to gender
equality, or rather inequality.
There was a BBC television programme on Burns a few months ago which went
into great detail about Burns's failure to have a reasoned and reasonable
view of the place of women in society. This was based on the modern
acceptance that women are at least equal to men. Very few men here
this evening could argue that their attitudes and actions, on gender equality,
have not changed over the last 15 to 20 years, so why should Burns be
judged so harshly in the context of a more enlightened view of the place
of women in society, a society which has still some way to go before being
About some of the contradictions in the man.
At times he was a LOVER and at others he was a LECHER.
At times he was a ROMANTIC and at others he was a REALIST.
He was a NATIONALIST and at times he was an INTERNATIONALIST.
He was at times a RADICAL and at others a REACTIONARY.
In the time available this evening I will look at only a few of these
contradictions. Were Burns to be alive today, the media would have a great
time, taking him to task over these contradictions. For example,
I am certain that they would have ensured that he would not have survived
the selection process to be on the ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament,
which was launched using one of his great works A Man's a Man for A That.
However, even in the context of today, I see in Burns something that was
dignified and honest. He did not have the benefit of counsellors
and health clinics to help him come to terms with himself, as so many
of today's celebrities do. He had a kind of honesty that marked him out
as different. 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;
Maybe some ither things they gie me,
They weel can spare.
Why oh why is so much time spent on the faults of the man when there
is so much that is wonderful in his work. I suppose that Dr. Currie's
"Holier than Thou" view
of Burns in that first biography is so much to blame. It reminds me of
from Mark Twain. "Get your facts first and then you can distort them as
as you like." Thinking about this, I visited three very modern Biographical
dictionaries, to compare the treatment of Burns with that of Dickens and
Shakespeare. These three tomes contained the following on Burns :-
(A)"----------A long series of entanglements with women."
(B)"Acquaintance with smugglers and sailors broadened his outlook and
his interest in women, and made him a kind of Rural Don Juan."
(C)"---He fell asleep by the roadside after a carousal, a mischance that
Rheumatic fever----- Died in Dumfries."
And yet the same three dictionaries made barely a mention of the private
good or ill, of the other two literary giants. I have studied the
life Dickens and he
was very cruel and unfaithful, more than once to his wife who bore him
children. On his reading tours he became a caricature of himself,
a laughing stock.
Why then does Burns continue to be pilloried while other great figures
for the work that they left to us all? What I now think, when I
think of Burns, is of the genius of the man - his ability to paint beautiful
pictures with words, with a wonderful command of language, no doubt nurtured
by his voracious appetite, from an early age, for quality literature -
having had the basics of grammar, spelling etc drummed into him by Murdoch
and his father. He also had a great wisdom, which does not belong
to a young man but is more the preserve of one who has reached the three
score years and ten. For example, many of you here this evening
have had a few drams and have seen away a glass or six of wine or beer,
and no doubt feel much the better and wiser for this. But could
any of us here ever express the medicinal and indeed educational properties
of these elixirs, as Burns did in "The Holy Fair"
Leeze me on drink it gies us mair
Than either school or college;
It kindles wit, it walkens lear,
It pangs us fou o' knowledge:
Be't whisky - gill or penny wheep,
Or onie stronger potion,
It never fails on drinkin deep,
To kittle up our notion,
By night or day
His summing up of hypocrisy is beautifully penned in a variety of poems
---- None better than in "Holy Willie's Prayer"
O Lord ! yestreen, thou kens wi Meg -
Thy pardon I sincerely beg-
O, may't ne'er be a livin plague
To my dishonour!
An I'll never lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.
But, Lord, remember me and mine
Wi mercies temporal and divine,
That I for grace and gear may shine,
Excell'd by nane,
And a' the glory shall be thine-
I suppose that we should be proud that this work of an Ayrshire man should
well paraphrased 200 years later -- with the utmost sincerity --by no
less a person
than the President of the United States -- Holy Willie Clinton.
To the contrasts which I mentioned earlier :-
The LECHEROUS side of Burns is shown clearly in many of his letters, and
in sources like The Merry Muses. However I will pass over that in
favour of his ROMANTIC side, that of the lover. This is so evident
in many of his letters, his
reworking of old songs and, of course in his own songs and poems.
The poem, which I am most jealous of 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 "Made out 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!
And of course, -- "Handsome Nell" which he wrote when he was only 15
and , as he said "First committed the sin of rhyme."
A bonnie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e;
But without some better qualities
She's no the lass for me.
The same Romantic was a Romantic conservationist long before conservation
became a fad. This Romanticism is mixed with Realism in the same
poem "To a Mouse" or, to give it its full title "To a Mouse
on Turning up Her Nest with the Plough November 1785"
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!
The Philosophical Realist
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!
Yes that last verse gives a graphic view of what life must have been like
failing farmer and still is in this ill - divided world.
I would like to digress a little at this stage to Burns' use of Lowland
Scots or Lallans. While working in Cumnock for the last 7 years
or so of my career in the
Teaching profession, I came into daily contact with the wonderful expressiveness
of the language. For so many of the words used by Burns each
needs several words or even a whole paragraph of English to get to a similar
understanding e.g. DREICH
One of our newest Honorary Members Seamus Heaney captures Burns' use of
Native Language in a lecture entitled "Burns's Art Speech". Heaney
says " So that
part of Burns speaks to a part of me that would prefer to crack than to
Talking of using "The Ambleside Book of Verse" at school in Ulster, Seamus
" we expected that the language on the written page would take us out
unofficial speaking selves and transport us to a land of formal words
would constantly have to be on our best verbal behaviour.
"Hail to thee, blythe spirit," fulfilled these expectations perfectly,
as did the elevation of "Tyger, tyger, burning bright." But next
comes this: "Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie," and this
was different. In a single monosyllable, even before a metre or
melody could get suggested, a totally reliable aural foundation had been
laid in place. The word 'wee' puts its stressed foot down and in
one pre-emptive vocative strike took over the emotional and cultural ground,
dispossessing the rights of standard English and offering asylum to all
comers. To all, at least, who hailed from somewhere north of a line
Berwick and Bundoran.
Later he says ".....And it is a matter of the profoundest satisfaction
exclamation "och" should be at the centre of this semi - visionary
final stanza. For
if "wee" is the monosyllable that takes possession of the cultural and
ground at the start "och" is a kind of nunc dimittis near the end.
"Och" springs at
us from the domestic to the disconsolate...............Here, and in the
instances in which it has been uttered by men and women in extremis since
immemorial, it functions as a kind of self relinquishment, a casting of
upon the mercy of fate, at once a protest and a cry for help" To
emphasise just what Seamus Heaney is saying I will quote from a standard
English translation of the first verse of the same poem. This translation
is from a 1923 book "The Dialect of Robert Burns", by Sir James Wilson.
Little, Sleek, cowering, timorous creature,
Oh, what a panic's in thy little breast!
Thou need'st not start away so hastily,
With hurried rush!
I should be loath to run and chase thee,
With murdering plough-staff!
I'm sure that you will agree that the original has a much better ring
to it. From the Romantic to the Philosophical Realist in the same poem
and so beautifully expressed.
But back to the contrasts .....the Nationalist and the Internationalist.
The Internationalist produced a world class and indeed world renowned
which was sung so beautifully to launch our new parliament last year.
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.
Are we any nearer to achieving that today? I think we are but with a
fair few miles still to go. This Internationalist penned the
most Nationalist of views, sometimes a proud nationalism and at other
times a bitter nationalism.
The proud nationalist in
Wha can be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a cowards 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 or freeman fa'
Let him follow me!
In contrast to that verse could anything be more bitter than the sentiments
expressed in "Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation."
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 a nation.
Apart from Sam Gaw and John Inglis of our own club, my favourite Burns
was a New Cumnock man called Bob Shankland. Bob was a master plumber
to trade and a great scholar of the life and works of Burns and yes, I
am aware of digressing yet again. I learned more about Burns from
Bob than I did in six years at secondary school. He came to my school
in Cumnock to share the joy of Burns's work with our pupils. His
treatment of the Bard was magnificent and he introduced me to many, wonderful
aspects of Burns's work. One of these,"The First Epistle to "John
Lapraik" is a work which has become one of my favourites, for a number
of reasons. In this work there is, for me, much that is wise and
entertaining. As a graduate of Glasgow University, the Epistle says
a lot to me about myself and many of my colleagues, who left university,
thinking that the World was out there, waiting for us with baited breath.
What's a' your jargon o' your schools -
Your Latin names for horns and stools?
If honest nature made you fools,
What sairs your grammars?
Ye'd better ta'en up spades an' shools,
Or knappen hammers.
A set o' dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college classes!
They gang in stirks, an' come out asses,
Plain truth to speak;
An' syne they think to climb Parnassus
By din't o' Greek!
If we let him, Burns can say so much to us and I feel privileged to have
a second chance to meet him after a pretty mediocre introduction to him
Bob Shankland, whom I have already mentioned and Jim Butler, piper and
extraordinaire are the two who set me up with this second chance.
By the way Jim
also introduced me to the great and joyful mysteries of Malt Whisky.
Robert Burns and Malt Whisky, not a bad double, Jim.
This has been a brief and very personal view of Burns, with little or
nothing said about the many other facets of his tragically short life;
the wonderful collector and improver of old Scots songs, Raconteur and
Wit, Farmer, Exciseman and so on. He is one of the major reasons why I
am proud to be an Ayrshire Scot. Every new year and this new year
in particular, 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.
I ask you all...Scot or not....from Ayrshire or not ....to charge your
glasses and be
upstanding to drink a toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.
© 2008 The Robert Burns World Federation