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The World Burns Club are proud to present 
the superb Immortal Memory given by 
Michael Murray The President of Irvine Burns Club 
at their Burns Supper on 28th January, 2000. 
 

"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 for 
succeeding commentators, who have, by the aid of their own fancies, amplified,
exaggerated, and filled up th
e 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 truly equal.
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 a quote
from Mark Twain. "Get your facts first and then you can distort them as much 
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 led to 
Rheumatic fever----- Died in Dumfries."

And yet the same three dictionaries made barely a mention of the private lives, for 
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 ten 
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 are revered
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 and letter
---- 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-
Amen, Amen!

I suppose that we should be proud that this work of an Ayrshire man should be so
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"

The Romantic

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 for a 
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 his 
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 lecture..."
Talking of using "The Ambleside Book of Verse" at school in Ulster, Seamus says 
" we expected that the language on the written page would take us out of our
unofficial speaking selves and transport us to a land of formal words where we
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 vernacular
comers.  To all, at least, who hailed from somewhere north of a line drawn between
Berwick and Bundoran.

Later he says ".....And it is a matter of the profoundest satisfaction that the 
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 linguistic 
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 countless 
instances in which it has been uttered by men and women in extremis since time 
immemorial, it functions as a kind of self relinquishment, a casting of the spirit 
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 statement,
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 reader 
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 been given
a second chance to meet him after a pretty mediocre introduction to him at school.
Bob Shankland, whom I have already mentioned and Jim Butler, piper and artist 
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.

ROBERT BURNS

2008 The Robert Burns World Federation