Beginners
Experts
Burns Supper
Discussion Forum
Newsletter
Poems & Songs
The Letters
Federation
E - Membership
Schools
Contributions
Links
Top Features
Search the Site
ON A TIGHT ROPe

An Expert Article contributed by Sam K Gaw -
Past President of The World Burns Federation

"To give my counsels all in one,
Thy tuneful flame still careful fan:
Preserve the dingnity of Man,
With soul erect;
And trust the Universal Plan, "

(From "The Vision" by Robert Burns)

SCOTLAND - "Land of the Mountain and the Flood" according to the old song, an aspect not immediately apparent to the visitor landing in our lowland airports or viewing our cities. The Visitor attractions, Museums and Art Galleries depict fighting and dying warriors, be it the thin red line of kilted soldiers in the Crimean War, the sabre slashing heroes of Waterloo destroying Napoleon's hope of European Union ?under his dictatorship.


World cinema has glorified the struggle of the Patriot Guardian of Scotland - Sir William Wallace and sanitised the broadsword-swinging rustler, Rob Roy MacGregor, a man who possibly invented the term "blackmail". Any doubt that this is a Nation of Warriors can be dispelled by the celebration of the Jacobite uprising and the subsequent ethnic cleansing which followed Charles Edward Stuart's defeat at Culloden nearly two hundred and fifty years ago. If our martial inclinations are not immediately sensed a visit to every town, village and open hillside proclaims sadly and proudly its War Memorial blackened by the names of recently lost generations.



SCOTLAND - Home to a Martial Race, yet its best-loved patriot is no military hero but a Poet - Robert Burns - who is regularly celebrated lavishly and reverently. No parochial festivity this, for people all over the world will celebrate his life and message for mankind.

Time has not dimmed the memory of this National Poet of a small nation, then struggling to maintain its soul, language and traditions against a background of seeming benevolent oppression from its big neighbour, England. His life and work had to be coloured by the great events of the 18th century, the success of the American Colonists, a people's army pitted against the might of the Imperial forces of Britain, the subsequent but immoderate French Revolution and indeed the sweeping changes being brought about by the "Improvers" be they industrial or agricultural but both monetarist in objective and remote from the traces of benevolence and fairness once prevalent in the relatively classless society which was Scotland. The clan system had to be paternalistic ? the world "clan" means family ? and since the defeat at Culloden paternalism was not in vogue.

In an early poem, "The Vision", Burns lists many of the noble families of Scotland. He obviously yearned for a situation where our nobility was noble. Their daring, their benevolence is praised, the trust and certainty that they will fulfil their nation's need, be they soldiers like "The Chief on Sark who glorious fell", Wallace of Craigie in a battle against English invasion, or "Dempster's truth prevailing tongue ? George Dempster a Whig MP who founded the Fishery Society to establish much needed fishing ports in the Islands and West Coast ? scholars like Professor Dugald Stewart, noted mathematician, poet and orator; Colonel Fullarton, who returned from soldiering in India to become Scotland's foremost agricultural improver, and many others who the poet considered adorned their native land.

"The Vision" ends with the Muse placing the holly mantle on Burns' head and concludes with the couplet "And like a passing thought, she fled in light away". This was probably inspired by Watt's version of Psalm 90 "They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the Opening Day" An acceptance that the old days were gone.

BY nature, Burns believed in the natural goodness of mankind, accepting their failings. This was best expressed in a letter he sent to Peter Hill an Edinburgh Bookseller, while voluntarily acting on behalf of a Friendly Society Library. His book order contains a remarkable reference to his philosophy:

"God knows I am no Saint, I have a whole host of sins and follies to answer for. But if I could, and I believe I do it when I can I would wipe away all tears from all eyes".

SON of a struggling tenant farmer, a douce Presbyterian, who believed that education was the greatest gift one could bestow on his family, the Poet was educated better than the sons of many wealthy landowners. His father and some local farmers co?operated in the hiring of a teacher, John Murdoch. It is remarkable that these poor farmers should acquire the services of a scholar who was later to be the tutor of Count Telleyrand, the French statesman who created Napoleon and subsequently deposed him. That his genius could be blinded however can be seen from his report on Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert:

"Gilbert Burns has a lively imagination. He has more wit than Robert who is remarkably dull. Robert has no ear for music, and what little he has is completely untunable"

No ear for music! The man who wrote, collected and saved for the Nation over 370 Scottish songs.

Burns was possibly a late starter. His first foray into Poetry was at the age of 15, a song to a young lady, Nelly Kilpatrick, his companion when working in the cornfield. She had a good singing voice and the song was set to her favourite tune. Simple verse, but this started a pattern for in every song as he wrote, the tune would be running through his head. Hence the original tunes suit the metre better than those of more recent setting. '

Apart from a foray to the Royal Burgh of Irvine, there to earn the linen trade and its merchandising, he remained a farmer writing when his labours permitted. These 12 years produced only three additional songs and a collection of poems which blasted the hypocrisy and laid bare the greed and oppression which had intensified and destroyed that paternalism and eroded the classlessness that typified the Scottish psyche, the "kent his faither" syndrome.

From his first attempts at poetry he realised that inequality and poverty destroyed personal freedom and without that, national independence and international security was impossible.

"Here's freedom to them that wad read,
Here's freedom to them that wad write.
There's none ever fear'd that the truth should be heard.
But they whom the truth wad indite".

"Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" by Robert Burns, printed in 1786 at Kilmarnock, was the outpouring of an "Angry Young Man". His concern that mankind had the right to worship as they preferred, to work, to govern and to criticise poverty in the midst of plenty. Presenting his manuscript to John Wilson, his printer, introduced Burns to that curb on freedom Censorship ? then on a moderate scale but thereafter, following the success of his first volume, set him on a tightrope. Burns walked that narrow line, using every subterfuge to maintain his integrity, but whiles ? rashly overbalancing to the peril of himself and endangering his large family's welfare.

"Man was Made to Mourn" tells of "man's inhumanity to man" and was inspired by his meeting an 80 year old man kicked out to beg after a lifetime of service to a haughty Lord.

"If I'm designed Lord Cassillis' slave
By Nature's law designed
Why was an independent wish
E'er planted in my mind.
If not, why am I Subject to
His cruelty, or scorn?
Or why has Man the will and poor
To make his fellow mourn?"

Powerful stuff! Can one wonder that Wilson, the artful printer, kept it anonymous by substituting "You Lordling's Slave" for "Lord Cassillis", especially as the culprit and other Ayrshire nobles were keeping his print shop busy. The first poem "The Twa Dogs" illustrates the tightrope walker. What better way to attack the failings of commoners and gentry, without offence taken, than to have the wisdom poured from dogs of extreme classes. Scotland was famous for its varieties and almost every family, Lord or Peasant, owned one or more.

THE habit of Scotland's gentry of getting daughters married to impoverished Irishmen and then getting them elected to represent our Shires in Parliament was rife. Innocently the poor man's dog, Luath, credits them with a noble cause: "Wha Aiblins thrang a parlimamenting (may be) For Britain's guid his soul indentin' (indenturing) The Lord's dog replies by saying how they visit Europe, go to bullfights in Spain or catch venereal disease in Italy. Ceasar spills the beans: "For Britain's guid! for her destruction Wi dissipation, fued and faction"

Freemasonry was the last bastion of Scottish society which allowed rich and poor, but not illiterate, to meet in harmony. In the West that organisation's membership included working craftsmen. But those in the Capital seldom saw dirt under their fingernails.

Introduction by masonic friends saw Burns launched in Edinburgh, the toast of Scotland's Capital, toasted by the Grand Lodge of Scotland as Caledonia's Bard and feted by the wealthy; the great and the good of the Scottish enlightenment, scholars, lawyers and writers. Those who put Scotland first resisting the blandishments of London, Blasted the Poet to fame.

HE desired to become an Exciseman, but his patrons wished to keep this image of peasant genius, the Ploughman Poet, and it was only on undertaking an unsuccessful venture, underfunded, in land described as the "riddlings of hell" at Ellisland, near Dumfries, that Burns got his wish. At first he combined farming with his excise duties. Here he was to produce his most famous work ? "Tam O Shanter" Here his tightrope walking assumed easier balance for he began to collect avidly the song and music of Scotland.

What better media for presenting anti?Government sentiment than a collection of folk and Jacobite song. "The highland Widow's Lament" tells of a widow driven by hunger to the Lowlands:

"Till Charlie Stuart came at last, Sae far to set us free.
My Donald's arm was wanted then, For Scotland and for me.
There was fu state, what need I tell
Right to the wrong did yield
My Donald and his Country fell, Upon Culloden field"

Here the Poet states the oath taken by the Stuart followers "Freedom to Scotland and no Union".

BURNS championed the cause of freedom and rejoiced in the success of General Washington and his people's army.
"Scots Wha Hae". Bruce's address to his army at Bannockburn, was not a glorification of one of our few victories against the big enemy, England, but a clarion call to the people of all oppressed nations to rise against tyranny, no matter in what form it was to take.

Again the subterfuge ? "Written to an old song believed to have been used at Bannockburn" ? was used in its introduction.

IT has been wrongly suggested that "Parcel of Rogues in a Nation" is anti-English when in fact it is an indictment against the Scottish establishment who drew up the Treaty of Union in 1707, under the great yew tree at Loudoun Castle in Ayrshire, which the Poet claimed "robbed Scotland of its very name".

"What force or guile could not subdue
Through mony warlike ages,
Is wrought noo by a coward few
For hireling traitors wages. "

A reference to the monies paid to the parliamentary participants. The Farm at Ellisland was a ruinous bargain and, when sold, the final years of his life found him in Dumfries at his excise duties. Duty bound to uphold the law only landowners elected representatives to Parliament. These selfish people brought in the Corn Laws to prevent import of grain, and to keep the prices high, while the poor were starving. Corn riots occurred in Ayrshire and Dumfries and inspired by the Revolution in France dissidents raised, as a symbol of revolt, the Tree of Liberty and the populace danced around in a show of solidarity.

Smuggling became a principle occupation and perhaps half heartedly it was pursued by this exciseman, extolling universal brotherhood:
"Lord help me thrO this world o' care,
I'm weary sick o' it late and air
Not but I hae a richer share,
Than mony ithers:
But why should ae man better fare,
And a Men brithers!"

It was not the exotic items of romantic fiction, the wines and brandy that were the principle illegal imports, but Irish grain feeding a starving peasantry.

Another step on that tightrope was taken by the Poet when, as his duty, it was expected of him to join the regiment of Dumfries Volunteers.

The threat of French invasion and rabble rousing had the country scared. If this did nothing else it gives politicians the right to claim Burns as their own. From his song, oft quoted ? "Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat" come the couplets For Unionists: "Never but by British Hand maun British wrangs be righted" For Royalists: "Wha willna sing "God Save The King" will king as high as the steeple" And for those who prefer a people's choice and Burn's: "But while we sing "God Save The King" We'll never forget the People"

The song did more than provide political quotations. It alerted libertarians against the ambitions of the military dictatorship in France, one as evil as that of Hitler a century and a half later.

That he walked the tightrope successfully and achieved most of his aims against censorship can be judged from his attack against a repressive Kirk in Scotland.

The excesses of the Kirk were exposed by a satirical pen in "Holy Willie's Prayer", the drunken, lecherous, thief of a Kirk Officer, paid to spy on the villagers and report their misdeeds. The Poem, written in 1780, was enacted throughout Scotland, passed from hand to hand, mouth to mouth and the ensuing gale of laughter cleansed the temple. No?one dared to print "Holy Willies Prayer" until five years after the Poet's death.


Burns was a nationalist but only as a foundation for internationalism. He believed that a virtuous populace would arise and save his country His collection of songs of love and freedom, the historical legacy of song preserved by him as a priceless relic for the world. For those who seek freedom from want they gave hope and inspiration.

Every year, people all over the world, some knowing but one song of his, the international song "Auld Land Syne" remember this man -The Poet of Mankind ? and "tak a cup of kindness" to a saintly sinner.

Article contributed by Sam K Gaw
Past President of The World Burns Federation

This article previously appeared in the magazine "Scottish Highlights"

 

 

2008 The Robert Burns World Federation