Immortal Memory By Len Murray
Singh was a student with me at Glasgow University.
One Burns day he asked me why do the Scots make such a fuss about Robert
I said probably because he was a good poet.
But Ajit had other questions for me.
In his native Calcutta there is apparently a very celebrated Burns Supper
And he asked me why this should be?
What did Robert Burns have to do with India?
And, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to say that I couldn't tell him.
And thus it was that I started to wonder
why Robert Burns is so important to us.
We have other poets, and other writers, and other heroes, yet we do not
afford them the veneration that we afford to Robert Burns.
And why should this be?
Perhaps more importantly why should other nations and other peoples celebrate
the birth of a Scottish poet?
And why are these celebrations so unique?
The English have Shakespeare; the Irish have Joyce; the Americans have
Longfellow; the Italians have Dante; the Germans have Goethe.
Every one of them an internationally known and respected figure.
But to none of them is paid the type of homage that is paid to Burns,
even in their own country let alone abroad.
There is no institution of a Shakespeare supper nor any Joyce Junket nor
Longfellow Lunch nor Dante Dinner.
Not even a Goethe Guzzle.
There is no international acclaim of any of these writers, great tho they
Yet Burns is universally acclaimed.
Why should all of this be?
Ever since the first celebration of
his birth in January of 1801 the institution of the Burns Supper has existed.
And a chain of universal friendship and fellowship encircles the world
because of it.
Wherever friends meet and friends eat the name of Robert Burns is revered.
When the Burns Supper in Dunedin is finishing it is still under way in
Perth in Western Australia.
And meantime they are sitting down in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore.
And an hour or two later they are seated in Calcutta.
And this chain of friendship follows the setting sun westward, through
Asia, the Middle East, Africa and across the Mediterranean to Europe and
to this country, and then over the Atlantic and across that great continent
of America to its Western seaboard and beyond.
And so on right around the world and right around the clock.
And on 25 January of each year and for
many days before it and after it there is not an hour in the day or night
when a Burns Supper is not taking place somewhere on this earth.
I read just the other week that this year there were Burns Suppers in
over 200 countries in the world.
And there is no other institution of man of which that can be said.
There are even more statues of Robert
Burns than of any other figure in world literature. Indeed if we discount
figures of religion, then only Christopher Columbus has more statues than
No other writer of any nationality has
been afforded such universal acceptance.
And why should this be?
It cannot be just for his poetry.
For every country can boast of its poets.
Scotland has produced other poets of the highest quality in Allan Ramsay
and Robert Fergusson and James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd.
Nor can it be on account of his prose; because Scotland produced two of
the world's greatest prose writers in Walter Scott and the incomparable
Robert Louis Stevenson.
Neither is revered to the extent that Robert Burns is and I hazard a guess
that few people know when they were born.
But the world knows of the significance of January 25th.
And something else.
RB lived and worked during the time of the great Scottish Enlightenment,
that period in the late eighteenth century when Scotland produced more
men of letters, more men of learning and more men of science than did
any other nation on earth.
And in just about every discipline known to man a Scot was in the lead.
In Edinburgh we had David Hume, eminent philosopher and one of the finest
brains that Europe has ever known.
And on the other side of Charlotte Square lived his close friend Adam
Smith whose Wealth of Nations turned the World of Economics on its head
when it was published.
And while these two were the Twin Peaks of Scottish intellectual achievement
of the time they were by no means the only heights.
For we had leaders in science and in mathematics; in physics and in chemistry;
in geology, in engineering, in medicine, in jurisprudence, in exploring.
And in architecture Scotland led the world with the Adam brothers from
Kirkcaldy; commissioned from St Petersburg in the east to Boston in the
west and whose style was taken up and copied not just by architects but
by craftsmen in silver and in iron; in pottery and in stone; by furniture
makers and by bookbinders.
And their influence spread throughout the world.
It was also the age of the zenith of
The age of Runciman and Ramsay and most of all Henry Raeburn.
Yet notwithstanding all these great
men of that time it was the Star o' Rabbie Burns that rose abune them
And why should it be?
And why does that star shine more brightly than any other in the firmament
of Scottish life and Scottish history?
First of all, perhaps, because of what
he did to preserve the literature, the language and the heritage of Scotland.
And God knows he did more than any other.
But what is much more significant, he
did it all at a time when a wave of anglicisation was almost overwhelming
It had begun as a trickle with the Union of the Crowns in 1603.
It reached spring-tide proportions with the Union of the Parliaments in
But it became a tidal wave following upon the crushing of the Jacobite
Rebellion at Culloden in April 1746.
The Heritable Jurisdictions Act and
the Disarming Acts were passed.
The bagpipe was declared an instrument of war, the tartan was proscribed,
a proscription that would endure for 36 long and horrible years.
Hundreds were executed; many more were transported to the colonies
Robert Burns called them "evil days" and he wrote of them
They banished him beyond the sea
But ere the bud was on the tree
Adown my cheeks the pearls ran
Embracing my John Highlandman
But och! They catched him at the last
And bound him in a dungeon fast
My curse upon them every one-
They've hanged my braw John Highlandman.
And all things English were being embraced.
Even the ladies on the streets of the old town of Edinburgh, members of
one of the few professions even older than mine, advertised their attractions,
however few, in the new English tongue.
And schools teaching the newly arrived language were springing up all
over the country.
The most prominent was one in Edinburgh (where else?) led by an Irishman
And Scottish parents were sending their children to Oxbridge for some
odd reason rather than Leyden, Utrecht or Paris where they had gone in
And that tide reached its high water mark in 1782 when the sycophantic
James Craig, architect of the New Town of Edinburgh, created a perpetual
memory to that family who had presided over the greatest carnage known
in this country when he called the streets of his new town after them.
And so we have George Street, and Hanover Street, and Frederick Street
and the rest.
The wave of anglicisation did almost
irreparable harm not just to the language, but also to the culture and
the heritage of Scotland.
A Scots Poet of the day called James Beattie then Professor of Moral Theology
at Marischal College Aberdeen, wrote, "Poetry is not poetry unless
it is written in English."
I have never heard incidentally of a James Beattie Supper.
That objectionable Englishman Samuel Johnson wrote: "The great, the
learned, the ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase,
and the English pronunciation, and in splendid companies Scotch is not
much heard, except now and then from an old lady." Robert Burns was
some old lady.
That, then, was the age in which Burns
lived and wrote and that was the society in which his works appeared.
Thankfully Robert Burns did not think
the way of Beattie and Sheridan and the rest.
"The Poetic Genius of my country found me, as the prophetic bard
Elijah did Elisha - at the Plough; and threw her inspiring mantle over
me. She bade me sing the loves, the joys, the rural scenes and rural pleasures
of my natal Soil, in my native tongue."
And so he wrote most of his poetry in
his native tongue in obedience to that poetic genius.
He wrote against the cultural tide running at the time and he wrote in
the teeth of prejudice against his native language.
But he wrote with a beauty, with a simplicity that no other, whether before
him or after him, has ever achieved.
Till a' the seas gang dry my dear
And the rocks melt wi' the sun
And I will luve thee still my dear
While the sands o' life shall run.
Thirty words ladies and gentlemen.
Thirty, simple unforgettable words.
And everyone a monosyllable.
No one else could write with such simplicity.
Look at the range of his writings.
For in the works of Robert Burns we see the whole cosmos of man's experience
and emotion, from zenith to nadir, from birth until death.
And mankind are born and beget their kind and die.
Look at the quality of his works.
The greatest tale in any language is Tam O Shanter, just as the greatest
satire is Holy Wullie's Prayer.
He also wrote the world's greatest love songs.
No matter the type of writing his work is always supreme.
Of course to him, his most important task was not his poetry but it was
preserving the traditional folk songs of Scotland.
Auld Scotia's meltin' airs he called them.
And in this his efforts were Herculean.
And they were a labour of love.
He collected these traditional songs wherever he went and he patched them
and he mended them, then he burnished them till he had produced things
of beauty, every one of which is a priceless gem.
One cannot imagine Scots music and song without the contribution of Burns.
And you and I would belong to a nation stripped of much of its traditional
music and song.
But it is when we consider his love
songs that we see the perfection of Robert Burns.
For all the love songs which flowed from his pen are without equal.
There can surely be none in any language
Ae Fond Kiss and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas forever.
A dozen simple words, but what words do you know in any language that
Sir Walter Scott would say of that song that it contained "the essence
of a thousand love tales."
It was written, as you know, to Agnes McElhose when they parted in December
She set sail on a forlorn journey to the West Indies hoping for a reconciliation
with her husband - an errant Glasgow Lawyer who had run away to Jamaica.
(The first but by no means the last recorded example of one of my profession
running away for one reason or other.)
It was all in vain and she was back within months, but that's another
tale for another day.
But Clarinda (as their correspondence called her) never forgot Robert
And she would write in her diary for 6 December 1831. 'This day I shall
never forget. Parted with Burns in the year 1791 never more to meet in
this world. Oh may we meet in heaven!'
There is no couplet more mournful than
that which comes from Ye Banks and Braes:
And ma fause lover staw ma rose
But ah he left the thorn wi' me.
No song is more poignant than the last
one he ever wrote:
Oh wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea
Ma plaidie tae the angry airt
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee.
Dedicated to young Jessie Lewars who nursed him in his last days here
John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And mony a cantie day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.
A song that illustrates the genius of
For he took what was a bawdy ballad where an old lady complains of her
husband's lack of virility and he transformed it into what is surely the
most beautiful hymn to marriage.
But it is in his songs to his beloved
Jean that we see a different Burns, a joyous Burns, inspired by as deep
a love as man can experience.
His bonnie Jean - But Armours the jewel o' them a'- Jean Armour, the wife
who understood him and whom he loved more than anyone else on God's earth.
He dedicated 14 songs to her, most notably perhaps:
Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo'e best.
And he finishes the poem with that magnificent couplet:
There's not a bonie bird that sings
But minds me o' ma Jean
All of these things which I have mentioned
perhaps explain the immortality of the memory of Robert Burns to the Scots.
But what of his universality?
Why is he so relevant, as Ajit Singh asked me near half a century ago,
to Calcutta, to peoples all over the world, in a way that no other writer
He lived in a world of either opulence
By accident of birth all were born with privilege or in poverty.
With privilege there was wealth and position.
Without it, there was destitution and despair.
And it was that world of privilege and position, poverty and injustice
that Burns hated and constantly condemned.
And the sentiments of change, drastic change in society, then being kindled
in Europe, sentiments which would drive the Americans on to Independence
and the French to Revolution, they were still anathema to huge swathes
of the privileged in this country and elsewhere.
Burns, however, was above all a humanitarian, one who cared for the people
like no one before him.
His sympathies were with the poor and the oppressed, the common folk,
his fellow man.
And he had a love for all men that no other writer, before him or after,
of any age, or of any country, had ever shown.
And so the pen of Robert Burns became the voice of the people; and he
expressed the thoughts and the hopes of the people.
"God knows I am no saint. I have a whole host of follies and sins
to answer for. But if I could, and I believe that I do it as far as I
can, I would wipe all tears from all eyes."
"Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others,"
he wrote, "this is my criterion of goodness; but whatever injures
society at large or any individual in it, then this is my measure of iniquity."
No figure in world literature had ever written with such compassion for
his fellow man.
I read a few years ago in, I think,
The Telegraph of the Englishman who wanted to institute the Shakespeare
Supper and he forecast that it would soon rival our own.
And I have wondered ever since what message Wm Shakespeare had left to
the people of the world.
And I still can't think of one.
But RB left one, a message for all men; for all nations and for all times.
It is a message of friendship; a message of fellowship; but above all
else a message of love. It is a message that is just as relevant and just
as vibrant today as when it was written over two hundred years ago.
"It's comin' yet for a that an' a' that,
That man tae man the world o'er shall brithers be for a' that."
He died at the age of only 37.
We can but marvel at what he achieved and wonder what he might have achieved
had he lived his full biblical span of three score years and ten.
The twenty-first of July 1796, the day
of his death, must surely rank as one of the darker days in the history
And four days later, on the day of his
burial, his beloved Jean, was giving birth to their son Maxwell whom she
named after William Maxwell the doctor who had prescribed bathing in the
cold waters of the Solway up to the armpits as a cure for Burns' endo-carditis.
And when the funeral procession finally
fell silent as it was wending its way through the crowded streets of this
town, just as it got to the gates of St Michael's Kirkyard an auld buddy
was heard to enquire "An wha will be oor poet noo?" a question
still unanswered two hundred and six years later.
When William Wordsworth, perhaps the
greatest of England's poets, learnt of the death of RB, he wrote:
I mourned with thousands, but as one
More deeply grieved, for he was gone.
Whose light I hailed when first it shone
And showed my youth
How verse may build a princely throne
On humble truth.
Robert Burns and his memory will be
immortal, not just to Scots peoples everywhere; but to people of every
nation and every race and every colour whose lives have been touched by
this unique genius.
Tell your children aye and your children's
children about him and tell them just how lovely is the legacy which he
left; for they will never have one that is more beautiful.
This, ladies & gentlemen, is what
the Immortal Memory means to me and these are some of the thoughts which
I wanted to share with you; thoughts for you to take away and to dwell
upon, from time to time, so that if ever you are asked, as I once was,
why do we make a fuss about Robert Burns, you will be able to tell them.
Tell them if you will that he did more
to preserve the language, the culture, the heritage, the traditions, aye
the very nationhood of Scotland than did any other.
And he did it all when Scotland as a nation faced the greatest threat
to its very existence that it has ever known.
We have a culture, a tradition and a
heritage of which we should be immeasurably proud.
For they are equalled by few and surpassed by none and we owe more of
that to Robert Burns than to any other individual.
James Barke once wrote that there can be no greater poet than Robert Burns:
"Before he can be surpassed, a new race will have to be born, a different
and greater species than homo sapiens."
James Barke was right.
This is an unforgettable night for me,
Mr President, because of the honour you conferred upon me in inviting
I am intensely proud to give you this toast, the proudest toast for any
Scot to propose.
I have had the privilege as you know of proposing it in many places throughout
But to be asked to propose it here in Dumfries, at a gathering of the
Robert Burns World Federation, that body which has done more than any
other not just to promote Robert Burns, but to preserve this vital part
of Scotland's heritage, then that is surely one of the greatest honours
that can be conferred upon any Scottish speaker.
And I am very conscious of that honour and I shall always be grateful
I said a moment or two ago that this
is the proudest toast for any Scot to propose.
And so it is.
But it is also the proudest toast for any Scot to drink.
For it recalls surely the greatest Scot of all time.
It is a toast which we should drink with joy and with pride.
Joy at his memory and pride in the heritage which he left us.
Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, fill your glasses,
aye fill them to the very brim and raise them high as I give you the greatest
Scottish toast of them all, the Immortal Memoryof Robert Burns.