The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

An after dinner speech on the birthday of Scotland’s bard

By Bill Heaney 

What brings us here tonight? The thought of the meal we have enjoyed, the neeps and haggis, the oatcakes and well-hained kebbuck?   Perhaps.    Then again, it may be the fine wine we have just consumed? Or the whisky?   Perhaps.

It could be the company we sit with? The surroundings, surely as fine as any.? All of those things … but we need more than that… we need a reason or even a pretext — and we find it in the person of Robert Burns.

Genius is a most overused word. It is often bestowed on those who do not merit it. Donald Trump thought he was a genius. What makes a person a genius? How do we discern genius? What are its hallmarks? Sometimes it is easy. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a genius as was Beethoven.

We listen to the disturbed musings of the Prince of Denmark as he ponders the taking of his own life, and when we hear those immortal words  “…. to be or not to be, that is the question…. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows …”

And we know that the man who penned them was surely a genius.

In the Museum of Religious Art, now housed in the Cathedral museum of Glasgow, one can view that amazing picture of Christ on the Cross by Salvador Dali. You may regard Dali as eccentric but is difficulty to deny his genius.

Listen to the wonderful words spoken by Martin Luther King in 1963…. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today”. 

His dream was the dream of genius.  His dream was to change the world for the better. That world has now been changed for the better – I hope – with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America. And now President Joe Biden. One was black, the other Catholic. Last century neither would have been invited to share the neeps and haggis.

Members of Dumbarton Burns Club pictured at a Burns Supper in the Dumbuck Hotel.

In my home area of Dunbartonshire, we have our share of what Tennyson called “the genii of the stream”. In Helensburgh, there lived a genius who was to provide us with the ability to watch in our living room the most incredible happenings from all over the world. His name was John Logie Baird, the inventor of Television. And Henry Bell, who invented the steamship.

Did that other great Scot, Alexander Graham Bell, ever think that his genius would cause many of us to curse his very name as we are interrupted whilst glued to our Logie Baird watching a football match or the latest episode of our favourite soap opera?

My question is this: What counts as genius? Tonight I will make a claim… a simple claim. I will claim that a humble Scottish ploughman from an obscure Ayrshire village possessed such genius that two hundred and fifty years after he died, we still remember him.

There was a lad. Aye, and what a lad!  This lad is Robert Burns who was to inspire millions by his poetry and whose influence still extends to this very day.  Little did they know that those who witnessed his entry into the world on that cold and blustery 25th January, 1759, in the village of Alloway, south of Ayr, were witnessing the birth of a genius.  He was indeed a lad, and quite a lad at that. His was a brief life, entering this world at Alloway and departing from it in the town of Dumfries a mere 37 years later.

The young Robert grew up to a life of hardship and poverty.  But notwithstanding the poverty, his father was far-sighted enough to send him to school to receive an education.  Robert read widely and, by the time he had grown up, he knew major works of English literature and also had a good knowledge of other subjects such as French.

In 1766, the family moved from Mount Oliphant to Lochlea, near Tarbolton, and Robert was sent off to Irvine to learn the art of flax dressing.  His training in that trade wasn’t a great success and Robert returned to Lochlea penniless.

However, this mishap actually did the world a favour, since it started to make Robert think about earning a living by writing.  By the time he was in his mid twenties, Burns had become an accomplished songwriter and poet and was showing a particular talent in writing his native Scots.

His father died in 1784 and he moved, along with his brother Gilbert, to a new farm, Mossgiel, near Mauchline.  Burns spent only two years at Mossgiel, but it was one of the most settled periods of his life and he began to write prodigiously.  Even the most casual study of his work reveals a poet knowledgeable about farming and country life.

It is alleged that Mair nonsense has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than anyone else, barrin liberty and Christ”

This is a direct quote from another poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, the author of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.  And there might be a fair element of truth in what MacDiarmid says.

A few years ago, it was announced that Burns had been voted the Scot of the Millennium by 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.”

One of the problems we Scots have is that we try to consider the life of Robert Burns in the context of today and, as we do so, we see him 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 200 years ago … 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 regard to gender equality, or rather inequality.

A television documentary on Burns went into great detail about his 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.

    Picture right by Stewart Cunningham

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?

Yes there were some 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.

Were Burns to be alive today, the media would have a field day 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 with his poem A Man’s a Man for A That.

A Member of the Scottish Parliament has recently proposed that this Burns’  poem should be adopted as Scotland’s national anthem

The poem ends with this verse:

Then let us pray that come it may
As come it will and a’ that
That sense and worth o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree and a’ that
For a’ that and a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the warld o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that
For a’ that and a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the warld o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that  

Even in the context of today, we can see Burns as dignified and honest.  He did not have the benefit of a life coach, or of counsellors and health clinics to help him come to terms with himself, as so many of today’s celebrities do. Burns 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;

Translated into English, this means : “I wouldn’t be one to boast about myself as I’m not fond of disclosing my faults and failings.”

But we will not defend him too stoutly. He loved the lassies and some of his best songs were written in their praise. We will hear more of the lassies later, but I want to say, and correct me if I am wrong, that our attitudes are based on the belief that women are equal to men.  Personally, I am not so sure many women think they are better than men!

I have two words of advice for any man here tonight. In your life together with your partner there will be many occasions where you will have got it wrong. On those occasions when you know you are at fault… admit it!

There will be the odd occasion where you know that you have got it right and she is wrong. Your wife will soon tell you those occasions will be few and far between. But on those odd occasions when you are right and you know it then … keep your mouth shut!

Men do get it wrong and often. A friend of mine knew his wife was approaching a significant birthday… you know one of those with a nothing at the end of it. He asked her what would be her dearest wish. She said, “I would just love to be 10 again”. He thought it such a strange request but decided that in some way he would try and accommodate her wish.

On the day of her birthday he roused her from sleep at 4 am, put her into the car and drove from the family home to Alton Towers. He ensured that for the next four hours she went on every conceivable ride. She left the theme park with her head spinning and her stomach heaving. He said to her: “The day is not over”.

He took her to McDonalds where they enjoyed a Big Mac, liberally washed down with one of those thick and runny milk shakes, which are a speciality of that purveyor of fine cuisine. As they left he said to her, “the day is not done yet”.

He drove her part of the way home and they stopped in Carlisle where he took her to see a re-run of the first Star Wars movie and plied her with hot dogs and pop corn.

Eventually they arrived home. She collapsed onto the bed totally and utterly exhausted. He stroked her hair lovingly and said to her, “Well sweetheart, how does it feel to be 10 years old  again?”

She looked at him through her bleary and bloodshot eyes, sat up in bed and said, “You are a clown, when I said I wanted to be ten again, I was not referring to my age — but to my dress size!”

Yes, men do get it wrong …    But, you may ask, what does Robert Burns have to do with all this? For a start… he gets it wrong less frequently. He says the things most men would like to say. However macho they are, or think they are, they would love to have his ability with words. They would love to say to their wives and partners the kind of things that he said to his girls.

When our partner or lover says, but do you really love me, we all wish we could say…. Dae I love you. Listen, hen, I love you… 

Till a the seas gang dry, my dear

And the rocks melt wi the sun

I will love thee still my dear

While the sands of time shall run.

We mortals just don’t have his facility for saying the right things in the right way.  We do not have his ease of communication. Even when parting is the only way, what do we say? Don’t we wish that we, like Robert Burns, could say something that would let them down gently and let us escape with some degree of pride and self respect? What did Robert say …

Fare thee well thou first and fairest,

Fare thee well thou best and dearest,

Thine be ilka joy and treasure

Peace , enjoyment, love and pleasure.

I accept that we all need a dram from time to time. In the drinks industry these days we make much of sensible drinking however. Going out and getting footless is no longer an acceptable option.

There are many names for a drink – a dram, a small one, a tincture, a swally – and we all need one from time to time.

On Loch Lomondside the locals nip out for what they call “a wee refreshment”.

The drouthy cronies, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie, were known to use that phrase — (a wee refreshment) it’s a lovely phrase isn’t it?

I remember a local worthy appearing at Dumbarton Sheriff Court. The Sheriff asked him if he had been drinking when he committed the crime he was accused of. “I had a wee refreshment, your honour,” the accused told the Sheriff, who queried further: “What constitutes a wee refreshment then? How many drinks is that?” The accused replied: “I was refreshed oot ma skull.”

We have shared some laughter here tonight. Robert Burns would have enjoyed this. Laughter is good medicine and not a commodity in huge abundance in this era of the Covid 19 pandemic and lockdown.

In this Immortal Memory, we remember that it was farming that inspired Burns’ poetry.  Indeed, his work is the continuing story of an ordinary Scotsman, his encounters, his observations and thoughts

Burns’ poems and letters give a detailed account of the life and times of the day. His words still ring true today and rouse the passions for which Scots are known.  The land, the toil of it, the strain of it, and the love of it pervades his poetry and his songs …

It was the nature of Burns’ experience, his hard experience at times, that made him the poet he was. He was a humanitarian. He embraced the world and the world in its turn embraced him.

He writes of struggle and pain and writes well of it. His sympathies were for the poor and oppressed. He hated all kinds of cruelty, oppression and discrimination. But many poets have felt that way. Burns could look at these things and smile. His laughter is as broad as humanity. There is no bitterness there, no malice. He laughs with life but never against it.

The other thing for me that makes Burns different from other poets is that linguistically other poets of his time always seem to be on their best verbal behaviour if you know what I mean… Like Wordsworth…..

“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crow, a host, of golden daffodils”.

I said I would leave it to others to deal with the Lassies, but there’s one I must mention.

Of all Rabbie’s many loves, one stands out, and she was Jean Armour.  While living at Mossgiel farm he met Jean, who was the daughter of a stonemason and whom, after a turbulent courtship, he eventually married in 1788.

Mind you, about that time he had been thinking about forging a new life altogether.  Jean had become pregnant but her father refused to allow him to marry her. He decided to leave the farm and start a new life for himself in Jamaica. So seriously, in fact, he is thought to have actually bought a ticket for the sailing.  In the event, he never went.

Robert finally decided to try and get his written works published in the hope that the money raised could help pay for the voyage. He travelled to Kilmarnock and invited friends he had made to subscribe to the publication to help offset the cost of printing.

When his work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, better known nowadays as the Kilmarnock Edition, was finally published, it caused a sensation.  All 612 of the original copies sold out within weeks.

The works contained only 34 poems, but it established his reputation.  Instead of seeking to make a living abroad, Burns decided to head instead for Edinburgh, and there he roused the fascination of Edinburgh Society who sought his company.

Make no mistake … Burns played the part of the poet!  His dress was smart.  His mannerisms were confident.  His conversations were enthralling.  It can be seen why he was popular with the ladies.  Burns took Edinburgh by storm and had effectively achieved stardom.  He managed to get a second edition of 3,000 copies published, earning enough money to tour the Borders and the Highlands.  His travels helped him to learn different regional song traditions and cemented his reputation as a songwriter as well as a poet.

It was on these travels, while raising money for his Edinburgh edition, that Burns came to Loch Lomondside. At this point Burns was uncertain of his future. He was at a crossroads in his life. He mounted his faithful mare, Jenny Geddes, and set off for the West Highlands to seek support. He was accompanied by Dr George Grierson and Mr George Gairdner of Ladykirk.

The farthest extent of the tour was Inveraray, seat of John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll.  It was unfortunate for Burns that the committee of the British Fisheries Society, of which the Duke was President, was meeting at Inveraray prior to selecting Tobermory as a new fishing port on the Island of Mull. The result was that the castle was full, the local inn was crowded with guests and Burns got very poor service.  He vented his wrath by scratching on one of the window-panes:

There’s naething here but Highland pride,

And Highland scab and hunger:

If providence has sent me here,

It surely was in anger.

From Inveraray, Burns and his two companions rode by way of Clachan, Cairndow, through Glen Kinglas to the summit of the Rest and be Thankful, Arrochar and Tarbet on Loch Lomond.  At Bannachra, by Helensburgh, latterly the home of Hamish Lumsden and later Henry Taylor, the potato man, our travellers became ensconced in a party which certainly brightened Burns’ mood.  It gives a flavour of the hospitality you might find even today.

There was Scottish dancing and singing until the ladies retired at 3am when a punch bowl was filled.  This kept the men going till 6a.m. when they all went outside to pay homage to the sun as it arose over Ben Lomond.  Presumably after some sleep, they spent that same day sailing on Loch Lomond, prior to dining that night at Arden.

After leaving Arden, Burns and Jenny Geddes are said to have had an impromptu race with a Highlander, which left the poet in a sorry state because of a fall.  Burns appeared to be winning until “Donald” wheeled his horse and brought them down. Donald ended up in a hedge and Burns received a skinful of cuts, bruises and wounds.

They reached Dumbarton by way of Balloch and Renton.  On 29th June, the magistrates of the town presented the poet with his Burgess Ticket.

Dumbarton is proud of its association with Robert Burns. It also has the distinction of being one of six Scottish Burghs which made Burns a freeman during his life.  The other five are Jedburgh, Dumfries, Linlithgow, Lochmaben and Sanquhar.  His Burgess Ticket is a treasured relic, preserved in the council’s archives.

Burns Cottage at Alloway south of Ayr.

However, the Edinburgh money and Highlands subsidies didn’t last. Burns could not live on the proceeds of his poems forever and, in 1788, he moved back to the land.  He finally married Jean Armour, who by then had borne him four children, and decided to return to tenant farming and take a 170-acre farm at Ellisland, near Dumfries.  Jean stood by him until the very end.

His poetry and songs often reflect his deep capacity of love. Is there any finer than Ae Fond Kiss.  A powerful yet tragic love poem, a film was named after it.  He wrote it for his beloved “Clarinda.”  The short three verses describe the shattering of a deep relationship, and the desperate heart breaking emotion and realisation of what might have been … and what no longer can be.  In many a tribute to Burns, describing his interactions with the fairer sex, you will hear the lines:

Had we never lov’d sae kindly

Had we never lov’d sae blindly

Never met-or never parted

We had ne’er been broken hearted

The Church of Scotland acted as a kind of moral monitor in Robert’s day. In every parish in Scotland details have been taken and kept of the sexual shenanigans of the parishioners. In parish records in my own home place there are innumerable occasions where some poor unfortunate is up before the Session on the charge of either ante nuptial or pre nuptial fornication. Kirk Session meetings in those days must have been very, very interesting.

The bankers and financiers of today who complain they are given a hard time by politicians, the press and the public today are wide of the mark. They get off very lightly indeed I can tell you!

Robert himself faced charges fairly often and sought forgiveness. Whether these practices were right, fair or just is another question. What is undeniable is that many who sat in judgement of his wrongdoings did not, in fact, practice what they preached. Hypocrisy was rife and Burns exposes it in much of his poetry from which he made a little money.

It must have been hard for Burns to settle down after being feted by the rich and famous. It must have been difficult for him to maintain that attention to daily farming duties. He took on a job as part-time excise man, collecting dues for the Treasury from Scotland’s whisky distillers.

There are times, I must say, when I have great sympathy with his famous verdict on the Excise service, written just four years before he joined them:

Thae curst horse-leeches o th’ Excise,
Wha mak the whisky stells their prize!
Haud up thy han’, Deil! ance, twice, thrice!
There, seize the blinkers!

The poet’s new duties provided him with a wider circle of acquaintances and also interfered with his running of the farm. The salary of £50 resulted in more loss than gain to him.

Three years’ experience of Ellisland convinced Burns that the combination of excise duties with farming was a mistake, and in November, 1791, he gave up his farm, considerably poorer than when he had occupied it. He decided to try his hand full-time as an exciseman.

In 1791 Robert finally gave up the farm and moved into the town of Dumfries to concentrate full time on his excise work. Three years later, he was given the job as Acting Supervisor. Ironically, despite his reputation as an excellent government servant, Burns was attracted by the ideals of the French Revolution, which was in full swing at the time, and it influenced A Man’s a Man for a that.

A fine sense of perceptive humour has always been the hallmark of the great Scottish comedians. Ricky Fulton, Jack Milroy, Jimmy Logan and Billy Connolly have all had the ability to take the ordinary and turn it into the comic. To extract comedy out of what we take for granted. Burns does this in Tam o Shanter. We have all seen the drunk – or maybe even been the drunk.

The poem is a masterpiece of story telling in which Burns describes his friend, Tam, being the worse for drink making his way home from the pub on horseback. The tale describes Tam’s thoughts as he travels the road on a wet and wild night. On passing the Auld Kirk at Alloway, he believes he has witnessed the Devil himself, hosting a wild party within, together with witches and warlocks and ghosts.

The story is vivid in imagery and serves to remind the reader of the effects of over-indulgence in alcohol. The “Auld Kirk” still stands today, just a short distance from the cottage in which Burns was born. If women were prominent in Rabbie’s life, then so also was drink. He enjoyed the social occasion. He would have enjoyed tonight.

A favourite riposte on the whole question of drink surely comes from Winston Churchill.  Lady Astor was to say to him – “Sir, if you were my husband I would poison your drink.”  To which Winston replied “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”

Finally, writing, working, socialising and looking after a family were taking a heavy toll on Burns. The shadows were closing around his life. In the autumn of 1795 came an attack of rheumatic fever. This confined him to the house till the following January, and a second attack was almost immediately brought on by imprudent exposure to cold.

In July 1796, he went to the Solway coast to try and improve his health by sea bathing, but to no avail. It was clear he was not a well man and, on returning to Dumfries, he died only days later. His death occurred on the same day as his wife, Jean, gave birth to his last son, Maxwell.

On the day of his burial, more than 10,000 people came to watch and pay their respects. However, his popularity then was nothing compared to the heights it has reached since.

In conclusion we pose the question. What made Burns so unique?
Perhaps his use of language, combined with his human touch? He was never afraid to put passion and emotion into his songs and poems.

It didn’t take long for the cult of Burns to begin flowering. Only five years after his death, the first club was set up to honour his memory. His reputation quickly grew and today there is hardly a country in the world where his words are not known and his skills revered.

Wherever men and women meet, work, laugh or cry at every stage of their journey, the poetry of Robert Burns has relevance. Therein lies his genius.

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