OUR TRIBUTE TO ROBERT BURNS
Grateful thanks to Len Murray, one of Scotland’s finest orators and authorities on Burns, for allowing us to adapt his wonderful Immortal Memory speech to serve as the foundation of this tribute . .
Why is Robert Burns so important to Scottish folk? We have other poets, other writers, other heroes, yet we do not afford them the veneration that we afford Robert Burns. Why should this be? More importantly, perhaps, 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 international acclaim of any of these writers, great though they may 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 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. Then they are sitting down in Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore. 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, the Mediterranean and on to Scotland, then over the Atlantic and across that great continent of America – right around the world and right around the clock.
On 25 January of each year and for many days before 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. The celebration is held in over 200 countries worldwide. There is no other institution of man of which that can be said.
There are more statues of Robert Burns than any other figure in world literature. Indeed if we discount figures of religion, then only Christopher Columbus has more. No other writer of any nationality has been afforded such universal acceptance. Why should that be? It cannot be just for his poetry, for every country can boast of its poets, and Scotland has produced other poets of the highest quality in Allan Ramsay, 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 Robert Louis Stevenson. Neither is revered to the extent of Burns. It’s likely that most people do not know when they were born, yet the world knows the significance of 25 January.
Not only that – Burns lived and worked during 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. 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. 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. 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, pottery and stone; by furniture makers and by bookbinders, their influence spread throughout the world.
It was also the zenith of Scottish art. 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 aa. Why should that be? Why does that star shine more brightly than any other in the firmament of Scottish life and 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 at a time when a wave of Anglicisation was almost overwhelming Scotland. 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 1707, but it became a tidal wave following 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 transported to the colonies.
All things English were being embraced. Schools teaching the newly-acquired language were springing up all over the country. By the time it reached its high water mark in 1782 irreparable harm had been done, not just to the Scots language, but also to the culture and the heritage of Scotland.
James Beattie, a Scots poet of the day, then Professor of Moral Theology at Marischal College Aberdeen, wrote, “Poetry is not poetry unless it is written in English.” Has anybody heard of a Beattie Supper?
The objectionable Samuel Johnson wrote: “The great, the learned, the ambitious, and the vain, all cultivate the English phrase, and the English pronunciation, and in splendid company, 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 and the rest. He said . .
“The Poetic Genius of my country found me 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.”
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. He wrote with a beauty, with a simplicity that no other, before him or after him, has ever achieved.
“Till aa 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. 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 birth until death. 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.
Of course to him, his most important task was not his poetry but preserving the traditional folk songs of Scotland. “Auld Scotia’s meltin airs” he called them, and in this his efforts were Herculean, a labour of love. He collected these traditional songs wherever he went. He patched and mended them, then burnished them till he had produced things of beauty, every one a priceless gem. One cannot imagine Scots music and song without the contribution of Burns, and Scots would belong to a nation stripped of much of its traditional language, music and song, and therefore much of its identity, were it not for him.
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 greater than . .
“Ae (one) fond kiss and then we sever
Ae fareweel, and then forever!”
What words do you know in any language that convey more? Sir Walter Scott would say of that song that it contained “the essence of a thousand love tales.”
There is no couplet more mournful than that in Ye Banks and Braes . .
“And my fause (false) lover staw (stole) my rose
But ah he left the thorn wi me”.
No song is more poignant than the last he ever wrote . .
“Oh wert thou in the cauld (cold) blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea
Ma plaidie tae the angry airt (direction)
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee”.
dedicated to young Jessie Lewars who nursed him in his last days in Dumfries.
Then there’s . .
“John Anderson, my jo (joy / sweetheart), John,
We clamb (climbed) the hill thegither (together);
And monie (many) a cantie (happy) day, John,
We’ve had wi ane anither: (with one another)
Now we maun (must) totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither (together) at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo”.
A song that illustrates the genius of Burns, for he took what was a bawdy ballad where an old lady complains of her husband’s lack of virility and transformed it into what is surely the most beautiful tribute to marriage.
But it is in his songs to his beloved Jean that we see a different Burns, a joyous Burns. To the wife who understood him and whom he loved more than anyone else on God’s earth, he dedicated 14 songs, most notably perhaps:
“Of aa (all) the airts (directions) the wind can blaw (blow),
I dearly like the west,
For there the bonie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best”.
All of these things perhaps explain the immortality of the memory of Robert Burns to the Scots, but what of his universality? Why is he so relevant to peoples all over the world, in a way that no other writer is?
He lived in a world of either opulence or oppression. By accident of birth all were born with privilege or in poverty. With privilege there was wealth and position; without it, destitution and despair, and it was that world of privilege and position, poverty and injustice that Burns hated and constantly condemned.
Burns, however, was above all a humanitarian, one who cared for the people like no other. His sympathies were with the poor and the oppressed, the common folk, his fellow man, and so the pen of Robert Burns became the voice 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, and left 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.
“For aa that and aa that, it’s comin yet for aa that,
That man tae man the world oer shall brithers be for aa that.”
He died at the age of 37. We can but marvel at what he achieved and wonder what he might have achieved, had he lived his full biblical span. The 21st July 1796, the day of his death, must surely rank as one of the darker days in the history of Scotland.
And when the funeral procession finally fell silent as it was wending its way through the crowded streets of Dumfries, an auld body was heard to enquire “An wha will be oor poet noo?”, a question still unanswered today.
When William Wordsworth, perhaps the greatest of England’s poets, learned of Rabbie’s death 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 everywhere; but to people of every nation and every race and every colour whose lives have been touched by his unique genius.
Tell your children, ay, 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 more beautiful.
This is what Burns means to us and these are some of the thoughts which we wanted to share with you; thoughts for you to dwell upon, from time to time, so that if ever you are asked why we Scots make a fuss about Robert Burns, you will be able to tell them.
Tell them that he did more to preserve the language, the culture, the heritage, the traditions, ay, and the very nationhood of Scotland than did any other, leaving a legacy of which we should be immeasurably proud, equalled by few and surpassed by none, and he did it all at a time when Scotland as a nation faced the greatest threat to its very existence that it has ever known.