When I was asked, if I would propose a toast to the Immortal Memory at our Burns Supper, I was flattered, honoured and more than a wee bit scared. What could I say? Here's me, a wee lad from Dundee "wi nae erse in his breeks", who can murder the funniest joke, kill the most comical anecdote and disperse amusing stories like lead balloons, asked to address a Burns Club. It was suggested I talk about what the poet means to me, so that's what you will hear, no anecdotes, no lead balloons, just how I see 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 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 though they may be.
Yet Burns is universally acclaimed.
Why should all of this be?
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 then over the Atlantic and across these great continents of North and South America to the Western seaboard and beyond. And so on right around the world and right around the clock.
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.
And there is no other institution of man of which that can be said.
"Mair nonsense has been uttered in the name of Robert Burns than ony's, barrin liberty and Christ"
"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 the 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 heard 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
Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on January 25th, 1759 and died in Dumfries on the 21st July 1796. We celebrate his birth, we don't mark his death, Robin’s work is all about life and living, it celebrates the common Man. In that short 37 years, he left a huge impact on the world.
His family were farming folks, making a living on 70 acres, less than a quarter section, and in 1765, when he was 6, his father, William Burness and some neighbours established a school in the village and hired a teacher, a Mr. Murdoch, for their families. Robert and his brother Gilbert attended the school, but the teacher left in 1768, leaving the boy’s father to continue their education. Pa Burns held that the three most important things on a boy’s life were education, education and education, the most important of them being Education.
In 1766, his father worked the farm of Mount Oliphant, and in taking his share in the effort to make it succeed, the future poet seems to have seriously overexerted himself. What farmer's kid hasn't shared the load on the farm?
In 1780, at age 21, Robert and Gilbert with other young lads of Tarbolton founded the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club, upon which the Halifax Burns Club is based. It was founded on “diversion to relieve the wearied man worn down by the necessary labours of life”. Robert was elected its first President and the first meeting drew up the rules for membership, one of which required that
'Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex. No haughty, self-conceited person, who looks upon himself as superior to the rest of the Club, and especially no mean spirited, worldly mortal, whose only will is to heap up money shall upon any pretence whatever be admitted.'
His father died in 1784, and with his brother Gilbert, the poet rented the farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline, but this was unsuccessful.
In 1785, his first child, a girl, was born to his mother’s serving girl, Betty Paton. That same year, he met Jean Armour. He commented on the 6 belles of Mauchline
Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland's divine,
He had an intimate affair with Jean Armour, for which he was censured by the Kirk session and having to spend some time on the “cutty stool” in front of the congregation, named as a “fornicator”.
As a result of his farming misfortunes, and the attempts of his Jean's father to overthrow his common-law marriage with Jean, he decided to emigrate, taking a job as an overseer on a plantation in Jamaica, and in order to raise money for the passage he published (Kilmarnock, 1786) a volume of the poems which he had been composing from time to time for some years. This volume was unexpectedly successful, so that, instead of sailing for the West Indies, he went to Edinburgh, and during that winter he was the chief literary celebrity of the season.
Another, enlarged edition of his poems was published there in 1787, and the money helped him to aid his brother in Mossgiel, and to take and stock for himself the farm of Ellisland in Dumfriesshire. His fame as poet had reconciled the Armours to the connection, (money talked even then!) and having now regularly married Jean, he brought her to Ellisland and once more tried farming. It lasted for three years.
He published several more poetry editions and put words to many Scots tunes in the “Scots Musical Museum” and in George Thomson's “Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs.” Many of these tunes would be lost were it not for his efforts. (eg Hey Tuttie Tattie became Scots Wha Hae) In spite of the fact that he always seemed to be broke, he refused to accept any payment for this work, preferring to regard it as a patriotic service. And it was, indeed, a patriotic service of no small magnitude. By birth and temperament he was the right man in the right place at the right time, and this is proved by the unique extent to which his productions have passed into the life and feeling of his race.
He gave up on Ellisland farm in 1791 and in 1792, he was appointed as an Excise man in Dumfries. By now he was thoroughly discouraged; his work was mere drudgery; his tendency to take his relaxation in debauchery increased the weakness of a constitution early undermined.
In Rabbie's time, the English had, by then, recognised the Scots are a warlike race and in their own sly, sleekit way, recruited the Scots into their army.
O why the deuce should I repine,
Robert Burns was a private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers during the last year and a half of his life. He may not have known that, when he joined, he became a comrade in a proud tradition that spanned several centuries and is known throughout the world: the Scottish warrior of great feats and great mystique.
So where does Robert Burns fit into this military tradition? He enters it a few decades after the Jacobite rebellion, during a busy time of regiment building due to the very real invasion threat from France. This threat spawned a wide-spread Militia movement, volunteer units sprouted up in the 1790's and disbanded in the first decade of the 19th century when fear of invasion receded. One such unit, the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, was born on January 31st, 1795 and disbanded in 1802.
From January to March, 1796, there was famine in Dumfries and by July he was in his last illness. He appealed to George Thomson for a loan of 5 pounds to meet a debt and was refused.
On 21 July, all but destitute and in debt, Burns died. He was buried with full Military Honours on the 25th July, his son Maxwell was born of Jean Armour the same day.
During his life, Rabbie was a humourist, a satirist, storyteller, a lover, socialist, nationalist and a philosopher. He could be romantic, charming, funny, sarcastic and had a devastating wit. Hypocrisy and the pompous were often targets. 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 and the formal education system was for but a few.
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. However, even in the context of today, I see in Burns something that was dignified and honest. 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
There's ae wee faut they whyles lay to me,
His summing up of hypocrisy is beautifully penned in a variety of poems and letter ---- None better than in "Holy Willie's Prayer"
But, Lord, remember me and mine
Thy wee bit housie, too in ruin!
But back to the contrasts .....the Nationalist and the Internationalist.
The Internationalist produced a world class and indeed world renowned statement, sung so beautifully by Sheena Wellington to launch the new Scottish Parliament.
This Internationalist penned the most Nationalist of views, sometimes a proud nationalism and at other times a bitter nationalism.
Rabbie was very definitely on the side of his native land, a convinced, and convincing, Nationalist. His comment on the 1707 Union of Parliaments refers to the moneyed classes selling out to the English. He mourned the loss of Scottish identity "farewell even to our Scottish name, sae famed in ancient story" and looked bitterly into the past
Is there a more nationalistic, patriotic rabble-rouser than Bruce's address to his troops before Bannockburn, which has been immortalised as "Scots wha hae"
Wha will be a traitor knave
Wha for Scotland's king and law
I wonder how he would regard the present crop of Scottish Nationalist. With admiration? Or contempt?
As a storyteller, Burns has no peer. Is there a more moving scene than the Cottar's Saturday Night? Is there a better tale than Tam o Shanter? He paints word pictures, listen to these words describing a cozy seat in a warm bar with good friends on a stormy night
Ae market night, Tam got planted unco right
The night drave on wi sangs and clatter
This is an unforgettable night for me, Mr President, because of the honour you conferred upon me in inviting me.
I am intensely proud to give you this toast, the proudest toast for any Scot to propose.
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.
Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you all...Scot or not....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 Memory of Robert Burns.
This speech was written and delivered by Edwin Millar, a former president of the Halifax Burns Club