by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Robert Burns Stained Glass Window at the
University of Glasgow
his request, I bring greetings from G. Ross Roy to all of you in attendance
today. Perhaps Jim Gilchrist described Dr. Roy best in a column on
scotland.com as “The Chairman of the Bard”! And, just this morning, I
received an email from Clark McGinn asking me to extend his greetings as
is said that at one time the Greeks were not interested, as we are today, in
obituaries. Only one question was asked: Did he have passion? That
question has a lot to say about Robert Burns, our subject today.
There is a Mexican tradition that states you die three times. You die once
when you cease to breathe. The second death is experienced when you are
buried. And the third death is when your name is never spoken again. Robert
Burns will never experience the third death.
One source says there are 5,000 books on Robert Burns. Yet, he only
wrote one book. Burns wrote many letters, songs and poems, but only one
book. Sure, there were other editions published, some which included
additional poems, but it was still the same title. Burns prized his books
and worked to share books with those he lived around. And today, we carry on
that practice. We have our books and prize and cherish them as Burns did in
Pete Hamill, the famous New York columnist, editor and author, had this to
say about his own books:
“There are over 10,000 books in my library, and it will keep growing until I
die. This has exasperated my daughters, amused my friends, and baffled my
accountant. If I had not picked up this habit in the library long ago, I
would have more money in the bank today, but I would not be richer.”
is hard to think one could say it any better than Pete Hamill did.
New York Times editor Anatole Broyard once said this about books:
"The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his history, like an
ancestral portrait.” I fully agree with Broyard - books identify you and
become your DNA.
also enjoy French novelist Anatole France’s famous quote on lending books:
“Never lend books,
Nobody returns them;
The only books I have in my library are those which people loaned me”!
All of the above is mentioned to point out our love for books and the many
poems, letters, and songs that ended up in books on Burns. No wonder
Robert Burns Lives!
A few words about Alastair McIntyre and
the Robert Burns Lives! web site
When Alastair began his web site several years ago, it was generally
referred to as ElectricScotland. Its subjects include Scotland, the Scots,
Scots in Scotland, and Scots around the world, and the site also has an
extensive section on Robert Burns. In a recent email to me, Alastair had
this to say: “All I ever wanted to do was to reach the million mark
regarding visitors to our site in the course of a year. I feel I’ve more
than done my part in educating folk about Scotland and the Scots. I’ve also
made arrangements that when I die, all the information on the site will be
preserved for future generations”.
One of the things I find impressive about ElectricScotland are the sheer
numbers. I gave a similar talk on this subject in April, 2009 at Ross Roy’s
Burns Conference at the University of South Carolina. At that time,
ElectricScotland was averaging 2.25 million visitors a year. Today that
average is 3.5 million. The numbers for the Robert Burns sites are just as
telling. Currently there are approximately 22,000 visitors every four weeks.
January, of course, is a spike month, and we all know that January 25 has
something to do with that spike. During January of last year,
ElectricScotland had 385,000 visitors. Seems like a lot of people were
getting ready to speak at Burns Suppers around the globe!
web site, Robert Burns Lives!, is part of the Burns section on
ElectricScotland. Let me be clear about one thing. Robert Burns Lives!
always has an explanation point, and it is there for a reason. And that
reason is simple – he lives!
You can get in your car, drive down to Dumfries and take all of the pictures
you want to take. But always remember that Burns did not die in 1796. Robert
Burns has yet to experience the third death mentioned above. He still lives
today. He is right here in our hearts and minds. To prove his popularity,
Google his name. This week while in London I did so and 1.69 million results
Let’s look a bit closer at Robert Burns Lives! and how all of this
got started. My first objective was for it to be an outreach to laymen, the
average Burnsian. Then I made a startling discovery. I met a man by the name
of G. Ross Roy who offered to help by writing two articles:
Important Editions of Robert Burns
Important Editions About Robert Burns
Then it became easier to get other people to share their love of Burns on
the web site.
found another man associated with Ross Roy, Patrick Scott, who to this day,
years later, has never failed to help me find answers to those problems or
questions that come up on a regular basis in the course of editing the 100+
articles or chapters on the web site. Both are very busy men, but they have
always been willing to lend their assistance to this site because they
believe in it! I will always be eternally grateful to both for their
I look around this room, I see several faces of those who have shared
articles with me and I can also spot others who I hope will do the same.
Let’s recognize a few other contributors who have assisted in making
Robert Burns Lives! what it is today.
editor of the web site I introduce all articles and guest writers by telling
how I came upon them and their writings. There are many topics so, for
instance, let’s take Burns and slavery. Three writers stand out in this
Corey Andrews of Youngstown State University
in Ohio with his article Lament for Slavery? The Case of
Clark McGinn: Burns and Slavery
Gerry Carruthers: Robert Burns and
you go to our index page you will find these three articles listed as
Chapters 52, 92, and 93. Where else on the Internet can you find three
articles on Burns and slavery on the same index page?
I find an article I like, it doesn’t matter if I know the writer or not.
I’ll attempt to find someone who has his or her email or I’ll just hunt it
down myself. A significant case in point is the series of articles that
appeared in the Scottish press on “What Robert Burns Means to Me”. Those who
took the time to write this series were David Purdie, Gerry Carruthers,
Billy Kay, Eddi Reader, Kenneth Simpson, and James Macsween of haggis fame.
And then, out of nowhere an article on the subject appeared from G. Ross
cover other types of stories, too. Last Fall my wife and I found ourselves
in Chicago for a meeting. We make a habit of finding any Burns statues in
the area during our travels, so we excitedly boarded the train out to the
neighborhood park to take a look at the Burns statute. That excitement
turned to disappointment the damage to the lower portion of the structure
which had been defaced and looked like it had been that way for quite some
time. Seems some sorry person took it upon himself to remove the plaques
under the statue. I wrote two articles about the handsome image of Burns and
its defaced plinth and even contacted the Scottish powers that be in that
area, expressing my concern and offering to use Robert Burns Lives!
to help raise money to replace the plaques. Assurances were given that it
was a matter of concern being worked on. So far, there has been no follow-up
regarding the statue that needs a helping hand.
During my Robert Burns Lives! journey I’ve had some great times with
some great people. People like Robert Crawford. When I reviewed his book on
Burns, The Bard, I learned that Gerry Carruthers had done so as well,
so I sought and received permission to put Gerry’s book review on Robert
Burns Lives! as well. I did a “chat” with Crawford which was
picked up and printed by Johnny Rodger and Mitchell Miller in their
exceptional periodical THE DROUTH. By the way, from time to time, THE DROUTH
has some of the best articles on Robert Burns to be found in any
publication. If they are honest, some university journals would be proud to
have such Burns articles.
I’ve met many exceptional Burns writers and speakers while on this quest.
One is Clark McGinn. Of all the speaking engagements I wish I could have
attended during the 250th Burns celebration, none stands out more
than when Clark spoke at Westminster Abbey. Clark has written several
articles for Robert Burns Lives! and those articles can only be
described as superb and scholarly. I once asked him to figure up how many
miles he had traveled carrying the message of Burns, and the answer came
back, 4.5 times around the globe! At lunch last week in London I asked where
that number would be when this Burns season is completed, and he replied
nearly five times. Wow!
never work on a speech or article while researching the Burns Chronicles
without stopping to thank the Good Lord for Bill Dawson. His Directory to
the Articles and Features Published in The Burns Chronicle, 1892-2005
has saved many an hour of research for most of us. Bill has also been very
instrumental in helping me collect almost all the chronicles.
Then there is Alex Salmond. I know nothing about his politics, but I can
tell you that he is a tremendous Burns speaker. Susan and I found that out
during a presentation he gave at the Library of Congress in Washington two
years ago. And even more amazing is the fact that one of his staff members
sent me his speech and a photo the very next week after being requested by
Susan to do so. It was posted on Robert Burns Lives! long before the
various Scottish magazines rolled out their printed versions.
There are too many to thank for their articles on Burns in the brief time
allotted me, but I’ll not forget Dr. Patrick Scott, Dr. Valentina Bold,
Thomas Keith, Dr. Tom Burns, Peter Westwood, Ian MacMillan, Colin Hunter
McQueen, Dr. James Flannery, the late Dr. Robert Carnie, and Chris Rollie.
The list goes on and on, but I certainly cannot forget the “Glasgow Girls”
as I call them, Rhona Brown, Pauline Mackay, Jennifer Orr, and Megan Coyer.
referred earlier to “chats” with writers. These usually take the form of a
Q&A email inquiry. I use email for several reasons but mostly to let the
writer know that when his or her answers are given in response to my
questions, they are final. I do not come back with a reply no matter how
tempting it is to do so.
Back to Alastair McIntyre, founder of
www.electricscotland.com where my web site
located. He is my editor and my big boss. I recently asked Alastair to
critique Robert Burns Lives! and this is part of what he said:
“I just know that what RBL! does is make Burns
relevant to people
of today. What your series does is show how he is as relevant today as
he was when he was alive and in some ways more relevant in the world
we live in.”