by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Over the years, Ian
MacMillan has been a regular contributor to Robert Burns Lives! His
first visit with us was in March 2006, when he presented Chapter 22, “22
Days - A Highland Immortal Memory”. He then followed shortly after with
Chapter 25 (January 2007) entitled “Robert Burns Diamond Stylus”. Ian
took a while off but returned with Chapter 122, “Pretty Nancy” in June
of 2011. Today his gift to us is Chapter 149, “My Friend Robert Burns”.
Few contributors to these pages have given more of their time and
efforts on behalf of Robert Burns than Ian, and it is those like him who
make our website unique. Friends like Ian have shared their works on
Burns time and time again, and either next week or the one following, we
will be posting Chapter 150! I’m grateful to each, particularly Ian
MacMillan, for standing with us since beginning this quest to honor our
Bard. I look forward to the continued expansion of Robert Burns Lives!
in the years to come by providing more thoughtful and provocative
articles for our readers.
He has been described to me by someone who should know as
“one of the good guys”. I love Ian’s frank way of speaking, without being
overly blunt, as evidenced by this statement regarding his article below: “I
have deliberately used ‘Rabbie’ in my article as my own favourite fond name
for our Bard. Purists may disagree – you OK with that?” (My reply was
basically the same one I gave to Eddi Reader when I posted her article
February 2, 2009 on “What Burns Means to Me” [Chapter 37]. She had been
hassled by some Burns people who can’t stand for anyone’s belief about Burns
to be different from theirs and she had begun referring to them as “the
Burns police”.) I emailed Ian back with this reaction: “Ian, Rabbie was,
is, and always will be one of my favorite names for our Bard! What you refer
to as ‘purists’, I refer to as ‘the Burns Police’. I do not pay much
attention to them, if any!” So, “just be yourself” is what I advised in my
introduction to Eddi Reader and I say the same thing to Ian.
Ian served as a guide to a group of friends from our Burns
Club of Atlanta on tour in Scotland to celebrate the 250th
anniversary of Burns’s birth. Woody Woodward, the club’s current
vice-president, had been on that tour (led by Kate Graham of Caledonian
Travel) and he kept asking me, “Whatever happened to Ian MacMillan?” Ian
replied to my email of enquiry about another article for this web site with
“please say hello from me to Woody. I well remember standing chatting to him
about the ‘Little White Rose’ by the Commando monument at Spean
Bridge…Please also send my respects to the Atlanta Burns Club members I had
the pleasure of meeting, as well as Kate.” Consider it done, Ian, and always
know you are welcome at our Burns cottage in Atlanta and at our home where a
bed, knife and fork will be waiting on you and your Jean! (FRS: 8.21.12)
MY FRIEND ROBERT BURNS
Ian MacMillan and his wife Jean
I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine who died
over 250 years ago. His name is Rabbie Burns, mine is Ian MacMillan. The
MacMillans have a long history going way back into the mists of a Celtic
past. So I am a Celt and proud of it. The Celts believed that each of us
finds in life an ‘Anam Cara,’ a soul-mate to share our brief journey on this
mortal coil. An Anam Cara is a friend who knows the real you, the inner you,
all your good points, all the bad sides to your character, and who has been
there for you for the highs and lows that we all experience in our lives. A
person who has shared life with you and who you really trust. I consider
myself very lucky to have two Anam Caras who have known me for most of
my life. My wife Jean, whom I met over 40 years ago and my friend
Colin Stevenson whom I met at School when we were 5. I hasten to add that I
have ‘shared’ a lot more with Jean than with Colin (including 4 sons) just
in case anyone gets the wrong idea. Now I do not know whether Rabbie and I
would have ever been that close but I feel I know him better than almost any
human being I have met or read about. I admire and respect him and am sure
we would have been good friends. The reason I know him is that he has
told me all about himself with naked honesty. His hopes and fears, his
passions, his depressions, his loves of his country, of woman, nature, music
and poetry. So let’s have a look at my friend who, in his late 20s was
proclaimed the Bard of Scotland. This man, born to humble beginnings, in a
little country far away on the North-West edge of Europe, whose name, poems
and music are known right across the world. His brief, 37 year life, has
been analysed, dissected, discussed and debated until it seems each hair on
his head has been studied deeply by some expert Professor of something
important. There are over 6 million web sites devoted to him and there are
Burns Clubs all over the globe.
I have selected extracts from a few of his poems, his letters
and his songs to allow him to tell you, in his own words, what inspired and
drove him to this fame.
Rabbie Burns wrote some 270 poems. I have chosen extracts
from just 3 and hope this will whet your appetites to read more.
My first choice, not surprisingly, is about his love for
women. He wrote his first poem to ‘Handsome Nell’ when he was just 15 and
tells us how he fell head over heels in love with this farm-girl at harvest
time. But it is possible that he did not consummate any of his passionate
affairs until he was 25. His father had died, worried out of his life by
debts, also his concerns for his wayward son. On the evening of the funeral
it is said that one of the servants, a cheery, sonsie lass called Bess
Paton, comforted Rabbie in the only way she knew. So he was first introduced
to that delight which he tells us he held above all other earthly pleasures.
Surprise, surprise, 9 months later, along came a wee girl and Rabbie wrote
for her -
A Poet’s Welcome to His Love-Begotten Daughter
my bonnie, sweet, wee dochter,
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for,
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my fath, ye’re no unwrought for,
That I shall swear!
For if thou be what I wad hae thee,
And tak the counsel I shall gie thee,
I’ll never rue my trouble wi’ thee,
The cost nor shame o’t,
But be a loving father to thee,
And brag the name o’t
Just a tiny glimpse of a passionate, caring and loving man.
My second choice is from -
The Death And Dying Words Of Poor Maillie
Maillie was a pet lamb of Rabbie’s, now fully grown into a
big fat ewe. Maillie got herself tangled up in a piece of rope used as a
tether and fell into a ditch. Hughoc, a simple lad from the village came
running up to Rabbie and his brother Gilbert in a right state, yelling out
that poor Maillie was dying. After they had released her back to her two
lambs, Rabbie, still grinning, wrote about her supposed death and dying
words. We hear Maillie telling all about the terrible tragedy that befell
her, then, when a shocked Hughoc came along, how she turns to him and
commands him with her dying words. She addresses her kind master, she gives
wise words of counsel to her lambs on how to live their lives and avoid
danger, and ends with -
‘And now, my bairns wi’ my last
I lea’e my blessing wi’ you baith;
An’ when you think upo’ your mither,
Mind to be kind to ane anither.’
‘Now, honest Hughoc, dinna fail,
To tell my master a’ my tale;
An’ bid him burn this cursed tether,
An’ for thy pains thou’se get my blather’
This said, poor Maillie turned her
And clos’d her een among the dead!
The ‘blather‘, her reward to Hughoc, was her stomach, I
assume for making his haggis!
I think this poem reveals the wicked humour of this man which
we enjoy in To A Louse, Holy Willie’s Prayer, Address To
A Haggis and of course in Tam O’ Shanter. Also, when
we remember that in those days, without libraries, TV and newspapers, often
the only reading material, apart from the odd tinker’s tract, Rabbie’s
fellow farm workers would have access to was the Bible. No wonder his poems
about such familiar events were so instantly popular, that his Kilmarnock
edition was a sell out.
My last choice is another example of this. Of how, as he went
about the hard work on the farm of ploughing, sowing, harvesting, etc, he
was interested in the most minute detail of nature all around him. He wrote
of wild flowers, songbirds and chuckling streams. He wrote about a
head-louse crawling up a lovely damsel’s fine hat in Church, expressed his
anger when a wounded hare, shot by a clumsy sportsman, went by him and, of
course, we all know about the wee field mouse whose nest he disturbed and
his words of empathy and companionship -
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an man
gang aft agley.
A similar emotion moves him when, ploughing on a cloudy, wet,
windy Ayrshire day, he stops to look at a mountain daisy -
Cauld blew the bitter-biting North
Upon thy early humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
Amid the storm,
Scarce reared above the parent earth
Thy tender form
Now let’s turn from his poems to his letters. Most students
of his works are amazed how he found time to engage in such a vast amount of
correspondence, many of which, luckily for us, has survived and now can be
seen in museums and libraries. We learn so much about him from about 700
letters to family and friends, words of encouragement, love letters,
business letters etc. Also from letters to him and from the details in the
journals he kept of his travels. I’ll just pick one letter from him and one
letter about him.
In May of 1786, Rabbie, at the grand old age of 27, was asked
by his friend and lawyer, Robert Aikin, to write some words of worldly
advice to Aikin’s son, Andrew.
Epistle To A Young Friend
opens with -
hae thought, my youthful’ friend,
A something to have sent you,
Tho’ it should serve nae ither end
Than just a kind momento;
But how the subject theme may gang,
Let time and chance determine;
Perhaps it may turn out a sang:
Perhaps, turn out a sermon.
He then goes on to advise about how to deal with the good and
wicked in men, the fairer sex, to keep to his faith and devotion, and ends
dear amiable youth!
Your heart can ne’er be wanting!
May prudence, fortitude and truth,
Erect your brow undaunting!
In ploughman phrase, ‘God send you speed,’
Still daily to grow wiser;
And may ye better reck the rede,
Than ever did th’ adviser!
In other words, Burns regrets that he hasn’t followed his own
Last, a letter about him. After Rabbie died, as he expected,
his fame soared and enthusiasts and critics rushed to gather as much
information as possible about his life. James Gray, Latin master then rector
of Dumfries Academy, taught Rabbie’s children and knew the family well. In a
letter dated 1814 he tells us clearly how Burns’ concern for his children’s
education was as assiduous as Rabbie’s own father had been for him.
‘He superintended the
education of his children with a degree of care that I have never seen
surpassed by any parent in any rank of life whatever.
In the bosom of his family he spent many a
delightful hour in directing the studies of his eldest son - I have
frequently found him explaining to this youth, then not more than 9 years
old, the English poets from Shakespeare to Gray, or storing his mind with
examples of heroic virtue as they live in the pages of our most celebrated
We think that Rabbie’s focus shifted from poems to songs when
he was about 28. In Edinburgh and during his 22 day tour of the North-East
Highlands in 1787 he went out of his way to meet musicians and song-writers.
For the last 9 years of his life he seemed to be on a mission to collect and
save old Scottish songs which he would then modify and improve. He
contributed over 300 songs to two printed collections which we can access
It will not surprise you to know that the songs I have
selected are all about women Rabbie was in love with - Love is the theme for
many of his songs. You will be pleased to hear that you are not going to
have to suffer my singing, I’ll read the words.
The first song I have chosen is I Love My Jean.
Written for Jean Armour, who in spite of all his affairs, trials and
tribulations, became the mainstay of his life - his Anam Cara - when they at
long last overcame all the hurdles and married. He tells us
‘The air is by Marshall, the song I composed out of
compliment to Mrs. Burns. It was during the honeymoon.’
Of a’ the
airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the West,
For there the bonnie lassie lives,
The lassie I lo’e best:
There’s wild woods grow and rivers row,
And mony a hill between:
By day and night my fancy’s flight
Is ever wi’ my Jean.
We, of course, know that even if he did ‘lo’e Jean best’, he
also loved many others. His brother Gilbert said that Rabbie was always
imagining the latest lady he met as some kind of beautiful Goddess. One such
was Agnes McLehose, an Edinburgh grass-widow, who, not surprisingly, he
re-named as Clarinda. They conducted a strange platonic affair pitched in a
pseudo-classical, romantic manner. But he did write for her one of his most
famous love songs -
Ae Fond Kiss
never lov’d say kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met - or never parted -
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Walter Scott said these 4 lines ‘contain the essence of
a thousand love tales.’
His last song was to one of his friends and neighbour’s
daughter - Jessie Lewars. She was 18 and tended to Rabbie on his death-bed
as well as to Jean, who was heavily pregnant. She also looked after their
young children. She had a nice voice and Rabbie liked hearing her sing and
play her harpsichord to him. It pleased the dying man to fancy he was in
love with this young girl. He wrote for her one of his most tender lyrics -
Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast
O wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I’d shelter thee, I’d shelter thee;
Or did misfortune’s bitter storms,
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a‘.
I hope from these selected words and all they say about
Rabbie that I have given you some idea why I would have liked to count him
as one of my friends.
He was not perfect - which of us is? - but he freely and
honestly admitted his flaws. He was a philanderer, he had affairs. He was
not a drunkard, as some claimed, but certainly enjoyed rumbustuous nights
where the drink flowed freely. The following extract in my opinion sums up
very well his enjoyment of guid company over a dram or two as well as his
own views on friendship is all about.
Here’s a man an
What wad ye wish for mair
Wha kens before his life may end
What his share be o’ care man?
Then catch the moments ere they fly
And use them as ye ought man
Believe me happiness is shy
And comes not aye when sought man.
Robert Burns was no sooner in his grave when critics started
to pick his life to pieces. They would never have dared while he was alive -
who would want the satirical Holy Willie pen turned on them? I
think a lady writer summed all of this up very clearly. In reply to one of
his more poisonous critics she wrote - we never
notice or remark on the dust on the pebble but shout out loudly at the
faintest speck of dirt on a flawless gem.
So ‘warts and all’, I like the man and accepting the bad
along with the good is part of true friendship.
I hope that these examples from his works help you understand
why I refer to friendship. Also why his genius is recognised all over the
His words are as fresh and relevant today as when they were
written, some 250 years ago.
My friend Rabbie Burns.
MacMillan, Fernbank, Wester Ross, March 2006