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Robert Burns Lives!
Immortal Memory to Robert Burns, Burns Club of Atlanta by Frank Shaw


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Frank Shaw
Frank Shaw

Often I have heard said, as have all of you, that there is nothing new to say about Robert Burns. One might be prone to think so when you consider the 5,000 books on Scotland’s Bard in the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina or at The Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Yet, that statement is not true, and this brief look at new discoveries and current research on Burns will point significantly to much more needing to be said and learned about him.

This paper is a synopsis of the Immortal Memory I gave at the Burns Club of Atlanta (BCOA) in its historic cottage. It is a wee look from my standpoint of some of the wonderful things that have been happening in the world of Burns over the past few years. I am indebted to and wish to thank Clark McGinn, Patrick Scott, Chris Rollie, Jennifer Orr and Robert Crawford for the inspiration to turn to their more current works on Burns. Each has published either a paper or book or will do so in the near future that throws new light on the man who is globally celebrated this weekend.

CLARK McGINN on Burns and the Bank

Clark McGinn is the world’s Robert Burns globe-trotter. Over the past seven years Clark has travelled over 166,000 miles, or 6.7 times around the globe, to deliver the Immortal Memory to various groups. During this time he has given over 100 speeches in 24 cities in 13 countries and, as the author of two books and the collaborator on a third, Clark is one of the top Burns speakers in the world today.

At the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies Conference in January 2012, Clark spoke on “Burns and the Banker”. Since Clark has spent a good portion of his life as a banker, it was a very revealing presentation. He basically looked at the credit worthiness of Burns by applying banking standards and requirements to the financial situation the poet was facing toward the end of his life.  Many biographers have led us to believe that Burns really had nothing to worry about and that he overstated his financial woes. Clark, who is completing his PhD at the University of Glasgow, revealed that Burns had reason to be concerned about his financial plight as he looked death in the face. Burns actually owed much more that the few pounds some biographers would have us believe he owed. Burns’ financial situation would have made any banker turn him down for a loan. Burns had put himself in this position simply because he was spending more than he was making the last few years of his life. Is there a book in the future on this subject? I certainly hope so since it will give us another way of understanding why Burns was so concerned about his debt as he knew he faced imminent death.

Our Own PATRICK SCOTT

Patrick has done some incredible “sleuthing” on a contemporary of Burns, a friend named Gavin Turnbull. Many of us have often turned to The Burns Encyclopedia by Maurice Lindsey to learn more about the friends of Burns. The last sentence in the encyclopedia’s summary on Turnbull reveals that “Turnbull married an actress and with her emigrated to America, where all trace of them has been lost.”

Professor Scott found information by another professor, David Hill Radcliffe, and along with some “new” information he came across in South Carolina, notably in Charleston, Patrick wrote an excellent paper that can be found in Chapter 159 of Robert Burns Lives!. It is great to see Patrick have time in retirement to do additional research, and I feel this is one of the more interesting articles about a friend of Burns. This excellent article is entitled “Whatever Happened to Gavin Turnbull? Hunting Down a Friend of Burns in South Carolina.” I would like to suggest that you read Chapter 159 referenced above on Turnbull. You will marvel at the research of Patrick Scott and the many items of interest regarding Turnbull he discovered after Turnbull came to America. But Professor Scott is not through researching Turnbull, and there is more to come in an article which will more than likely appear in the pages of the Burns Chronicle. You heard it here first.

CHRIS ROLLIE’S Great Discovery

Chris spoke at the January 2013 conference hosted by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies on a set on Burns books that has received a lot of recent press in Scotland. He received a call from an old friend asking for help with some material found inside a set of the Extra Illustrated W. Scott Douglas edition of The Works of Burns dating from 1877-1879. Often times, I and many others have been asked by friends to tell them the worth of an old book of Burns’.  There is, however, no good way to let them know that they have a beautiful book but that it is more than likely neither rare nor valuable. But Chris’s friend had something else to offer. Seems like there were seven documents inside the volumes, and it took him only 15 minutes to realize he was holding in his hands original Burns manuscripts, poems and even a letter – seven manuscripts in all!

Before you think of mortgaging your house, be advised they have already been sold to a private collector. For full coverage on the seven manuscripts, please check out the University of Glasgow’s web site at www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_256467_en.html. Chris is also the author of Robert Burns in England, and you can take a look at a review of this book in Chapter 52 of Robert Burns Lives!.

JENNIFER ORR’S Magical Book

Dr. Orr has written what I call a magical book because it contains an avenue of study on a subject of Burns I have not run across before. The book is The Correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), Fostering an Irish Writer’s Circle, and of the 242 pages in her account of Irish poets, 65 pages reference Robert Burns. The Irish poets showed a lot of interest in Burns and were constantly writing to each other about “Mr. Burns”, as they referred to him. Samuel Thomson was their leader, and Jennifer recounts a fascinating story about Thomson leaving Ireland and travelling 80 miles to visit Burns, landing in Portpatrick and making his way to Dumfries. When Thomson leaves Dumfries he carries home with him several original works of Burns, including Clarinda, Mistress of My Soul. “Mr. Burns”, who has favored Thomson with Robert Fergusson’s  Poems, and now asks for only one thing of him. Burns wanted a pound of Blackgard manufactured by Lundy Fool in Dublin. What Burns wanted was a pound of snuff! Did he dip snuff or was it for someone else? Research indicates there are two known references concerning snuff being sent to Burns by way of a packet boat in 1791 and 1794.

Luke Mullan was another Irish poet and sailor who spent nine weeks in Dumfries. The vivid account of his meeting with Burns is as interesting as anything you will read about the Bard. In a letter to Thomson, Mullan writes that Burns “…endeavored to learn as much of his character as possible - he is not much respected in Dumfries on account of his infidelities to his wife – but as an officer of the excise he is said to be very humane to poor people… In short he is said to be a fine social companion and an honest man… so little are great men thought of in their own country and in their lifetime.” There is so much more fascinating information to be found in Jennifer’s pages referencing Burns for those who are willing to dig. Keep in mind that these are Irish poets, contemporaries of Burns, who were seeking personal contact with him and as much news about him as they could find. Do yourself a favor and find a copy of the book to read.

ROBERT CRAWFORD and the Rev. James Macdonald Journal

After Robert Crawford’s The Bard was published a few years ago, it garnered much praise and he was awarded the prestigious Saltire Society’s Book of the Year Award in 2009 along with a £10,000 prize. This recognition is a long journey from Don Paterson’s remark to Crawford earlier that another book on Burns would “be the world’s least necessary book.” I reviewed Crawford’s book and said then that it would become the definitive biography on Burns in five years. Burns scholar and friend Professor Gerard Carruthers also reviewed the book and found it to be “the best life of the poet yet to appear.”

What I want to draw your attention to now in Crawford’s biography on Burns is his revelation of a manuscript of the Reverend James Macdonald which was discovered in the archives at University of St Andrews. In describing the meeting between himself and Burns, Macdonald maintains that Burns “looks consumptive, but in excellent spirits.” Crawford declares that this time together “is the last extended account of his [Burns] conversation written during the bard’s lifetime” and he continues by saying “this is Burns the spirited rebel, Bard of Sedition, even Blasphemy.”

Macdonald was a 24-year-old licensed Kirk minister, an admirer of Ossian, a lover of poetry, devoted to William Wallace, and who spoke only Gaelic during the first 12 years of his life. According to the author, these two men “were made for each other. They hit it off from the start...” I was fortunate enough to hold that manuscript in my hands while visiting St Andrews on January 17, 2011, during a meeting with Crawford, my wife Susan, and Dr. Norman Reid, Head of Special Collection. It was quite a moving experience to hold in your hands the original account of that 1796 meeting between Burns and Macdonald!  

Macdonald wrote that “Burns told many anecdotes of himself and others in the very best and most genuine spirit of pleasantry.” He went on to pronounce that “the landlord of our Inn…is also a good humored fellow…and that the two men “are staunch republicans.” Crawford tells us that Burns “momentarily forgot his illness. He evidently enjoyed the company of his radically minded visitor. Burns evidently maintained his republicanism in private right up to the end of his life.” 

At the end of their time together, Macdonald tells us that “at parting the poor poet, with tears in his eyes, took an affectionate leave of me.”

In two months, Burns was dead!

So let’s put to rest that there is nothing new to be said about Burns or that you have heard all that needs to be said about Burns. The above is only a wee bit of what is going on in the world of Burns research today. 

Please join me in toasting our Immortal Bard, Robert Burns!

Editors Note: Keep in mind this is a synopsis of the Immortal Memory delivered at the Burns Club of Atlanta’s cottage. It will suffice as a brief look at some of the newer patterns of thought of Robert Burns. Maybe it will challenge you to search out these and other books and publications to find even more new material on Burns.

This is the second Immortal Memory I have been honored to deliver at the Burns Club of Atlanta. (See http://www.electricscotland.com/music/videos/es24.htm) The first was delivered on January 28, 2006. I wish to thank current club vice-president Woody Woodruff for his gracious invitation to address our membership.


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