by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Now comes Wing Commander Mike Duguid, a retired
Royal Air Force officer who lives in the heart of Burns Country, to share
the Immortal Memory he gave at the 2013 Burns Festival Weekend in Camperdown,
Victoria in Australia.
Mike grew up in Kincardineshire in northeast Scotland, the home county of
Burns’ father William Burness. After school in Aberdeen he joined the Royal
Air Force in 1964 and during a 37-year career as an aeronautical engineer
served throughout the United Kingdom. He enjoyed a tour in the United States
at Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska and also at Air
Combat Command Headquarters in Virginia. He has served in the Falkland
Islands and had extended detachments to over twenty countries including
Australia and Canada.
Although Mike had a life-long interest in Robert
Burns, it was during a posting in Omaha in 1989 that launched his
involvement with organizing and speaking at Burns Suppers. He coordinated
and chaired several Burns Suppers and St. Andrew’s nights on behalf of the
Scottish Society of Nebraska. On returning from America to a post in the
Ministry of Defense, he became an active member of the Burns Club of London.
He was heavily involved in the club’s Robert Burns bi-centenary celebrations
in 1996 and organized a gala dinner in the Café Royal as well as an open-air
concert adjacent to the Burns statue in the Embankment Gardens, the very
same gardens in which the idea of a worldwide Burns Federation was first
floated in 1885.
After retiring from the RAF, Mike became a
full-time student and in 2006 he gained an Honours degree in Scottish
Studies at Glasgow University. Mike has been President of the Gatehouse of
Fleet Burns Club for the last ten years and still enjoys membership in the
Burns Club of London. He served as President of the Robert Burns World
Federation during the special Year of Homecoming in 2009/10 and remains a
Director on the Board of the Federation and also serves as the Convener of
the Literature Committee. In addition, he serves as Editor of the
Federation’s very popular newsletter.
Mike has been married to his wife Pat for 42 years and they have two sons
and two daughters, all married, and six grandchildren. I have enjoyed Mike’s
company and his friendship, and I am particularly proud of the work he is
doing as Editor of the Federation newsletter which is even more important
now that the Burns Chronicle has reverted to a single volume as in the olden
and golden days of the Federation. We welcome Mike to the pages of Robert
Burns Lives! with hopes he will contribute even more to our website in the
future. (FRS: 5.1.14)
By Mike Duiguid
Mike Duguid wearing the gold presidential medal
of the Robert Burns World Federation
During his last days on earth Robert Burns
predicted to his wife Jean that "I'll be more thought of a hundred years
after I am dead than I am at present." And he was correct. But what makes
him the defining figure of Scottish identity; a cultural icon for whom we
have a seemingly endless fascination, even after all these years.
His story becomes even more remarkable when we examine more closely the
environment in which he produced his outpouring of literary genius. I choose
the word outpouring deliberately because it must have been. From the
production of the first edition of his poems in the famous Kilmarnock
Edition in 1786 it was only 10 years later that he died in 1796. His output
in that very short time was prodigious, especially when we consider he was
also a full-time exciseman, a member of a volunteer militia, a tenant
farmer, a husband and father of several children. As well as the hundreds of
poems, we have around 700 of his letters which have survived and almost 400
songs, probably his greatest legacy.
It is that environment I wish to examine more closely today. There appeared
to be oppression on every side. Literary pressure - at a time there was a
headlong rush towards writing in English in the newly-formed Union of
Britain - yet he wrote primarily in Scots. Cultural pressure in which you
were expected to know your place in the hierarchy and tug your forelock
accordingly and yet he mixed seamlessly across the whole spectrum of
society. Political pressure based on a government fears of revolutionary
ideas spreading from America and France yet he wrote stinging political
satires. And, finally, religious pressure at a time when the Kirk felt
entitled to probe into people’s private lives and bring them to book for
their misdemeanors and yet he managed to see beyond those petty restrictions
to offer his own understanding of a moral code.
In his famous autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore in 1787 Burns writes
that ‘Whim and Fancy, keen sensibility and riotous passions, may still make
him zig-zag in his future path of life’. As one of his fine biographer’s
Liam McIlvanney says, “It is perhaps the ideal choice of words to highlight
the essence of Burns’ life, with its contradictory and very often dramatic
twists and turns. Burns’ mind zig-zagged in many ways: between loyalty to
the state and republicanism, between social realism and fantasy, and between
the life of a dutiful exciseman, chained to the machinery of government, and
that of a free-thinking poet unshackled by authority and convention.”
So how can we make sense of the multi-dimensional personage, this Protean
Scot, this everyman?
My aim tonight is to examine just three of the many aspects which have
helped define his legacy: First is his place within that phenomenon known as
the Scottish Enlightenment and especially his response to the prevailing
religious, cultural and political oppression; second, his impact on the
Scots language and lastly, his influence on the Scottish diaspora.
The atmosphere within which he was writing certainly did not seem to be
conducive to someone whose greatest asset was his ability to write
spontaneously about whatever caught his imagination at the time. That’s why
I particularly like this statue of Burns here in Camperdown because I like
to think it is showing him reaching into his pocket to fetch his mobile
writing set which he carried everywhere with him. Like a good en plein air
painting, it was the immediacy of capturing the moment which gave his poetry
its magic. Burns himself wrote of “stringin’ blethers up in rhyme:”
Statue of Robert Burns damaged by vandals
Some rhyme a neebor’s
name to lash;
Some rhyme, (vain thought!) for needfu’ cash;
Some rhyme to court the countra clash,
An’ raise a din;
For me, an aim I never fash;
I rhyme for fun
Yet fun is certainly not something normally
associated with the image of the dour Presbyterian environment in which
Scotland is portrayed.
Burns statue repaired and placed indoors for
To understand how such a poet could flourish we
have to delve a bit deeper into the backdrop against which he was operating.
And the late 18th century really was an extraordinary time in the history of
Scotland. I remember when I had just been inaugurated as the President of
the Federation I was interviewed by a presenter from BBC radio. His first
question was, “What does Burns mean to you?” A perfectly reasonable
question. My immediate reaction was I wish I had had a snappy sound bit
ready but on reflection I was glad I didn’t. I had to think for a minute and
then I came up with what I truly thought. I said that Burns was a prism
through whom I looked to reflect on all that was happening at that
fascinating period of time in Scotland.
Scotland was the most unlikely epi-centre of an enlightenment movement
sweeping Europe in the latter part of the 18th century. From science to
philosophy, history to medicine, economics to geology and beyond to numerous
other subjects, Scottish thinkers of the 18th Century were redefining our
understanding of the world and our place as humans within it.
Why this happened in Scotland is a bit of a conundrum; Scotland seemed a
most unlikely seedbed for such an intellectual revolution. As Professor Tom
Devine points out, “In the decades before the great creative transformation,
it was regarded as a desperately poor country on the outer fringes of the
great centers of European civilization, in the grip of a Taliban-like
culture of unyielding religious orthodoxy fundamentally opposed to
And yet in the mid 18th Century, in the height of the European
Enlightenment, the renowned French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote “we look
towards Scotland for all our standards of civilisation”.
Previous analysts have regarded Calvinism as the emphatic constraint on
Enlightenment because of its core intolerance and hatred of diversity and
innovation of ideas. However, over the last couple of decades historians
have been reappraising this perception. In particular, there has been a
realization that although some of the theological baggage of Calvinism was
restrictive many of the core messages and institutions associated with
Calvinism were still the central driving force.
The Scottish scene was quite different to the anti-clerical, anti-religious
Enlightenment movement in France, because, as Devine points out, “running
through the Scottish Enlightenment was Christian tradition; indeed, several
of the literati of the period were ministers of the Church of Scotland.”
By the 1670s, as a result of the Calvinist revolution of the 16th Century on
Scottish schooling, it was the normal thing for a Lowland parish to have a
school. This was not primarily intended for intellectual development, but
for religious development to ensure the Bible could be read and that lay
persons could become trained Elders of the Kirk.
Burns was a beneficiary of that environment but only to a limited extent
because his formal education lasted until he was just nine years old. He
attended the parish school for only a short time but did benefit from a
private education when Burns’ father and four other farmers clubbed together
to hire a private tutor John Murdoch. As well as being made familiar with
biblical texts, Burns also received a pamphlet on religious instruction
written by his father William Burness. Although his father was a stern
God-fearing product of an earlier age he was a humane man and relatively
moderate in his views. Murdoch spoke of him as being, ‘by far the best of
the human race that ever I had the pleasure of being acquainted with.’ He
was ambitious for his children and Burns learned a great deal from him
although he didn’t always follow his father’s advice. For example, he defied
his father’s express instruction about not going to dancing classes.
Obviously his father was of the more orthodox Calvinist opinion that dancing
was nothing more than a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. And so
to be avoided!
The Calvinist Revolution also saw the establishment of Grammar Schools for a
talented elite of boys aged 9 to 13. These were extremely well educated boys
destined to attend University. This was certainly a factor in explaining why
the Scots were so heavily represented in the careers of Empire in the 18th
and early 19th Centuries. Having read the pamphlet about the number of Scots
who were eminent personages in the early settlement of Camperdown, I see
this was true of settlers in this area but more generally across Australia
with three of the first six governors being of Scottish descent.
Some may be familiar with the apocryphal story of the head of the civil
service in the British Raj in India. Someone commented that although he had
been there for many years he still retained a strong Scottish accent. His
reply was, “Oh it’s because in my position I’m dealing only with the heads
The Scottish Enlightenment was emphatically lodged in the universities of
the country. Scotland had three universities prior to the Reformation in
1560. I like to remind people that at one time Aberdeen had as many
universities as the whole of England combined with Marischall College and
Kings College vying with Oxford and Cambridge! Many graduates from these
universities still went abroad for further training. They were especially
influenced by contact with the Low Countries where the Hugenot Protestants
had converged after eviction from France. As historian Richard Cher remarks,
“The Netherlands provided the model of a small, Protestant nation in which
the boundaries separating sacred and profane learning had become almost
imperceptible; the study of nature – from natural philosophy to natural law
to natural theology – represented a legitimate means of obtaining knowledge
about God and the divine order.” In particular there was total commitment to
toleration. One of the striking features of the Enlightenment was that
people were able to discuss freely critical issues of the day in an
atmosphere of freedom from State intervention, State punishment, or
hostility or punishment from religious organisations.
This emphasis on education and international contacts resulted in an
extraordinary depth and range of intellectual activity across a wide range
of subject areas, including medicine, economics, history, science,
architecture art and literature, which were all beginning to develop as
distinct disciplines. Burns recognizes this broader, international,
dimension in his verse letter, his Epistle to William Simpson of Ochiltree,
in which he writes “the game was played in many lands.”
That Epistle to Simpson also provides great insight into Burns’ engagement
with Enlightenment thinking and shows how well informed he was about the
multi-facets of that Enlightenment.
University life revolved around clubs and societies. As Professor Devine
notes, “Scotland’s Enlightenment was emphatically convivial and its
membership saw no problem with having a great time and partaking in the
lubrication that could result in innovative thought!” In that respect Burns
was very much in keeping with the prevailing atmosphere. At the age of 21 he
started a debating Society in 1780, The Tarbolton Batchelor’s Club and rule
10 gives a clue as to who wrote the rules:
“Every man proper for a member of this Society, must have a frank honest
open heart above anything mean or dirty; 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. In short, the proper person for this
Society is, a cheerful, honest-hearted lad; who if he has a friend that is
true, and a mistress that is kind, and as much wealth as genteelly to make
both ends meet – is just as happy as this world can make him.”
The club was a serious debating club with strict rules on attendance and a
modest limit on money spent on alcohol. One example of the topics debated
shows Burns sensitivity to his station in life - something which would
always be to the forefront of his attitude towards the upper classes but how
perhaps that difference could be combated – i.e. through education,
“Whether is a young man of the lower ranks of life likeliest to be happy who
has got an education, and his mind well informed, or, he who has just the
education and information of those around him.”
The following year he joined the Freemasons which promised brotherhood and
intellectual equality, one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. His fellow
Freemasonry Brothers were also generous subscribers for the Kilmarnock and
Edinburgh editions of his works. Later still in Edinburgh he joined the
notorious drinking club the Crochallan Fencibles. So we can say that Burns
was literally getting into the spirits of the age.
As well as toleration a second aspect of the Enlightenment was a fierce
opposition to accepting authority for its own sake. This attitude stemmed
from the Presbyterian idea of a covenant, or contract, between the ruler and
the ruled by which the people undertake to render obedience only so long as
their ruler governs in the public interest.
This concept of railing against authority was very much a characteristic of
Burns’ writing. In his poem The Twa Dogs for example, he lashes out against
unscrupulous landlords who subjected tenants to harassment by their ‘estate
manager’ the Factor. This was heartfelt and personal for Burns because his
father had been threatened with eviction from Lochlea Farm by an officious
Factor which had the family all in tears.
In his poem The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer to the Right Honourable, the
Scotch Representatives of the House of Commons, Burns expresses his outrage
at the imposition of a thumping increase in duty on whisky at the behest of
And, most famously perhaps, he is railing against the authority of the Kirk
in his many satires to which I will return in more detail later.
The glories of the Scottish Enlightenment seem to evolve from a society
where the seedbed did not seem to promise anything like this degree of
intellectual dynamism and the freedom and toleration of human thought. So
how had this atmosphere of toleration and desire to challenge authority come
Professor Devine explains how things had begun to change in Scotland in the
first half of the 18th Century: “Firstly, in terms of the governance of the
church, there was a movement towards Moderatism; a movement towards the
acceptance of a degree of diversity of opinion. Secondly, the Patronage Act
meant that land owners often had the final say in the selection of
ministers, often selecting those who were compatible with their more liberal
ideals which were then passed on by those ministers in their sermons.
Thirdly, many hardliners within the Kirk left the established church,
leaving a harmonious form of governance within the Church of Scotland.
Finally, following the destruction of the Jacobite threat at Culloden there
was a relatively quiet period in Scottish politics which meant the
intellectuals could indulge in a greater freedom of argumentative
Burns’ most telling engagement with the Enlightenment would come in his Kirk
He had legendary battles with the ‘Auld Lichts’ of the Kirk and openly
challenged the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. In one of his greatest
satires Holy Willie’s Prayer he highlights the hypocrisy of one of the
‘chosen’ the elder of the Kirk, Willie Fisher, who has been literally caught
with his pants down and he doesn’t like it!
Willie considers himself to be a chosen sample,
I’m here a pillar o’ thy
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To a’ thy flock.
Yet he admits that he is sometimes fashed with
fleshly lust and guilty of fornication yet puts that down to being buffeted
by God as a warning about getting a too proud and high opinion of himself.
And anyway he was drunk at the time so it doesn’t really count. But for
others who dared to criticise him he implores:
But for Thy people’s sake
An’ dinna spare!
Burns burning satire condemns both the doctrine
and the practice of institutional religion and he refused to accept the
orthodox position of the so-called Auld Lichts.
Talking of the Kirk, I am reminded of the story of a group of Scotsmen who
went down to Yorkshire with weaving trade and decided to build a kirk. When
they had finished on a small corner they painted Scotland for Ever. The new
minister complained vehemently, saying it was totally inappropriate for an
ecclesiastical building. Suitably contrite, they returned the next day and
added, ‘Scotland for ever and ever, amen.’
However, although Burns rants against the Kirk it was not a hollow venting
of the spleen and an attack on religion per se. As Liam McIllvaney points
out, “It was grounded in an unfolding tradition of Christian reformism. He
was hostile not to piety but to the vanity of dogmatism, not to scripture
but to theocracy and supported a Calvinistic opposition to formalism.”
Calvin’s remark, “wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies,
sincerity of heart is rare indeed’ might almost stand as a paraphrase of
these lines from ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’
Compar’d with this, how
poor Religion’s pride,
In all the pomp of method, and of art,
When all men display to congregations wide,
Devotion’s ev’ry grace, except the heart!
And as Burns said himself “the hearts aye the
part aye that maks us right or wrang.”
To really rub it in he actually suggests what they should be preaching. In
his Address to the Unco Guid he writes just the most exquisite and eloquent
words about the art of forgiveness – how we should take the plank out of our
own eye before criticizing the splinter in someone else’s:
Then gently scan your
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human;
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can you mark,
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, ‘tis He alone,
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance, let’s be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted
He showed immense moral courage in taking on,
and outwitting, the establishment. He knew the dangers of this, and he had
to have all his wits about him to avoid being more severely punished. As a
government employee in the Customs and Excise, Burns had a lot to lose and
had to be especially careful.
His objective was to prepare the ground on which the rights of ordinary men
and women would be built, but he was well aware that it would not be
accomplished in his lifetime. So when he says that he would be more thought
of in a hundred years than at present I believe he was well aware of the
impact his writings would have long after he was gone.
2 THE SCOTS LANGUAGE
The second aspect of his legacy I want to examine his promotion of the Scots
language in the face the intellectual snobbery of the Enlightenment
Literati. The first review of his Kilmarnock Edition came out in the Lounger
magazine and the reviewer, Henry MacKenzie, apologised for the use of the
Scots language in the poems. Other members of the Edinburgh Literati, David
Hume, Adam Smith and Hugh Blair were also desperately keen to eliminate
‘Scotticisms’ in their writing and encouraged others to do so. By writing in
Scots, Burns was swimming headlong against the cultural tide.
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson best sums up the situation when he says of
Burns’s work, it “offers the only example in history of a language made
classic through the genius of a single man” It would not be too strong a
claim to say that without him the language may well have withered and died.
I remember attending a lecture on Burns by the brilliant Irish poet, Seamus
Heaney during the bi-centenary year 1996. I had gone because I wanted to
find out if Burns' poetry was considered to be good technically in the
opinion of someone like the internationally renowned poet as Heaney. Not
someone like TV presenter Jeremy Paxman who described Burns as the “king of
sentimental doggerel.” During the lecture Heaney talked about visiting
Russia and related the occasion when he was verbally sparring with the
Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky asked Heaney what was the best rhyming
word for love. Heaney thought for a minute, dove, shove? No said Brodsky, "Diagalev."
“OK” said Heaney “what's the best rhyming word for mahogany.” He had Brodsky
stumped. “Well” said Heaney,
Paddy furnished his home
with the finest mahogany,
And perfumed his hair with eau-de-collogony.
He talked about the effect the poem To a Mouse
had on him when he was going through college in Derry. In poetry lessons,
the class was conditioned to be on its best verbal behaviour. Quotes like,
“Hail to thee blythe spirit” for example, or “Tyger, Tyger burning bright”
would be typical. But next came, “Wee, sleekit, cowrin, timorous beastie!”
and that, he said, was different. The word “Wee” put its stressed foot down
and in one pre-emptive, vocal strike took over the emotional and cultural
ground. “Wee” came on strong. It was just suddenly and solidly there in
front of you, like a parent or a pillar and there it remains today. He said
that was genius at work and use of his native tongue was absolutely key in
making that genius.
However I recognize that by writing in Scots Burns created an obstacle for
some readers who are unable or, dare I say unwilling, to get to grips with
the language. As a consolation there are over 100 poems and songs written
completely in English and all his letters are in English except one and they
alone are worth reading – he was a brilliant letter writer. However, the
authentic voice of Burns appears most vigorously in the poems and songs in
Scots and to get to the soul of Burns one needs to at least try to hear and
speak the vernacular language.
The feeling of loss we would feel if we lost the Scots language is captured
beautifully in the poem Old Tongue by Scottish poet Jackie Kay:
When I was eight, I was
Not long after, when I opened
my mouth, a strange thing happened.
I lost my Scottish accent.
Words fell off my tongue:
Eedyit, driech, wabbit, crabbit,
Stummer, teuchter, heidbanger,
So you are, so am ur, see you, see ma ma,
Shut yer geggie or I’ll gie ye the malkie!
My own vowels started to stretch like my bones
and I turned my back on Scotland.
Words disappeared in the dead of night,
new words marched in: ghastly, awful,
quite dreadful, scones said like stones,
Pokey hats into ice-cream cones.
Oh, where did all the words go –
My old words, my lost words?
Did you ever feel sad when you lost a word,
Did you ever try and call it back,
Like calling in the sea?
If I could have found my words wandering
I swear I would have taken them in,
swallowed them whole, knocked them back.
Out in the English soil, my old words
buried themselves. It made my mother’s blood boil.
I cried one day with the wrong sound in my mouth
I wanted them back: I wanted my old words back,
My old tongue, my dour soor Scottish tongue,
Sing-songy. I wanted to gie it - laldie!
Burns writings offer a wellspring of Scots words
and phrases in our native tongue to which we can keep returning. I see
evidence of that at the Burns Federation Schools competition. One thing
which resonated with me is how comfortable the children are in their use of
the Scots tongue. One can see their delight as they proudly voiced their
guttural ‘ochs,’ rolled their ‘Rs’ with gay abandon and relished in the
sounds of ‘sleekit beasties,’ ‘trenching gushing entrails’ and ‘ugly,
creepin, blastit wonners.’
In giving us such wonderfully evocative poems and songs in Scots, Burns
demonstrated the power of the language and provided an invaluable insight
into what such a loss would mean to Scotland’s cultural heritage. We owe him
a tremendous debt.
Finally then, we’re on the last stretch.
3. MEMORY AND DIASPORA
As James Currie, the poet’s early biographer, puts it, Burns’s verse
“displays, as it were embalms, the peculiar manners of his country.” Burns
provides us with a word portrait of a Scotland in that period of
transformation, just before being ravaged by the forces of
industrialization, urbanization and emigration. Many emigrant Scots made
sense of their dislocation through Burns and his life and works are central
to the story of the Scottish diaspora. By packing Burns poems in your
emigrant baggage, you were taking the Old Country with you and by
celebrating Burns when you reached your destination, you were keeping that
I believe fundamental to that celebration was the Burns Supper and that is
why I make bold to suggest that the most important poem Burns ever wrote was
The Address to the Haggis. It was after all a meal of sheep’s heid and
haggis (apparently known as a ‘Duddingston Dinner’) that nine of his friends
sat down to in that wee ‘but and ben’ cottage in Alloway in 1801, five years
after his death, to commemorate the life and works of the poet.
During the evening the Reverend Hamilton Paul recited the poem. From that
time, the haggis, with all its theatrical trappings, has become the
centre-piece of the annual celebration to commemorate our national Bard. It
helped establish the Burns legend because Burns suppers led to Burns Clubs
and eventually a World Federation of clubs and individuals which helped
spread the celebration of Burns which continues to this day. And what better
example could we have to reinforce my contention than this festival at
Haggis has become Scotland’s national dish and Burns had the pre-eminent
role in making it so. In many ways it defines who he was and what he stood
It radiates with his sense of humour as this inanimate object ‘wie the
sonsie face’ gets elevated to Chieftain status. It can still generate some
humour and I’m reminded of the rival butchers in Ballater on Royal Deeside.
In the window of one was the elaborate shield declaring ‘By appointment to
her majesty the Queen – purveyors of the finest Scottish haggis.’ In the
rival’s window he simply put up a sign saying, ‘God save the queen.’
It is the rustic worker who is honoured with the trenching duties,
reflecting Burns’s affinity with ordinary folk and his egalitarian leanings.
He reveals his spiritual side when he acknowledges a Supreme Power ‘wha
makes mankind his care.’
It takes a swipe at English tripe as well as French ragout and Spanish Olio
and elevates Scotland’s dish to Egon Ronay status. Scotland does not want
second best that ‘Jaups in Luggies’ but give her the real McCoy, the genuine
article, the haggis.
It has to be the Haggis, preferably with neeps and tatties, i.e. turnips and
potatoes. Bangers and mash just won’t cut it.
Mind you, I made a bit of an arse of myself once when speaking about bangers
and mash to an English RAF colleague, “Ah,” I said, “you have bangers and
mash but you don’t have the neeps – all the neeps are in Scotland.” Maybe my
teacher was justified when he said to me ‘Aye Duguid you’ve got a good heid
on ye,’ before adding cruelly, ‘an’ so has a turnip.’ But I digress.
The Address to the Haggis is an excellent example of the performative nature
of Burns’s poetry and its role in creating rituals that establish a sense of
community. In other words, it binds us together. It is a poem, above all, in
which he expresses his Scottish patriotism.
And perhaps I could round off by suggesting how
the emerging cosmopolitan country that is Australia could help in promoting
the legacy of the Scottish diaspora. I bring to your attention the sort of
thing which is happening in Vancouver where they also have an increasingly
diverse population. They have a celebration known as Gung Haggis Fat Choy.
It is a mixture of Burns Night and Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. Gung
Haggis Fat Choy is a pun on the transliterated words for “Happy New Year” in
Mandarin, Gung Hay Fat Choy. It was the brainchild of a fifth-generation
Asian-Canadian Todd Wong or Toddish McWong as he calls himself.
Gung Haggis Fat Choy takes many of the features
of traditional Burns nights and gives them a non-traditional twist. The
"Address to the Haggis" morphs into the "Rap to the Haggis," The "Toast to
the Lassies" in 2009 was a rap-poem delivered by a lassie with an all-male
chorus. In addition, Asian elements are added, such as a "bamboo clappertale"
about Robert Burns and his teacher. Haggis wontons and other delicacies
suggest a culinary as well as cultural fusion. Gung Haggis Fat Choy does not
stop at mixing together just those of Chinese and Scottish heritage. Rather,
its aim is to provide a celebratory venue in which those from all cultures
can be comfortable. The 2009 dinner opened, for example, with a blessing
from Native Indian elder Larry Grant.
Leith Davis an eminent Burns Scholar at the
Simon Fraser University in Vancouver sees the Gung Haggis Fat Choy
celebration as a "diasporic traversal." In other words,” while it arguably
relies on symbolic accoutrements of Scottishness - tartan, bagpipes, haggis,
Burns - it presents them in such a way as to divest them of their nostalgic
contexts. They become sites which can encourage a regeneration of interest
in Scotland by young people of Scottish as well as non-Scottish heritage.”
To conclude. I have tried to highlight the
environment, often oppressive, in which Burns wrote and how his works
coincided with parallel developments in the wider Scottish Enlightenment
movement. I have stressed the importance of his contribution to the
continuance of the Scots language and, finally, examined his impact on the
Scottish diaspora in carrying Scottish culture to far flung parts of the
In his award winning book, The Bard, Robert Crawford sums it up very well
when he writes, “after his death in 1796, his poetry was left to go on
without him, but remarkably, Burns’ poetry carries so much of its maker with
it that it seems to extend a hand to invite, grasp and caress our own.”
Ladies and gentlemen that is one of the key
aspects of Burns - he is one of our own. He embraces all of us and speaks
like no other writer about the human condition in all its glory but also
with all its flaws.
He has given us so much and I ask you all to:
Fill your cups with
As generous as your mind.
And drink with me a generous toast,
To the Bard of humankind.
TO ROBERT BURNS
Professor Tom Devine OBE HonMRIA FBA FRSE,
University of Edinburgh
The Professor Tom Devine quote on page 3 was taken from a lecture, sponsored
by the The Royal Society of Edinburgh, entitled; A Puzzle from Scotland’s
Past: Why did the Scottish Enlightenment happen? which I heard him deliver
at Lockerbie Academy, Lockerbie on Thursday 25 April 2013.
Liam McIllvaney quote on page 7 is from ‘Burns the Radical - Poetry and
Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland.’ Tuckwell Press, East Linton,
2002, page 161
I obtained permission from Jackie Kay to quote her poem Old Tongue in full.
The quote from Robert Crawford on page 13 is from The Bard - Robert Burns a
Biography Jonathon Cape, London, 2009, page 407
The Leith Davis quote on page 13 is from an article in the Association for
Scottish Literary Studies magazine The Bottle Imp, Issue 5, entitled A New
Perspective on the Scottish Diaspora